Cancer, Blogging, Poetry, Faith


Alan Sullivan’s Psalms: A view through the lens of Psalm 22

by Maryann Corbett

The Psalms of King David,
translated by Alan Sullivan and Seree Cohen Zohar,
The Dakota Institute Press of the Lewis & Clark Foundation, 150 pp.

It was jarring to realize it, but there it was: I nearly wished evil on someone. Alan Sullivan’s cancer was starting to close in on him, and I should have been sobered. But what I felt was startlingly close to Schadenfreude.

Admittedly, I was lurking on the outskirts of this situation: I was reading Sullivan’s blog, called “Fresh Bilge,” as I had done irregularly for some years. I’d learned about it the way I had learned everything else about the man and the poet, from the online poetry board Eratosphere. The reason for my mixed emotions was simple: My poetry had come under his lasering eye at the Eratosphere critical board. This had begun in 2006, shortly after Sullivan returned to the board following his first round of chemotherapy. He was already famous there as “the EfH” — the Editor from Hell. His critiques were both sought for their accuracy and dreaded for their withering scorn. A metrical imprecision, an inessential adjective, a choice of form not perfectly suited to a subject, all would earn such dismissals as “It’s a pity this poem did not sink without comment as it deserved to.”

Like dozens of others, I had received my share of those, beginning with a terse “…it’s not a poem. Sorry.” With the usual struggles, my poetry had found its footing, and the critiques had become less corrosive. (The most positive one, as I recall it, read, “Your first stanza is exquisite. What possessed you to go on?”) Yet they had left me in a strange emotional limbo. I should (said my reasoning brain) have been supremely grateful for the care given to my work by an insightful reader. But I had chafed at the harsh critical approach, feeling at times that it bordered on pure meanness. I had also bridled at the overt expressions of the trademark Sullivan politics, which conflicted with mine but seemed to control the atmosphere. And I had seethed in silence at the increasing pressure to write in meter, nothing but meter, tighter and tighter meter.

So when Alan Sullivan announced on his blog, as his disease worsened, that the last poetic project of his life would be a metrical translation of the Davidic Psalms, my prickly poetic ego kept muttering in the background. Wrong, it said. Unnecessary. And Doomed.

Not that I considered psalm translation an unreasonable project; psalm translations have long been the good works of choice for ardently religious poets. There was nothing surprising in a poet’s resolve to take up that project in the face of death—it seemed, in fact, a little too expected. Poets writing in English have felt a powerful attraction to the psalms ever since anybody could translate the Bible without risking execution. Perhaps it’s the strong, persistent lyric I, or the wrenching quality of the emotions expressed, or the balanced repetitions, or the fact that we can often match the events to David’s life story in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. A whole catalog of English poets have been in love with metrical psalm translation: Thomas Wyatt. Philip Sidney. Mary Sidney Herbert. Milton.

But change, probably irreversible change, has overtaken the average person’s expectations—both of poetry as a whole and of the sound of the psalms. The modern reader expects, in both cases, the long, sweeping cadences of free verse. Alan Sullivan, New Formalist par excellence, was bent on a metrical translation.

He was also bent on producing a translation for liturgical use. I found a certain irony in the fact that his aims included approval for use in Catholic rites, given that Scripture in English is the great Protestant project. His tilt toward Catholicism stemmed from the circumstances of his conversion, which took place during the last two years of his life. In moving from complete unbelief to an acceptance of God, he let his praxis be shaped by Timothy Murphy, his fellow poet, co-translator of Beowulf, and literary partner of almost forty years. Murphy had returned to Catholicism after decades away. But Catholic strictures can be challenging: as the product of twelve years of Catholic education and as a struggling, still-hanging-on Catholic, I knew that to be approved for use in the Catholic liturgy a translation would have to leap some tall hurdles. That knowledge gave me further reservations.

I should have grasped — in hindsight, it’s clear — an emotional truth about Sullivan’s stringent insistence on meter, as a general matter in his poetry. Meter is a tool for taking control, a particularly appealing concept under uncontrollable life circumstances. It imposes a constraint on the writing that has the effect of harnessing the whirlwind. And there was, in Alan Sullivan’s life, a whirlwind of emotion to be harnessed. That much had been evident in this villanelle, one of the first poems he had workshopped when he returned to the Eratosphere boards:

The cells divide. The cells that will not die
divide too well and so they multiply.
They kill the host to keep themselves alive.

The blood goes bad. In vain physicians try
to purge the veins with drugs the cells defy.
The cells divide. The cells that will not die

mutate anew. The hardy few survive.
The few recruit the many teeming by.
They kill the host to keep themselves alive….

(from “Divide and Conquer,” published in The Hudson Review and in Best American Poetry 2008)

The words, the form, everything about the poem expresses both the poet’s rage at the diagnosis and the tight control that has to be imposed on rage and grief in such a trial. And the disease was not the only trial he was bearing. Tim Murphy, with whom Sullivan had shared most of his life, was battling decades of alcohol dependency and — at that point — repeatedly losing. Murphy’s own poems, published widely in the most distinguished journals, are entirely candid about the rift caused by his drinking:

My love (once such a darling)
is now a wintry spouse,
sullen—sometimes snarling—
because I’m a lying souse,
because I can’t quit tippling
or spirit us from the snow—
or be the winsome stripling
he wooed so long ago.

