by Mary Roe
from Signs of the Times No. 56 - Jan 2015
I am grateful for the opportunity to review this book as it is always good to have one’s horizons broadened. I am also glad that I heard Carla Grosch-Miller’s explanation of why she called it Psalms Redux.
From the earliest times of Christian worship, the Hebrew psalms have been felt to express every aspect of our human relationship with God. At different times and in different cultures new translations and paraphrases have appeared which were thought to be capable of expressing an individual’s or a community’s hopes, fears and emotions. These poems are neither translation nor paraphrase but a personal response to each psalm as the author read and meditated upon it.
Because they are personal, it is inevitable that some will strike a strong chord with the reader while others may be a little perplexing, and it would be interesting to know that much depended upon Carla’s mood and circumstances as she composed her reflection (with the result that on some occasions she realized that she had written on the same psalm previously and come up with something entirely different).
The Psalms reflect the whole range of human experience: joy, praise, lamentation, anger, fear, and depression not only as they affect an individual such as our author but also the corporate emotions of the people of God. It must be very challenging for someone who is meditating in solitude to experience the surging mass emotions of anger, joy or grief that we find in the Psalms of the Temple or of the Exile. Perhaps this is why the moving Psalm 137 is omitted from this collection. In fact, we have Carla’s response to only 55 Psalms (some in part only) out of the 150 in the Old Testament and our Christian service books. Or perhaps she shied away from the violent ending to Psalm 137 which relishes bashing the heads of the enemies’ children against the rocks.
Throughout the book, the sunny side of the original psalm is reflected while the curses and cries for vengeance (usually at the end) are left out. This could be because Carla, the individual, has a naturally sunny nature, despite being aware of and full of compassion for the suffering which is so prevalent in our world, or she may be the product of our politically correct approach to Scripture more than she realises. There are many examples of this trend but Psalms 47, 51, 139 and 141 are typical.
Another area in which the spirit of our age may have influenced Carla’s creative response is in the emphasis on the individual’s communication with God: several of the people’s songs find expression in the first person singular. (In my church’s booklet of 138 ‘worship songs’, 78 are all about me – ‘I really want to praise your name…’, ‘It’s me, Lord…’ and so on.) But there is a bonus to this personal, individual approach: I loved Carla’s heartfelt opening to Psalm 3, ‘The sins of religion have gone public – rigidity, hypocrisy, intolerance, and worse’ – and we can all contribute our own betes noires from our own churchy experiences, no doubt. This may not be one of the clearest reflections of the original psalm, but I am very glad it has found its place in the collection.
Another observation overall is that often when the original psalm extols God as Creator of ‘all that is, seen and unseen’, the poem which it inspires addresses and refers to God as ‘the Holy’ or ‘Divine’ and even in psalm 148 the ‘All’; ‘Praise the All – the Soil, the Source, the Power, the Pulse…’ often becoming a hymn of praise to the creation itself - at times coming rather too close to nature worship, reminiscent of William Wordsworth rather than of William Blake.
It would be beyond the bounds of coincidence if two people responded to a particular psalm with very similar poems. Whereas one can usually tune in to Carla’s interpretation, there are one or two where it is hard to see any connection. Psalm 90 is better known to many of us in its metrical form as the hymn O God our help in ages past, which is the first adult hymn I learnt, at the age of four, at my grandfather’s knee. As a soldier who had fought in two wars, that hymn meant a great deal to him. Carla has not lived through a war, as I have, and she may not even know many people who have; her poetic vision has no echo of times in life which strike terror to the heart of those who have no faith.
Her poem, which in itself is beautiful, begins, ‘I stand beneath a canopy of stars and marvel...’ and goes on to express her awe at the wonder of the moment when the world sprang into being ‘in a swirl of dust and gas that shimmers…’ though ‘You would still be greater’. Her next image is a hoed garden bed with soft, scented rose-petals… ‘Still You would be more beautiful’. Then, ‘I hold my love in my arms, my breath a thanksgiving… ‘Still Your love would be larger.’
I am not looking for a translation or paraphrase, but I find myself expecting a poem which captures the ethos of the psalm and which gives rise to the images and emotions which that inspired.
On the other hand, there are many which really show us a familiar psalm as a restored painting in which the colours glow more brightly and the shadows draw us into their depths. Among these I would place psalms 36, 104,107, 126, 128, 130, 133 and 145. Other readers will no doubt add to this list.
I confess that I have a rather low pain threshold with regard to English grammar, especially in the I/me and we/us confusion which seems to trip up so many people nowadays. Psalm 62 was spoilt for me when I got to the words ‘So it is for we who trust…’ and I get a bit twitchy when the verb, to lie, is confused with the transitive verb, to lay” as in psalm 121, ‘my eyes are drawn beyond - beyond the ruins that lay around me,’ when the tense of the whole verse is the present. I also find it rather clumsy when a noun is used as a verb although we hear it all the time when people promise to action a proposal or, in the case of Psalm 71, ‘Your clear horizon orients me to renewing hope.’
To sum up Psalms Redux (I will come to the prayers at the end later), I have benefited from reading these timeless songs in the context of the here and now. But saying that reminds me of the disappointment I felt when I sought a particular psalm which seems to resonate with the present moment, only to discover that it is not included in this collection. I began reviewing the book as the onslaught on Gaza was reaching its peak, our relationship with Russia was starting to look precarious and minority groups in Iraq were being slaughtered. So I looked for Psalm 2, ‘Why do the nations (heathen) so furiously rage together…?’ but that is one of those which have not, so far, inspired a meditation. There are others which will be very significant for many Christians, such as Psalm 22, which I looked up at the beginning in the hope of getting a flavour of the whole book, but that, too is not there.
Some of the best loved psalms which have continued to help Christians in an idiom suited to their own day, such as Psalm 42 which many people know as either ‘As pants the hart for cooling streams…’ or ‘As the deer pants for the water’ have not inspired Carla and this may well be because it was too difficult for her to rid her mind of these versions, in the same way as, when we were studying Isaiah, our lecturer earnestly begged us to try to rid our minds of Handel’s Messiah. And perhaps there will be a second volume to fill some of the gaps?
I would stress again that this is not a book of new translations or paraphrases of the Psalms, so the reader need not fear the banal phrases and trendy idioms which bedevil so much of the ‘literature’ that is deemed suitable for a new generation. There are many ways in which this book may be enjoyed but I think it should not be regarded as an accompaniment to the reading of the original psalms analogous to the side plate of salad beside the main course but it is more like a good wine which can transform an everyday menu into a celebration (even if some of the time it is a dessert wine that is most suitable). It is not even necessary, in my view, to read the Psalms and Psalms Redux together in whichever order one prefers: there are times when it may be more profitable to read a poem neither before nor after its parent psalm but instead of it.
But Carla has, like the bridegroom in Cana, kept the best till last. Her prayers for different seasons, occasions and days of the week are wonderful. In the days to come I shall mark the Psalms Redux, which I plan to read and reread, and from time to time revisit those which have not resonated with me so well on first reading.