Amazon recently surprised me with a recommendation for a book of poetry, Let Me Drown With Moses by James Goldberg. I was hooked with the sample poem it displayed for me, and knew I had to buy it. I wondered why Amazon was pitching a poet to me when I don’t think I’ve bought poetry before on Amazon. Only after making my purchase decision did I learn that Goldberg is LDS, so that’s how the connection was made. His biography describes him as “Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle.” I like that.
Goldberg’s poetry explores many issues, including some of the difficult aspects of Mormon history with local Indian tribes. Sensitive, broad in vision, painfully aware of the pain in human failings and of the joyful potential of the Gospel, Goldberg is a complex and interesting poet that deserves more attention, in my opinion. Nicely done!
Here’s the “sample poem” that grabbed me, one of many thought-provoking works in his volume. As with many of his poems, it is not just for LDS readers. This poem may be of interest to many who treasure the Bible.
The Kingdom of God
Is not the feast. It’s the cry that goes out
and echoes through the streets that you
and I and all the beggars have been summoned
tonight to the sovereign’s table.
The kingdom of God
Is not the ship. It’s the cord hanging off
the ship’s side, the feeling of waterlogged
rope against the hands when you
and I are drowning.
The kingdom of God
Is not the tree. It’s a seed so small
it can slip between our fingers —
any moment we may forget,
tomorrow we might wake and wonder
if we ever held it at all.
How easy it is for that seed to slip away and be forgotten.
Goldberg’s poem nicely reminds us of the grace we need. We are all beggars, famished, but have been mercifully called to the sovereigns table. We are all bobbing helplessly in stormy seas, drowning. Though we may imagine that we can swim forever on our own, there is no shore in sight and no shore we can ever reach on our own. It is not a matter of sink or swim: we are all sinking and need to be rescued. Christ is the Rescuer.
The analogy about drowning really hit home after my recent unpleasant surprise of experiencing seasickness for the first time in my life while on choppy seas by Thailand. It was a trivial problem with no real danger compared to the challenges Nephi and his family faced on a small boat sailing to the New World, but it helped me better understand the sense of helplessness that the sea can create.
Though I was unable to scuba dive with my wife as we had originally planned months ago, I attempted to snorkel in low-visibility water near an island south of Phi Phi Island, being assured by the staff that I would feel better once I was in the water than I would in the boat. I found the effects of nausea in the undulating sea to be offer even less comfort than being on board, and while vainly struggling to hold down the remnants of my small breakfast and keep my head above water, I could easily imagine how helpless and terrified one could feel if the boat were sinking or if it were impossibly far away. I finally abandoned my snorkeling adventure and was much relieved to get back into the comfort and safety of the boat. I could better relate to “the feeling of waterlogged rope against the hands when you and I are drowning.”
This is what the Gospel is about: being rescued from a state not from an abstract state we call “fallen,” but from real disaster far worse and far more terrifying than just having your lungs fill with water in desperate gasps before you sink out of view. We are helpless and need a Rescuer who offers us a sturdy, waterlogged rope to cling to, helping to lift us into His ship. May we always be grateful for the Rescuing He offers and help bring others into the ship as well.
6 thoughts on “Let Me Drown with Moses: Poetry from James Goldberg”
Goldberg's poem is interesting. At times it borders on cliche (poets have written about cries echoing through streets and using seed metaphors since forever), and I think the "cord" image might have been strengthened — why not a "hawser" instead of a "cord"? The former is more precise, and more specifically ship-like, and is much better at connoting a sense of stoutness and strength than "cord" (which to me suggests something too thin to serve as an image of lifesaving). "Hawser" also creates an opportunity for alliteration with "hanging." If I were discussing a draft of this poem in one of Godlberg's creative writing classes I would ask him to compare this version:
Is not the ship. It's the cord hanging off
the ship's side, the feeling of waterlogged
with this one:
Is not the ship. It's the hawser hanging
off the ship's side, the feeling of waterlogged
or something like it.
I do think the middle stanza, even as is, is the best of the three. A few observations:
(1) The poem repeats the same interesting structure throughout, telling us each time what the kingdom of God is not before telling us what it is.
(2) In each stanza, the kingdom is not something massive, showy, and substantial (it is not a feast, a ship, or a tree) but rather something much smaller: a cry, a cord, a feeling, a seed. To me this suggests the difference between the massiveness of a temple, even of the Church itself, and the much less substantial, but somehow more important, feelings of the believer. The poem stresses the small and subjective over the big and objective, and this sense is supported by Goldberg's choice to use a lower-case "k" in "kingdom."
(3) The first element of the structure ("the kingdom of God") remains fixed, but the other two elements vary, moving from feast to ship to tree and from cry to cord to feeling to seed.
(4) The poem uses a lot of alliteration (tonight/table, seed/small, wake/wonder) and internal rhyme (is/its, through/you, tree/seed, slip/fingers). These pairings do not seem random; they help to stress the relatedness of the paired items. That is, the logical relation between "tree" and "seed" is strengthed by their internal rhyme. The act of wondering is related to the act of awakening, suggesting that the "awakening" is not merely literal, but also some kind of metaphorical awakening into a higher state of consciousness (as in the famous ending of Walden, where Thoreau writes that "Only that day dawns to which we are awake").
