It is rare to find poetry that is both spiritual and physical, but Scott Cairns work is simultaneously tactile and religious in the best sense. Philokalia takes selections from Cairns’s four published volumes and adds new poems, and is impressive for its scope as well as its depth—it includes a variety of free forms and is by turns traditionally meditative and postmodern. The playful ironies in the poems are interspersed with serious explorations of theological themes. No reader need leave the collection disappointed, whether he or she is in search of enlightenment (“Late Epistle” ) or fun (“Taking off our Clothes.”).
Eastern Orthodoxy is Cairns’s allegiance, as the book’s title implies, but the poems seem to explore all intersections of matter and spirit. The earlier poems tend to be more ironic and critical, the later ones more celebratory, although this general tendency is not uniform. Some of the most satisfying poems put new spins on the Bible, such as the selections from “The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Sab”—it is a great pity that he did not include the entire work. Other poems, such as “Infirmities,” are explorations of the ordinary through which the spiritual can be glimpsed. Still others, such as “The Holy Ghost” and “The Theology of Delight,” are happy explorations of the spiritual by means of a personal narrative. All are rewarding and the variousness of the collection provides additional delight.
The slightly alarming title and the postmodern touches notwithstanding, these poems are accessible to the reader and provide deep emotional and intellectual satisfaction. This is Christian poetry that will reach a much wider audience than either other Christians or other poets.