Poems for April 16

Carol McPhee re-introduces us to Prayer, by Jorie Graham:

•  In Chapter 6 Johnson will make Aquinas’ concept of primary and secondary causation the hinge that connects her dialogue between the Nicene Creed and The Origin of Species.

After considering several theologies showing God as ’empowering the process’ of the continuing evolution of creation from within, Johnson presents Aquinas’ causation concept as more clearly enabling us to perceive both God’s transcendence and the basic integrity of God’s created entities.

• Aquinas’ thought is a fundamental part of Johnson’s theology. Chapter 5 in Ask the Beasts repeats much of what she said about Aquinas’ concept of God in her 1993 book She Who Is. By reinterpreting Aquinas she follows other theologians, like Karl Rahner, who find that with the medieval culture set aside, there is a basic truth to be found in his writings.

For example, Johnson overlooks the static universe that some have derived from Thomistic thought in her emphasis on the active meaning of esse, on God’s essential relationality and gift of love to creation, and on the concept of participation.

• So what does Aquinas say about causation?

The world is essentially unnecessary. To explain the world, there must be a cause not caused by a preceding one, a Being who causes all other causes, a primary cause. Primary cause is therefore in a class all its own, unique. Nothing caused the primary cause. It’s the beginning of everything and is not dependent on any other cause. At one point Aquinas argues that God is the ‘exemplary cause’ of all things, meaning that in God are all the essences or forms or possibilities of all creation.

Secondary causes are all created entities and are altogether in different class from primary cause. They’ve been set in motion or brought into being by the primary cause. Each has its own integrity, its own essence – a cow is a cow, an oak tree an oak tree, a human a human – its own causative effects, and each participates with the primary cause in the ability to act and to be in themselves causes. Though they are ever dependent on the primary cause for their own being, they act freely.

Johnson skips over some of Aquinas’ other thoughts on causation, the potentiality within each form, for example, or the idea of final cause. But she incorporates them in her discussion of the imbedded natural inclination that sends creatures toward a ‘natural good.’ Altogether, they posit a universe evolving as its created entities freely act and change as they continuously participate in the being of God.

(1)  In the last session we read Prayer, by Jorie Graham, as a metaphor illustrating this concept. In Prayer Jorie Graham tells us she’s watching minnows, each moving as a tiny muscle to make of the whole group a ‘visual current.’ But this visual current is itself propelled by a real current of water, ‘mostly invisible.’ Johnson, explaining Aquinas’s concept of God, tells us that each creature is dependent on the Creator, that the Creator (the primary cause) is its source and principle of being and though each creature is an agent in itself (a secondary cause) it cannot affect the Creator.

Just so, in the poem the visual current, the school of minnows, acts according to its own nature, yet cannot ‘freight or sway by/ minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls.’ The motion of the creator current ‘forces change–/this is freedom’.

Prayer *
by Jorie Graham

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers), a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change—
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself,
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now? Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only
something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go.
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never.

* Prayer (‘minnows’) was written as a turn-of-the-millennium poem for the New York Times Op-Ed page, and was originally dated 12.31.00

Lorienne Schwenk brought Life is Juicy, by Leonard Bernstein:

Life is Juicy *
by Leonard Bernstein

Life begins in the waters-
Not the deep, but the borders of land:
The stagnants that nourish the sterile earth
Like a juicy gland.
Life is the seed of the marriage
of liquid and solid events.
In the coves, in the swamps, in mysterious pools,
Our heartaches commence.
Life is the pulp and the slime,
The marshmallow bellies of frogs,
Their thyroided eyes, their eggjellies caught
On the rotting logs.
Life is the algae, the roe;
The army of maggoty breeds
Devouring the corpse of a very old perch
Adrift in the weeds.
Life is the plasm, the cells,
The fat symbiotics in pairs;
The ankledeep fungoids which darkly provide
The crawfish with lairs.
Life is the scaly and scummy,
The poisonous green without breath;
The marinal maze whose only solution
Is ultimate death.
For Death is the crisp and the clean,
The fine oxidation, the rust,
The spermless, the painless, the classic, the lean,
The dry, dry dust.

Life is Juicy was written in a cottage on the mucky shore of Lake Mah-kee-nak, Stockbridge, MA, 2 July 1947

  A poem many of us learned in childhood, with words and images that point to the sacred within and around the world we live in: 

God’s Grandeur *
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

To hear this magnificent poem read aloud,
go to



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