Nicholas Samaras' new collection American Psalm, World Psalm is as much prayer as it is poetry. A unique voice in contemporary poetics, Samaras brings us a volume of 150 "psalms," each individually titled as a poem but numbered as a part of a greater work of spiritual meditation. The collection is divided into five separate "books," each existing in a different realm of spiritual reflection, such as "Breath," "Movement," and "Stillness."
American Psalm, World Psalm isn't flashy and demanding of attention. Instead, it offers an open and unforced invitation into Samaras' quiet, meditative world of poetic prayer. Each poem features a single speaker, seemingly a God-voice, a prayer-voice, or a combination of the two. One small beauty is that it's not always clear which voice is speaking; the reader is let in on an intimate spiritual conversation that, at times, seems magical in its vagueness. The poems are also, at times, specific and humbling in their honesty. In the deeply theological and philosophical "Psalm as Tao," Samaras reveals that the speaker is none other than himself:
In order to be filled with God
it doesn't mean I must
first be emptied of Samaras.
In other poems, such as "Meager," named in an epigraph as A Psalm of Samaras, the writer lets the psalm be a space for confession:
Lord, why do I waste my time with words
when I could be silent and better with action?
More than just a prayer on paper, these poems are a call to social action and commentary.
Samaras uses almost incantation-like repetition of phrases to coax the reader into the stillness of each poem. "Psalm of the Exasperated Lord" is particularly entrancing with its refrain, "Why these hands and this countenance?" and its mystic line, "I listen more to the spaces between your words." This repetition is more than a simple poetic device for these poems, as the line "Every refrain is a communion" reveals.
This recurring theme is the speaker's relationship to writing as an act of spiritual nourishment. "On the page, we encounter God," he writes. Regardless of our religious inclinations or lack thereof, any poet understands the feeling of wholeness brought on by words in harmony with each other.
Even in its quietness, this collection moves. The 62nd psalm, "Psalm of Musicology," is a song of praise for vital motion and highlights Samaras' ability to wield unexpected syntactical rhythms.
David danced into Jerusalem, a libation to the Lord,
a two-step, a four-step, a walk away from Imhotep, a chord
of steps, a jive alive, a musical staff and rod, a nodding
creation of air and rock, the Bible’s derash and sod,
all creatures participating, exclaiming, God, God.
In the preface to the collection, Samaras explains that music itself was a primary inspiration for his collection, along with the desire to imagine contemporary renditions of the psalms he has held in reverence since childhood. He compares his new psalms to experimental jazz: fresh in their improvisation, but close still to the Biblical Psalms in structure, content, and literary device, "illuminating what may be constant in human struggle—social, political, artistic." It isn't an exaggeration to say that an illumination of human struggle is exactly what Samaras has achieved in this collection.
American Psalm, World Psalm may be equally poetry and prayer, but it is far more question than answer. The final lines of the collection are a beautiful and reflective reminder of the unexplainable, unpronounceable, purely mystical edges of human understanding—edges we may not be able to see, and still, like the author, cannot help but approach with reaching arms.
I drift, I drift
inside the unsayable.
KASEY ERIN is an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the managing editor at Devil's Lake. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review and Spillway, among others.