The British poet W. H. Auden once claimed that the very essence of prayer was "to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying." If Auden is correct (more on that later), then Scott Cairns' Philokalia offers a particularly concentrated set of attentions paid, or, in Auden's terms, prayers. But these are not the selfish and contented prayers many of us recognize because we hear (and pray) them all too often. ("I just want to thank you, Lord.") Cairns' poems singe more often than they soothe.

A regular contributor to publications such as Image and The Paris Review, Cairns is especially well qualified to playfully and prayerfully provoke readers of contemporary poetry, as well as to provoke contemporary Christian audiences (who may not have encountered current poets who combine Cairns' level of theological directness and poetic skill). Both batches of readers, though, should beware of what Cairns' poems will require of them—a predilection for suspicion and mystery over certainty, and a patient ability to laugh at ourselves.

In his poems (as well as in provocative interviews and essays), Cairns contends that poetry's best function is to expose the spaces between what we know and what we have merely glimpsed or imagined: "Suppose our fixed attention / serves mostly to make evident the gap / dividing what is seen and what is here," writes Cairns in "As We See." Those suppositions and gaps, for Cairns, are where the wonders of faith (and the possibilities of language) reside: "I love the Word's ability to rise again / from chronic homiletic ...

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"Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Poetry, Prayer, and Parable"
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October 2003

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