Poem: A Prayer for Split Men
Regard the man who still dreams Christian dreams.
Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, however you say it from where you’re reading this. I still have a couple more normal Substack-y things to kick out before the year ends, including a writing roundup and perhaps a few bite-sized looks at new books I didn’t find time to review in depth (may yet in the coming year, if anyone is still interested in my lukewarm/cold takes). Meanwhile, this has been a poetic week, with an Auden reflection for paid subscribers, and today, for everyone, some notes on my first published poem. As a few followers might recall, this was released online this spring at the North American Anglican. It was under my pen name, since I wasn’t uncloaked at the time. Should it find its way into an anthology later, I’ll probably put my own name to it. It’s a complicated piece, with a lot of action and moving parts and rather specific inspirations that aren’t immediately apparent in the text. So, I thought it might be fun to unpack them for people. I still think and hope the piece can be appreciated sans annotation, so I’ll present it here first, then add poet’s notes underneath. I hope you all enjoy this Christmas-themed deep dive into the recesses of my Weird Anglican mind.
A Prayer for Split Men
Almighty God, To whom all restless hearts are open All old desires known And from whom no guilty secrets are hid Of thy great mercy, Regard the split men. Regard the man Who still dreams Christian dreams, Who cannot pass a chapel Except he enters in, Who cannot hear a carol Except he joins the choir. “D’you have a program, love? Here, I can share…” He shakes his head And smiles. “My good girl, I don’t need it. I was a choir boy, you know.” Here endeth the lesson. Thanks be to God! Here beginneth the song. Regard the split men. Regard the man Who is afraid. Afraid of what it means If he is stuff of earth, Afraid of what it means If he is not. Come Saturday you’ll find him In the synagogue, you’ll find him Reading Torah in the Hebrew. Nu! He has an iron skull. “Oh, how I love thy law! It is my meditation Day and night On the day I go to synagogue. Day and night, It is my meditation.” Today he wears The hat he wears The day he goes to synagogue. Regard the split men. Regard the man Who is a church of one, Who guides his ship with firm hand Amid a sea of sorrows. Who listens on the shortwave, Straining for letters A-U… For words A-U-S… For a word AUSCHWITZ AUSCHWITZ AUSCHWITZ “Ah, good! I’ve found my absolute!” Another word R-E-… R-E-S-U-R-R… RESURRECTION RESURRECTION RESURRECTION “But what does it mean? Stop asking me! I’m asking you. Stop asking me! I’d need three years, At least… Three years times 365 That’s 1095 days Times three hours a day (Let’s say) That’s 3285 hours… What’s that you say? Five minutes to midnight? But I’ve only begun! Five minutes…I’ve only begun…” I saw you in a dream. I heard the church bells ringing. I heard the chorus singing: “Now is the night half-spent! Now is our winter Made glorious spring! Now is our sorrow Made glorious song!” “Haste, haste!” I heard the watchman crying “Haste! To royal David’s city, To that lowly cattle shed, Where the silent Word is pleading In a manger for his bed.” And shall we haste As little children? Shall we come like broken kings? Like the old man and the fool? The old men and the fools? And shall we greet you With our hopes? And shall we touch you With our fears? And shall you know us In our rising? Shall you know us In our kneeling down? To ask we know not what? To pray split prayers Of split men? And can it be? (It cannot be.) But can it be? Then pealed the bells more loud and deep “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!” I woke And it was day.
I began writing this poem on a plane about 3.5 years ago, in the summer of 2018. At the time, my head was in the material that first opened doors for me as a social critic, writing commentary on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon and its ripple effects. This included material from other figures in Peterson’s orbit, some of whom (like Douglas Murray) already had a deep body of work but hadn’t been on my personal radar before Peterson’s rise. It was especially interesting for me, as a very secure and basically modernist Christian, to hear how these figures framed their thoughts on religion—Peterson himself as a kind of “noble agnostic,” Murray as a lapsed Anglican, and someone like Eric Weinstein as a secular-but-synagogue-haunted Jew. Each of them, in his distinctive way, seemed to be articulating a simultaneous celebration of and unhappiness with the secular modern experiment. In this, they seemed to express a tension within themselves: the secular modern man’s presupposition that there is no way to “go back,” co-existing uncomfortably with the gnawing worry that going back might be the only way forward.