(from “Cold Front,” published in The Hudson Review)

The near-despairing reply came in Sullivan’s poems:

Thirty-four years of denial
end in the dark before dawn,
not with a bottle-smash quarrel
but a sheriff waving me on.

(from “Departures,” published in Chronicles)

These difficulties hung a pall of sadness on the psalms as blog followers watched the translations emerge. That sadness still affects me as I read them now. The psalms of personal lament in particular, with their open expressions of doubt, pain, violence, and abandonment, reshape themselves for the Sullivan story. Psalm 55, for example, may originally have referred to the conspiracy of Absolom, or to the treachery of Saul—or to someone else entirely; no one is sure. Reading these lines from the Sullivan version, I find it hard not to hear them as if spoken to Tim Murphy:

It was not a foe who defamed me:
I could have borne;
nor a hater vaunting against me,
or I would have hidden myself.
Instead it was you, a man
my equal, my guide, and friend.
We shared our inmost counsel;
we walked with inspiration
into the house of God.

But I need to back up now; I have started to confuse different pasts. What I had not known, as a new poet in 2006, and didn’t know until much later when I began to search the archives of Sullivan’s blog, was that in the first darkness of his illness, he had already begun exploring religious texts. In a blog post of 16 September 2005, after a night of pain and sweats, he had turned to Psalm 22—the psalm of the Passion readings, Palm Sunday, Good Friday. It seemed to me that he took special note of the wrenching, and relevant, physical descriptions: “I am poured out like water….my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”

Was this the passage that stuck—that became an indwelling agent of change? This is possible, but unknowable. Eventually, he would render the opening of the psalm this way:

   My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far
from helping me,
and from the words I groan?
My God, I call by day;
you do not answer;
and in the night:
I am not silent.

To work with such a text, to present the emotional heart of it in metrical form, one must first nail down the exact meaning of the words. Sullivan was a poet and not a specialist in Hebrew. Although he began the project with only the help of online tools, he soon decided that he needed a more expert collaborator. The co-translator he found was Seree Cohen Zohar, the Israeli poet whom he knew, as I did, from Eratosphere. They set their sights on a translation directly from classical Hebrew to English poetry, well aware how much controversy roils around these texts. Would they be able to see the project to completion—one of them newly Christian, the other Jewish and extremely wary of the Christian tendency to impose a theology on Hebrew writings?

And even where they agreed, aspects of their translation philosophy challenged me, especially the working belief in David as the real, historical author of all seventy-eight of the psalms called Davidic. I had been accustomed to the position laid out in the book known as “the Dutch Catechism,” that some of the psalms can probably be credited to David, but that we don’t know which. Commentaries on my shelves speak charily of “the psalmist,” never of David as a poet with a recognizable style; they also stress the many problems involved in establishing the basic text. Another commentator I knew of—Robert Alter, whom I’ll mention again later—argues that the superscription “a psalm of David” is better understood as “a psalm about David” rather than “a psalm written by David.” So Sullivan’s and Zohar’s confident working assumptions felt unfamiliar to me, and again my reservations clamped down. But they were mine alone, and the project was not mine, and the work proceeded.

A decade-long devotee of online poetry boards and an inveterate blogger, Sullivan put the process of translation, and the full story of the siege of his disease, on public view in the blog. The poetry itself, the working-out of the verse translation, the personal dramas, and the downward arc of the disease yielded, for many months, reading that was both fascinating and painful, hard for the followers of his blog to watch and hard not to. Psalm 22 says it again:

But I am a worm,
no man, a reproach of man,
scorned by the people.
All who see me, mock me.
They loose the lips;
they shake the head.
He committed to the Lord?
Let him be rescued;
let him be saved,
if he has pleased the Lord.

Sometimes meter came easily to the texts. At other times—as with Psalm 22—the text seemed to fight the process. And it was at those times that I balked most: why, oh why, the insistence on meter when most readers of the Bible in English neither expect nor want it? Many readers of the psalms are perfectly happy with the translations they have. And it isn’t as if we could reproduce fully the techniques of the original. Hebrew is far more compressed than English, needing far fewer syllables to express concepts. And there is much, according to what I’ve read, that academia does not know with certainty about the prosody of the original Hebrew. (Aloysius Fitzgerald, author of the chapter on Hebrew poetry in The New Jerome Bible Commentary, laments that whole books can be written on what is not known about ancient phonology.)

