The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

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“As We Forgive Those,” a relatively short poem in free verse, is divided into four stanzas of unequal length and makes use of a natural, almost colloquial, tone to examine rather weighty theological issues. The poem’s title is drawn from the Lord’s Prayer, widely used in Protestant Christianity, and suggests the struggle of the poet to reconcile his understanding of that prayer, especially its admonitions concerning forgiveness, with his own family experience.

The bulk of Pankey’s verse—collected in For the New Year (1984), Heartwood (1988), Apocrypha (1991), and The Late Romances (1997)—suggests both a deep fascination with and strong commitment to Christianity, as well as an uneasiness concerning its many permutations and manifestations. While Pankey’s discomfort with Christian dogmatism and facile fundamentalism is evident, it is equally clear that such discomfort leads him to examine carefully his own faith and its relationship to his childhood growing up in the United States during the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

In various poems, particularly those collected in Heartwood (where “As We Forgive Those” appears), no clear line exists between the speaker’s voice in the poem and that of the poet. While such conflation is common in contemporary poetry, in Pankey’s case it is used to dramatic effect to speak about religious experience. Like the poet Andrew Hudgins in his The Glass Hammer (1994), Pankey explores his family’s history, demonstrating how it shapes his way of seeing the world and his understanding of God’s ways in that world.

“As We Forgive Those” begins with the most ordinary of domestic rituals: a father excusing his son from the dinner table. This ritual, however, resonates in the poem because it clearly helps determine the speaker’s notion of forgiveness. By demonstrating the power of his father who “excuses” him from the dinner table, a most desirable pardon for any young boy, Pankey intimates that his earthly existence offers him his only clues for coming to terms with his faith.

Although the speaker in the poem says that “All my life I was a child,” the poem itself presents the action as part of the past. Thus, Pankey writes from an adult perspective about the innocence of childhood faith and the youthful tendency toward a literal understanding of the language of faith. Instead of a child’s thoughts, the poem displays a grown man mulling over his boyhood memories, an activity through which he gains mature insights. Moreover, the poem hinges upon the speaker’s explication or close reading of the Lord’s Prayer—an intellectual activity that demands reflective distance and allows the poet to understand better how his boyhood activities shaped his use of the prayer—while suggesting the universal power of both earthly and heavenly forgiveness.