Prayers of a Secular World ed. Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy; introduction by David Tacey. Carlton South, Victoria: Inkerman and Blunt. RRP: $24.99, 160pp, ISBN: 9780987540195
My great-great grandmother’s Book of Common Prayer came to me some years ago, and I’ve drawn much comfort purely from its weight in my palm, the grain of the dark leather cover and slippery gilt-edged pages under my touch. There is something of the same feeling as I hold the exquisite blue and gold volume Prayers of a Secular World, the latest offering from Inkerman and Blunt who are building a reputation for publishing things bright and particularly beautiful.
In her Foreword, Donna Ward argues that the human urge to pray and take part in rituals is instinctive, even though ‘we don’t always call it prayer’ (2). David Tacey’s introduction ‘Secular Sacredness’ eloquently builds on this notion, reminding that the word ‘religion’ in Latin means ‘to bind back’, ‘to reconnect’ (6): connection—with other people and the living world—is at the heart of this selection of works. ‘There is something in us which is more than human and demands expression,’ writes Tacey (6), but as the majority of Australians are no longer religious in the conventional sense, our idea of prayer has moved away from the familiar ‘petitionary’ mode to one that is simply contemplative. Prayer, like poetry, is now most often concerned with perceiving and expressing the sacredness in the everyday (10).
True, it’s a broad and gangly definition, which results in the diverse selection of poemprayers offered here. Broken into six sections and bookended by two additional pieces, the anthology seems to move through a number of phases. ‘See the Dreaming Claim You’ is the first of these, and the blokes and wives of Napier’s ‘North of Twenty-Six’, living extravagantly ‘in country where red dirt won’t wash out of whites’ (13) and ‘sand flies swarm air cons run twenty-four seven’ (13), embody the secular sacredness this book celebrates.
‘A Mantra That Will Keep Us’ touches on some more recognisably spiritual subject matter: a sadhu, visiting the Golden Temple, people talking after mass. Yet I see the section’s strongest works as those poems which portray the mystical moments in ordinary life, the standout being Cate Kennedy’s ‘Limbo’ which presents ‘a miracle…at the primary school disco’ (40), barrel chested father ‘cupping the frail tendons’ (41) of his cerebral palsy son’s neck, ‘focused on tipping his boy carefully’ (40) under the limbo stick and ‘into the world beyond, unscathed’ (40).
‘Domestic Interiors’ also harks back to Tacey’s reminder that ‘The horizontal plane of the ordinary is shot through with transcendence’ (10). Putting daily activities under the microscope, these poems meditate on the wonders of birth, love and death. A portrait of human intimacy, with all its attendant rewards and pitfalls: most mothers will likely recognize themselves in the persona of Anna Ryan-Punch’s ‘First Night’ ‘as glad and as guilty as Catholic steak on Good Friday’ (54) to be relieved of your squalling newborn; Anne M. Carson’s ‘The Air Holds Its Breath’ explains how ‘Around us, inside us, molecules rearrange, adjust’ (70) to the death of a loved one; a riff on the idea of floral tributes to the departed, Lansdown’s ‘Forgetting’ voices the yearning for ‘sweet forgetting-grass’, ‘to cover me with stalk, leaf and scent from the loss of you and how you went’ (71).
Paul Hetherington (2013) has previously spoken of figurative language as connective tissue, enabling us to get in touch with mysteries—good and bad—that we can never really aim to understand. ‘This Delicate Formation of Faults’ is the section where the poems move into darker territory, exploring human frailty and cruelty in its many guises and proving that poetry and prayer can provide some insight into the unfathomable, be it the Holocaust or our current refugee crisis. ‘The Shadow of the World’ maintains this sombre tone, its poems alternating between grim predictions and satiric observations on Man’s folly, a number of pieces echoing the sentiments of ‘You Are’, in which Anne Elvey says, ‘Too late we stack sandbags. We dare not say pity or spare us’ (101).
In the book’s final section, ‘Believe There’s a Road to El Paso’, there’s another subtle shift in tone as Cahill’s ‘Departures’ reminds us to see ‘In falling, how buoyant is the human heart. Lifting our wings, we learn to fly by descent’ (128). These are poems on the border between worlds, just like Roland Leach’s housewife on the beach in ‘Tilt’, ‘aware of the fragility of being between solid earth and the fluidity’ (129), feeling ‘the edge where the ocean became land, where ocean came to an end and those who sprang from it obliged to accept the heavy drag of gravity that came with walking the earth’ (129).
A few weeks ago my Facebook feed was filled with pictures and quotes, imploring me to ‘Pray for Paris’, even though very few of the friends who shared them would identify as religious people. Ours is a world not necessarily bound by the structures and strictures of a formal system of faith but as Tacey says, we still need to find ways to explore and express that which is ‘more than human’ (6). Lamenting and celebrating the world and its inhabitants, the mysteries of their strengths and flaws, Prayers of a Secular World captures this perfectly. It is a book of uncommon yet powerful prayer.
Hetherington, Paul. ‘Are Poems the Prayers of the Secular World?’ Sotto Magazine. September (2013): 6. Web. 13 November, 2015.
Marie O’Rourke is a creative writer and PhD candidate from Curtin University whose research interests lie in the field of life writing. Investigating the quirks of memory, her current creative work-in-progress is a collection of lyric essays that pushes the boundaries of post-postmodern memoir.