Prayers Not Meant for Heaven

In Nan Seymour’s PRAYERS NOT MEANT FOR HEAVEN, I found all my favorite qualities of poetry: spareness, sacrality, and a mix of open and closed form. Its pages are budding with pantheist joy:

pelican, avocet, snowy egret

every bird is a reason to look up

That’s from duplex for birders, a formal duplex with a simple but cumulatively powerful flow, a piece at home among the writing of Jericho Brown. And perhaps along with Brown, Seymour gives the impression of form when there isn’t any specific syllable-count being followed. Rather, the feeling of form in this 2021 work arises from its air of devotion.

Of course a lot of poetry comes from reverence for nature, but in reading Seymour I felt I was reading the experiences of a saint. Take god of thigh bone and tattered scrap. In this poem, she recalls a dream of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. He gives her a bone and says, “if you don’t know / how holy this is… i’m sorry / but i can’t help you.” This reminded me of some of my own wise-person dreams, how beautifully flip they can be, and what can I say? I’m a sucker for anyone who’s willing to share her dreams.

As you might have gathered from the title, many of the poems are prayers — to moths, to bread, to longing itself. Serendipitously, I found and read this book on the heels of Yahia Lababidi’s QUARANTINE NOTES: APHORISMS ON MORALITY AND MORTALITY. Where Lababidi reads like a gnostic in the Islamic tradition, Seymour is pagan with a Christian background. Their work dovetails with the other’s because of their unabashed little ecstasies. As many people have pointed out, monks and nuns and hermits have no trouble talking to each other; it’s the clergy of different traditions that don’t get along well.

I ought to mention, though: this book has incredibly personal poems as well, with why i got married a third time after swearing i never would again being the preeminent and tear-jerking example. The collection flows easily back and forth from praise to confession, but even in the praise poems there is always place and corporeality and total humanness.

The edition itself, from Toad Hall, has hefty, textured paper and is lovely to hold. It’s modestly priced and if you order it, use their website and not some other seller. Clearly, they’re publishers with great taste and should be supported directly.

Seymour is also an activist for the Great Salt Lake, and you can hear her talking about her “artivism” on the Great Salt Lake Collaborative website. I admire her approach to activism through poetic praise. Her own website has a recording of Irreplaceable, a 2,220-line poem about the Great Salt Lake’s imperiled beauty.