Questions for Ecclesiastes Summary
The son and grandson of ministers in the Disciples of Christ Christian Church, Mark Jarman employs his skills as a writer to address essential aspects of the Christian faith. The poet was initially impressed by his maternal grandmother, Nora Pemberton, who was an unpublished poet and short-fiction writer, and his father, Donald Ray Jarman, who as a preacher had a masterful command of language. He was further inspired by British poet Donald Davie, whom he admired for his willingness to openly express his Christian faith in his poetry. Of him Jarman has written, “Davie’s religious life was intimately involved with this poetry. This realization . . . led me to engage my own religious beliefs directly in my writing.” Questions for Ecclesiastes continues a conversation about God, expressions of faith, and why faith matters in daily life begun in Jarman’s first book of verse, North Sea (1978), in which he initiated the theme of questioning the real-life applicability of Christian teaching and the example of Jesus.
Jarman is unique as a poet of Christian-themed verse because he challenges intellectual complacency. For him it is insufficient to mouth doctrine or espouse Jesus as a role model. For example, in the title poem, “Questions for Ecclesiastes,” Jarman narrates an autobiographically inspired incident in which a minister (his father) is called to the home of a young female suicide to offer the family comfort and religious perspective. The aim of the poem is to question God’s will in the death of the girl and also the usefulness of the preacher as an emissary of divine will. Divided into nine paragraph-style stanzas, the poem begins in the past tense and ends in the present tense, allowing the speaker to retell the story and then analyze its outcome. Six of the stanzas start with “What if.” Eight of the nine present essential questions about blind faith, and the ninth ponders why God keeps the incomprehensible “a secret” from both those willing to believe and the already devout Christian. Throughout the poem, the preacher’s words and gestures at consolation are made to seem useless because he cannot explain why the girl killed herself, and his talking is contrasted to God’s silence on the matter. The tension creates what Jarman calls the “urgency” that “gives religious poetry its power.” Jarman stated that he adopted the rhythm of this poem from that of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament of the King James version of the Bible. One of the accomplishments of the poem is its responsiveness to biblical language on a contemporary theme.
Jarman’s personae embrace the potency of faith and organized religious worship as formative in ordinary life. In testing the merit of a worldview shaped by Christian doctrine, Jarman’s poems assert a positive place for faith and doubt in the mind and heart of the Christian. “Transfiguration,” with its poignant final stanza opening “I want to believe,” captures the struggle for the Christian to believe in such logic-defying aspects of Jesus’ life as his resurrection and transfiguration. This poem, divided into seven stanzas, opens with Jesus, as described in the Gospel of Mark, flanked by Old Testament figures Moses and Elijah, who accompany him on his ascent into heaven. The first stanza sets the scene, allowing the focus to shift to the metaphoric aspects of “transfiguration” as the kinds of change in the body of the sick person and in the human person of Jesus. The poem develops by elaborating on the promise of eternal life and the quest of the faithful who “want to believe” that the transfiguration happened, that the sick can be cured, and that the changes one undergoes in life are really part of a larger plan designed by God. The persona of this poem, like others in the collection, is that of the unsettled Christian who has more questions than answers about theological matters.
Questions for Ecclesiastes , a National Book Critics Circle Award...
(The entire section is 1,125 words.)