This was maybe best summed up by Murray in his Spectator piece “Would human life be sacred in an atheist world?” which I’ve had many occasions to refer back to, because it captures the modern conundrum so succinctly. I found much of Murray’s work in this vein quite poignant, in some ways a 21st-century throwback to 19th-century figures like Matthew Arnold. His own youthful crisis of faith, as he related it, had very much that 19th-century arc to it, even featuring a guest appearance from David Friedrich Strauss. (In such contexts, I’m always impatient to recommend people go and snap up Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt, a collection of forgotten case studies debunking the myth that all the real “brights” of the era walked away from their Victorian faith and never looked back. The notion that certain things once “learned” could never be “unlearned” depends on a chain of reasoning whose links were long ago examined and found wanting.)
Christopher Hitchens would later take a young Murray under his wing. But Murray meanwhile found a different kind of catharsis in the work of “doubting priests” like Don Cupitt and Richard Holloway, who could help him grieve what he was leaving behind, explaining why he still had a compulsion to slip into the back of tiny chapels on a whim. He might not have been a Christian anymore, but as Cupitt put it, he “still dreamed Christian dreams.”
Like Murray, I also carry all the furniture of the Anglican heritage in my mind, all the rhythms of King James English and Cranmerian collects and good unbowdlerized hymnody. That language suffuses this poem, the opening being an outright riff on the opening prayer for morning mass. The action of the first vignette then takes place during the Nine Lessons and Carols, of which I have very fond memories in my own tiny childhood parish. When I say “tiny,” I mean not only did we not have a boys’ choir, we had virtually no boys, period. So it was that every Christmas, the task of singing “Once in Royal David’s City” fell on me. I had perfect pitch and could do a capable impression of a choirboy. It became one more thing that sank into me, became part of me. I now realize in hindsight that it was rather miraculous for me to have found this pocket of traditional Anglican worship. The parish still exists, though it’s been dying in slow motion for years.
The action of the second vignette shifts from the Christian dreamer to the Jewish dreamer. A quote of Eric Weinstein’s had particularly stuck with me, to the effect that he found the prospect of naturalism utterly terrifying. So he attended synagogue and read Torah to keep himself sane, to give himself balance. Astute readers will pick up a chiasm structure in the section beginning “It is my meditation/Day and night...” This is one of several Old Testament callbacks woven throughout.
Finally, we come to Peterson, the “church of one.” This is where the piece risks becoming the most confusing to those who don’t get the buried inspiration, imitating Peterson’s signature stream-of-consciousness diction. Anyone who’s binged a fair chunk of his material can read these lines in The Voice, as they riff on an irritated stock Peterson answer to the question of what he thinks about the resurrection: “I’d need three years/At least…/Three years times 365/That’s 1095 days/Times three hours a day/(Let’s say)...” The line on “finding his absolute” is an exact quote, lifted from an account of his Cartesian-style quest to tear down the edifice of his knowledge and find that one foundation stone on which he could rebuild. He found it in a story of senseless torture in the Nazi prison camps, the vicious act of forcing prisoners to carry wet sacks of salt from one side of a compound to another.
Visually, this is where the piece becomes most play-like, as I picture the professor pacing on a stage in the restless manner of one of his lectures. Then he stops, looking off-stage: “What’s that you say? Five minutes to midnight?” He is distressed: “But I’ve only begun! Five minutes... I’ve only begun...”
And this is where I decided it was time to go full T. S. Eliot, to such a shameless extent that better poets than I might be less than impressed with the results. But I feel it retains enough of an original signature to be interesting, continuing to weave in different bits of carols, hymns, and Scripture, and finally, true to my American roots, allowing Longfellow to have the last word.
All in all, scattered as the piece might be in final analysis, I will always think of it fondly, and will always be proud of it as my first bit of published work. First, but hopefully not last.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!