In the sixty-four poems of his book of poetry False Prophet, the late poet Stan Rice imagines a persona who talks to God about the problems humanity faces. Rice, who was married to the novelist Anne Rice until his death from brain cancer in December, 2002, decided to call these poems psalms, like the 150 psalms contained in the Christian Bible. His first poem is called “Psalm 151,” its number beginning where the Bible left off. Throughout all the poems, Rice follows a stream-of-consciousness pattern. His images, only loosely related to one another, echo biblical themes, allegories, and symbols, but he inserts many references and material drawn from modern American life.
Perhaps to express a certain irony and to warn his readers that his poems should not be mistaken for a traditional religious text, Rice has called his collection False Prophet. His persona is not meant to be a real biblical prophet. Instead, the persona is a tormented creature, unsure of himself and his position when addressing God. In the biblical tradition a false prophet would be an enemy of God and an agent of Satan, but it is hard to view the persona in this strict theological light. Instead, the persona appears as a modern human being struggling with issues of faith and good and evil. The persona is unwilling to claim to be a true prophet in the biblical sense. It is, rather, out of humility that the persona appears to reject the title of true prophet.
The term “false prophet” also goes hand in hand with the many instances of wordplay with biblical language in Rice’s psalms. The persona is fond of creating contradictions and expressing himself in surrealistic images that do not follow conventional logic and often deliberately alter biblical images and symbols. The poems do not have a message that is expressed in a straightforward manner. Instead, they challenge the reader with irony. There are many apparently nonsensical twists and turns, and the persona’s verbal uncertainty hints at the larger moral confusion Rice perceives to exist in the Western world.
The opening poem of False Prophet, “Psalm 151,” contains many of the typical elements of Rice’s poetry in this collection. It begins with an apparently straightforward appeal by the persona to God: “Lord, hear me out.” The persona laments that humanity is desperate in its desire to hear from God. Spiritual guidance, however, does not appear to be forthcoming. The “wicked,” a rather biblical term for morally objectionable people, seem to prosper in the persona’s world. Abruptly, the poetic language shifts in style to rather colloquial English, and the situation described above is conceded to be “a walk in the park” compared to “the coming floods.” This free mix of everyday language and apocalyptic allusions is a key element of Rice’s psalms. His persona uses modern English, only to lapse into a language echoing the elevated traditional English used in the King James Bible.
Biblical images are further twisted by the persona. In the middle of “Psalm 151,” the persona begins to refer to a mysterious “he,” an adversary who would be understood to be the Devil if the persona were a truly holy man. “Surely all day he has/ Broken my bones in gall,” is a relatively comprehensible image of torture. The persona follows this up with the more surreal, “My leash he has caught in a hedge.” On the surface, the meaning of this remains obscure. It is, however, one of the typical passages in which the persona conjures up pain, misery, and suffering and expresses them in rather unconventional symbols. “My looted father/ Is chained to a wall in sewage” are stark lines that evoke suffering, even though they are not literally or logically connected to the preceding or following lines.
At the conclusion of the poem, the persona expresses his hope that, in spite of all human weakness, every “person alive” “springs to his life . . . by/ Lifting it up and claiming it.” This straightforward wish is followed with more mystical images conveying the general sense that the persona may be somewhat frail and fallible but is determined to live a meaningful life.
In other psalms, the persona expresses his frustrations, through many surreal images, that traditional language fails him in his quest to talk to God. He is looking for redemption but fears that he is too unprepared and unfit for such a task. This situation pains him, and he utters many elaborately crafted lines to give unique voice to his discomfort. In “Psalm 157,” the persona asks God to “throw . . . away” his “impure book” that, to him, falls short of his true aspirations.
The persona reveals himself in his psalms as a man who is unhappy with his and other people’s desire for material comfort. Thus he wishes for God, in...
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