But what I began to see, watching the early translations inch forward, was that metrical translation was in this case an act of obedience—of holy obedience as to a religious superior, of humility, of submission. It bent the poet’s will to the essential sound of the original lines. Though we seldom realize it from the versions we know best, rhythmic measure is a real feature of the original Hebrew—two, three, or four-beat lines. To persuade yourself of the truth of this, if like me you’re untrained in classical Hebrew, do a Google search for sound clips of “Hine Matov,” the Israeli folk song, which is also a verse from Psalm 133. Or listen to Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. The metrical nature of the texts is unmistakable in their musical settings. It should be as clear on the page alone, but it rarely is. Robert Alter, the only other poet I’m aware of who has made a genuine effort to restore the meter, complains: “The King James Version is often (though not invariably) eloquent, but it ignores the rhythms of the Hebrew almost entirely. The various modern English versions are only occasionally eloquent and sometimes altogether flat-footed and, more often than not, arythmic.”

To make the point more forcefully, here’s the KJV, Psalm 22, verses 14-15:

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint:
my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.

My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws;
and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.

The movement of lines like these has its own beauty, but as Alter says, it is “the stately beauty of a leisurely prose amble, not of a line of poetry….”

For the same lines, Sullivan gives us this:

   I am spilled like water.
All my bones disjoint;
my heart is beeswax,
melting amid my bowels.
My strength is dried
like a shard of pottery;
my tongue is stuck in my jaws;
and you have set me
in the dust of death.

This is drumhead-tight, a cleaner, firmer take on the meter than Alter’s. And Sullivan takes the extra step of providing a note: “Form: heterometric dimeter and trimeter.” If you didn’t want to perceive meter, too bad; this translator permits you no choice. As a believer in poetry as an aural art, as a poet in favor of poetry readings, in favor of sound files of poems in online journals, in favor of videos of poetry with sound, I had to concede the worth of the attention that Sullivan was devoting to sonics, and especially to rhythmic force. And I could accept it as a discipline, a submission, an act of trust:

But you are holy;
you, enthroned
upon the praise of Israel.
Our fathers trusted you.
They trusted,
and you delivered them.
They cried to you,
and found a refuge.
They trusted you,
and they were not ashamed.

And determined discipline it was and continued to be, to the end of the psalms and to Alan’s own end. In the beginning of his project, Sullivan had workshopped the translations on the blog itself, asking for the reactions of readers. Eventually he took the poetic decisions private, as a poet must. But in the midst of reports about night sweats, politics, fever, weather, white cell counts, business ventures, hospitals, and economics, there was always the pulse of repeated mentions of the psalms, the translation, the collaboration with Seree Zohar at a rate averaging two long e-mails a day for fifteen months. The work. Miraculously, in the midst of it all, there was also a kind of truce between Sullivan and Murphy.

 You who revere the Lord:
praise him.
All you offspring of Jacob:
honor him;
and stand in awe of him,
all you offspring of Israel
For he has not despised,
has not rejected
the humble one afflicted;
nor hid his face from him,
but when he cried to him,
he heard.

Near the end I found it hard to see the line between the translator’s own thinking and the poetry’s thought. It was as if the psalms were thinking for him. The last post he was able to write for himself on the blog, when he was unable to take food or drink after a desperate final surgery, was the title “What I Yearn For,” and under it “Pineapple juice, orange juice, milk, oh milk.”

My tongue cleaves to my jaw, said my memory.

And it added a moment later, I thirst….

When Alan Sullivan left this life on July 9, 2010, his translation of the Davidic psalms—entitled The Psalms of King David—was close enough to completion that Murphy and Zohar could work to find it a publisher. The book became available at last in mid-2012, brought out by the Lewis and Clark Foundation. Sections have already appeared in such magazines as Commonweal and First Things. Preparations are being made for the translations to receive the necessary approvals for use in the liturgy, as Sullivan wished. In all of my prideful objections, I seem to have been wrong, utterly and completely. So now, oddly, even this balking essay of mine cherishes the hope that publishing houses, liturgists, and Bible readers will be intrigued by Sullivan and Zohar’s new approach.

Have I, then, given up my resistance to Alan Sullivan’s ways? I have to say, not really. The close of Aaron Poochigian’s poem “The Mentor,” written in Sullivan’s memory, is a good description of my still-bristling stance.

All right, the truth then: when a real hard-ass dies
the brunt of him just doesn’t go away.
You live on, killing everything I shouldn’t say.

In following the blog, in watching the man reach his end, I felt I had been a witness as that hard self softened, blurred at its edges, and blended into God’s will. What remained was the discipline, and the poetry that was its result.

I want to say “its beautiful, profound, enduring result”—even though I know what the Editor from Hell would tell me to do with those adjectives.

About the Author:

Maryann Corbett lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and works for the Minnesota Legislature. She holds a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota and is the author of Breath Control (David Robert Books, 2012) and Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, forthcoming from Able Muse Press, as well as two chapbooks. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in River Styx, Atlanta Review, Rattle e-issues, The Evansville Review, Measure, Literary Imagination, The Dark Horse, Mezzo Cammin, Linebreak, Subtropics, and many other journals in print and online, as well as the anthologies Hot Sonnets, The Able Muse Anthology, The Best of the Barefoot Muse, and the forthcoming Imago Dei. Her poems have been shortlisted for Best of the Net, the Morton Marr Prize competition, and the Able Muse Book Prize, and have won the Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize.