The Poem

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

“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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

“As We Forgive Those” finds much of its power in Pankey’s use of juxtaposition and allusion. A kind of prayer itself, the poem’s clear reference to the Lord’s Prayer establishes a pattern of comparison for the poet that allows him to move back and forth between philosophical meditation and the remembered actions of his past.

Derived from the Latin, the word “allusion” literally means “to play with or touch upon,” and it remains one of the most effective means of compression in poetry. Merely by mentioning certain names, places, events, or, in this case, specific lines from a spiritual text, the poet creates powerful associations for the reader. Clearly the historic significance of the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity and the profound effect of this religion upon the Western world determines the power and resonance of this particular allusion. However, at several points in the poem, Pankey’s use of allusion shifts from a universal human history, as reflected in Christendom, to the individual history of Pankey’s own American boyhood—a pattern that keeps the poem from becoming mired in theological conundrums of interpretation that ultimately cannot be resolved.

Thus, in the poem’s first stanza, Pankey establishes, through juxtaposition, that his own boyhood experience will serve as a metaphor for forgiveness. He remembers that as a boy he learned “to forgive from those who forgave.” This is a slight alteration of the Lord’s Prayer, which entreats God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Yet not all Christian churches translate the word “trespass” in the same manner, and the mature Pankey struggles to remember whether he “was supposed/ to forgive those who trespassed, or my debtors.”

Therefore, Pankey not only uses juxtaposition as a tool for organizing the poem’s shifts from boyhood experience to theological meditation but also uses it to contrast the significant differences between the words “trespass” and “debt.” These levels of juxtaposition, skillfully connected so that they cannot be completely separated, suggest the complexity of forgiveness and its direct relationship to one’s own cultural context.

As the poem reveals, because Pankey’s family “always owed someone or someone owed” them, he cannot remember a time when they used the word “debtor” while praying the Lord’s Prayer. Instead, the poet says they concentrated on the lines, “Give us this day,” a prayerful request that seemed odd to the young Pankey because he believed the day already was theirs. His parents, nevertheless, fashion the young boy’s understanding of the prayer and, ultimately, his understanding of forgiveness, so that as he grows he too will pray for “this day.” The poet also recalls that as a boy, when his parents argued, yelling at each other, he was told not to worry, that such fights did not concern him. From this example, he came to think of forgiveness as a condition in which one was excused from the unknown.

As the poem concludes, the poet juxtaposes the ignorance of his youth against his growing desire for knowledge. This final comparison leads Pankey closer to the mature insight toward which the poem struggles: Forgiveness demands knowledge. Fittingly, the poem culminates with the image of a shadow sweeping across all that the family owns, all for which they are in debt, and it is at this moment that the poet finally comes to a true knowledge of his condition and his need for forgiveness.

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Themes