En Pointe

Sarah of dVerse asks us to choose a poem we’ve read over the last year and write a response to it in conversation, as it were, with its preoccupations. I’ve chosen John Updike’s “Fine Point,” written just weeks before his death in January 2009. His consciousness of our tainted public and personal history, and faith’s endurance as he alludes to Psalm 23, is what engages me most. And so my response, “En Pointe.”

En Pointe

What divinity is this that tempers our clay

with hammers of wrath expended on temple,

church, in our uneasy play with pagan tunes

of lust? Even as we covet our neighbor’s lamb

we would sing tuneful papyrus songs in our Babylon

with lyres hung under willows, calling out as children

“Abba, Father,” knowing we are heard by the Name

of One who bore the curse of our sinful rebellions.

O Son of David, thou whose lips have tendered infinity –

“It is finished” mercy and justice united blood

spilled and body spent on the cross so that Surely—

yes, “surely”— and all the days of my life wilt thou

pursue not merely “follow”— poor substitute

for the ancient tongue which reaches out in mercy

as unbounded as a lover’s song of songs to me

now to dwell in the house of the Lord, forever. Selah.

44 thoughts on “En Pointe

  1. This poem has an interesting family tree – Updike’s poem, and the psalm itself. It feels like the psalm is one you know well (I guess lots of people know the words, but you’ve considered them), and that probably tempered your response to Updike. I find that really intriguing.

    Leaving that aside, I really like it as a poem. I like the strength of engagement with the biblical words, I like the power of your analysis of the psalm. It’s powerful and moving, and you make it into a living poem.

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    1. Thank you so much for the thoughtful critique, Sarah. Updike employs understatement to good effect, so his emphatic dwelling on “surely” is all the more a testimony to his faith and the psalm’s consolation. I found that very moving and powerful.

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  2. I love the archaic sound of the words in your poem without fully understanding their implication. It hinges on the word ‘surely’ which I took to mean, ‘for sure’ ‘certainly’ not as a question. Part of the beauty of the 17th century English is how words have changed meaning in the 400 years since they were penned. Like listening to opera in a language we don’t understand, the sound is the same and the impression in leaves in the imagination.

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    1. The operatic quality of the imagery only comes through in the KJV, that’s true. Somehow the archaisms fit in this particular poem for me. Otherwise, in the original Hebrew I’m told, there is simplicity and passion, and in Psalm 23, the language of the shepherd. “Surely” is the word Updike makes a “fine point” of and I take up the thread of his thought, also adding to the context of the line from the psalm, the added connotation of pursuit from the original word for “follow.” Thanks for reading, Jane. For many, the “Biblicisms” that Updike dwells on eloquently (me far less so) would put them off.

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