The Irresistible Power of Natural Powers

by Mark Chmiel

Having recently perused Jim Forest’s biography and memoir of Dan Berrigan (Playing in the Lions’ Den), I returned to Berrigan’s collection of poems, And the Risen Bread. If I can find five poems in such a collection that speak to me (and which I can pass along), I’m pleased.

The poem that still stands out for me, above all the others, is his “Zen Poem,” which I cannot help but think was influenced by his time with Nhat Hanh in France after the Vietnam War. However many times I read it, it remains fresh, like Book 6 of The Brothers Karamazov.

The early poems in the book are Christocentric, abstract, Latinate. The middle poems are still mostly pre-political. Like Vatican II brought the Church into the modern world, in the Sixties Berrigan, like so many others, finally got with it. “Certain Occult Utterances from the Under Ground and Its Guardian Sphinx” retains its spiritual relevance after fifty years. The Georgetown Series includes “The Trouble with Our State,” which also speaks to what is called the Age of Trump. (It would be pertinent if Ms. Clinton was president.)

When thinking of Berrigan, I often call to mind his younger and former friend and fellow poet/priest, Ernesto Cardenal. From 2008 on, I read many of Cardenal’s works published by New Directions, and have found many of his poems still powerful, startling, and instructive (obviously, “Cell Phone,” for one). I can’t think of a Berrigan poem that is so revelatory of our political condition as Cardenal’s “Room 5600.”

However, it is in his his numerous works of prose where he explores the Hebrew prophets that Berrigan delivers, consistently and provocatively. Here is one example, a passage from his commentary on Isaiah: “Where are the Isaiahs of our day? Could they be found among the outsiders — a prisoner or a widow or an orphan or a homeless one or an ‘illegal alien’ or someone driven mad by the system? The vision often starts among such persons who can cut to the essentials in matters of life and death, of compassion and right judgment, while the rest of us know nothing.”

Also, his journal writings are gripping, for example, on Central America from the mid-80s where writes of his encounters in El Salvador: “And after each interview, the mother would invariably walk to the far end of the table, to a heap of photo albums laid there. Would take one of them in hand, gravely turn page after page, these images out of the national abattoir, the tortured, raped, amputated. The photos that stood horrid surrogate for the young men, absent from streets and homes and churches and factories. The disappeared generation. I could scarcely bear to look at the faces that dared look at such images, and not be turned to stone. How much can one bear? I did not know. But I sensed that the measure of what would be revealed neither by psychiatrist nor politician not bishop. I must go in humility to these unknown, despised lives, upon whom there rested the preferential option of God.”

Behold the irresistible power of two natural powers—truth-telling and accompanying!

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