"To Make it Plain": On Ashbery and Images of God
To make it plain.
Because I’m an old fashioned agnostic, my friends and relations, atheist and Jesus-y alike, all believe I’m right thinking, and that I secretly side with them but am just too humanist to say so. True, I have been called a fence sitter, but mostly by myself. Raised by Baptists and sci-fi reading hippies, I developed my relationship with God early. On the one hand he was a handsome blond, and on the other he was more like “the force,” a non-material mandala of goodies that sort of floated in the empty spaces and made the flowers grow. At night, after my mother kissed me and told me to say my prayers, I would try to imagine what, exactly, I was praying to until I fell asleep. Was God a boy or a girl? Did It have a face? Was It more like a horse or dirt or a ghost? I rarely got around to asking for anything, but the practice put a permanently spiritual kink in my imagination.
I still pray like that, though I don’t call it praying unless I’m reassuring a relative that I will worry about a situation I have no control over, in God’s honor. More often, I will ask those same relatives to worry/pray for me. I tell them I’m pretty sure they’ve got a better relationship with the Almighty than I have. They laugh shyly; everybody likes to be told they’re right with Jesus. I’m not sure what good I think I’m doing asking people to pray for me, but it soothes me to know that someone is holding me in their mind right next to their highest value. It’s a gift I wish I could give them, but the closest I ever get is in some mental cul-de-sac with karma and Darwin.
I asked my childhood friend Cynthia what she thought God looked like, and her first answer was that It was like a fiery luminescence with a gentle face you could see from every angle, which sounded a bit like my old floating mandala, an idea hovering tenously between being and abstraction. Then, she sent me this passage from Revelation 1:14:
The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
Yikes. Classic white guy in the sky. I mean, I get it—I get how one might need to have a picture in your head of a real person, no matter how glowing or large, that you could play chess with or lay your head down in his lap, but clearly that’s not the right picture for me. My mother refers to God as Goddess, likes to pray to a fat woman with abundant hair. Whenever I try to imagine God as a person, all I can come up with is a bald intersex baby with tragic eyes and a voice like Nina Simone. And that’s just silly.
But perhaps this is why I can never completely be free of the desire to see God in my mind (even though I am more content with a mystery than I ever would be with an answer): I’ve learned to associate my own lack of faith with a failure of the imagination. Because the first things I tried hard to imagine carved a hole in me that only moral contemplation ever fills. Because what Ashbery is directing us to do is to make something real out of our own highest value. Art may just be us picturing God, over and over again.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. In January, she wrote about a line by Paul Valery.