The Translation of Babel

Scott Cairns writes in that mode of postmodern poetry called by some critics “the comic apocalypse,” that is, one in which a poem initially appears to offer merely a clinical catalog of the modern world’s sins but then suddenly redeems that world with a breathtaking reaffirmation of the possibility of transcendent faith.

The title of this collection, THE TRANSLATION OF BABEL, therefore expresses its thematic edge: The world is “after babel,” and therefore in confusion. It becomes the poet’s task to “translate” or reorder the world for a human race desperate for clarity and purpose in the midst of turmoil.

To attempt that task, Cairns has divided the volume into three equal sections of thirteen poems, headed by a prefatory poem entitled “Invitation to a Wedding,” which warns the readers that “you might accept any public invitation/ and chance to overhear the private terms.” Once within the poet’s imagined world, the reader may be privy to the indirection of his “private terms,” that is, the subtext that displaces what is only apparently the main text.

The subtext here is beyond question Cairns’s sorrow over the death of his father and his faltering attempts to will his Christian faith to salve his wounds of grief. All forty poems in one way or another affirm the mystery of life and the promise of redemption and even resurrection against the dark night of death and dissolution.

To accomplish this, Cairns chooses distinctive narrators and points of view, often the man of faith he wishes himself to be but also, in other poems, persons of lesser faith, including Lucifer himself, the personification of evil and rebellion against God’s order.

In THE TRANSLATION OF BABEL, Cairns succeeds admirably in promoting faith without propagandizing—in part by offering a panoply of poems about angels, dark spirits, and still darker selves that reveal all manner of betrayals, redemptions, dreams deferred, and hopes aligned.