(5) The "Kingdom of God" is an ambiguous, hard-to-define term in Christian discourse generally. In Mormon discourse it is not only ambiguous but politically freighted. To anyone familiar with church history — or rather, to anyone for whom that history is an active, living element of their consciousness that might inform their reading of a Mormon poem — the term recalls Joseph Smith's plans for a literal theocratic kingdom in Texas. (See here.) It recalls the Council of Fifty, William Law and the Expositor, etc. This poem is decidedly not about that kingdom. It's not about the political kingdom without, but the personal kingdom within. The poem's sensibility is more Unitarian Universalist than Puritanical/theocratict.
But this is all prologue. More to come.
I see the point that 'cord' is a generic term while 'hawser' is nautical. But a hawser is a very thick rope, used for mooring a whole ship, and I think the poem wants the kingdom of god to be like smaller things than that. Probably the really nautical term for a rope of the intended size would be 'line', but this would be less intelligible to non-sailors.
To me it seems that the poem is about how the kingdom of God slips away. In the last stanza, wondering if the kingdom was ever real is explicit. But it's really implicit in the previous stanzas. The beggars are invited tonight. Where will we be in the morning? And as soon as you're back up on deck, the feeling of waterlogged rope in the hands is a memory.
Some part of religion is fixed habits of thought and behavior, the daily and weekly and seasonal routines. Another part is the extraordinary experience that comes once or twice in your life. This poem seems to me to have something right, yet be incomplete, because one could just as well say that the kingdom of God is things that are always there. Though maybe we forget these, too.
Yes, James. I agree that the poem is filled with images of insubstantiality. The pleasure and fulfillment of a feast is real, but temporary–here tonight, gone tomorrow. How unorthodox is that? How very different that is than the political and theological kingdoms envisioned by Joseph Smith? The political kingdom was envisioned as substantial and material, and both political and theological kingdoms were, of course, thought of as eternal; yet in the poem these things are insubstantial and ephemeral. The poem strikes me as somewhat subversive or heretical in this regard. (On the other hand, the poem borrows the "feast" metaphor from the Bible, where it signifies the king's favor, a status that might well last much longer than the meal itself.)
In the center of the poem we're told that the kingdom of God is not the lifesaving rope itself, but the "feeling" of the rope. This is literally the tactile sensation of the rope against the hands, but one cannot help also thinking of the intense emotional feeling of relief felt by one saved from drowning. In general I think the poem plays with the well-known Christian emotional structure (or sales pitch): First, create anxiety in the believer (about the fragility of their salvation and/or risk of torture in hell). Then, offer belief in Jesus as the only way to relieve that anxiety. (This formula was perfected in my favorite sermon of all time, Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.") My point is that Christianity has always been significantly driven by feelings, by an emotional dialectic of anxiety and relief, and feelings are at the center of this poem. At this central moment it suggests that the kingdon is a "feeling," which seems spot-on to me.
The "seed" metaphor is very suggestive. What I like about it is, first, that seeds generally are small and difficult to hold on to. But even if they slip away from our grasp and are forgotten, they might still take root and grow into a tree, which tree might eventually come to our notice, and which might give us shade or other valuable things, etc.–without, however, necessarily being connected in our minds to that little seed we dropped so long ago. Second, the tree will take root or not, it will grow or not, but whichever happens, it doesn't necessarily depend on our remembering it. On the one hand, its growing is better assured if we do remember it–and thus water it and tend it–but as well know, trees grow on their own as well. The kingdom is paradoxically dependent on our subjectove perceptions and memory, yet also independent of those things, an objective fact.
Whether the tree grows with or without the assistance of one's intentions and care, the objective results can be the same. Either way, its shade will be just as shady, etc. Yet, as anyone knows who has planted trees and watched them grow, the subjective outcomes can be quite different. There's a special kind of satisfaction in being part of the process from the very beginning.
Finally, before that bit about the seed being forgotten comes the part about waking and wondering whether we ever really held the seed at all. This expresses a doubt, not about the seed/kingdom's reality, nor about the eventual flourishing of the tree/kingdom, but rather a doubt about our own experience. When I read the poem, the question this line raises in my mind is something like this: That religious experience I had, or that I thought I had–was it real? Was it really a religious experience or revelation or testimony, or something wholly natural that I myself attributed spiritual meaning to? Basically, the poem's ending is about "waking" into a state of being, a state of greater self-awareness and skepticism, in which one can begin to question the interpretation one's faith community has led you to place on your own experiences.
I'm guessing that "hawser" was not used because many of us less educated folk don't know what a hawser is. Plus, as Wikipedia's photo of a hawser illustrates, I think James may be right about it being too thick to be used as the line thrown out to rescue people at the side of a ship.
Maybe so, Jeff (and James), though the thickness of the hawser depends a lot on the size of the boat it's used to moor. The Wikipedia hawser is a monster. Maybe more typical would be something like this, something you could more readily and reassuringly grab onto.