My favorite poem in Warren’s “Uncollected Poems 1943- 1989” is actually “Bicentennial,” a 12 page poem that ends with a celebration of the freedoms the founding fathers have given us: “Even so, we should not forget the virtues of the old ones who/ Backs to a dark continent, stood and set us free from tyranny” Of course, he follows these inspirational lines with the chilling reminder that we have not done much with this freedom: “They did not get around to setting us free from ourselves.” Unfortunately, at the moment I have neither the patience nor the determination needed to discuss that poem in any depth.
That said, though, I’m also quite fond of “Lord Jesus, I Wonder,” a sobering, ironic poem that manages to capture Warren’s spiritual ambivalence:
LORD JESUS, I WONDER
Lord Jesus, I wonder if I would recognize you
On the corner of Broadway and Forty-Second-
Just one more glaze-eyed, yammering bum, nobody to listen
But the halt and maimed. My legs are good.
Yet sometimes I’ve thought of you, sandaled on sand,
Or stub-toed in gravel, dried blood black on a toe-nail,
And you seemed to look beyond traffic, then back with an innocent
Smile, to ask a revealing question
To which I could find no answer. But I suddenly smell
The sweat-putrid mob crowding closer, in pain and emptiness, ready
To believe anything-ignorant bastards. I envy them. Except
Their diseases, of course. For my head roars
With information, true or false, till I feel like weeping
At the garish idiocy of a Sunday School card. At fourteen,
I was arrogantly wrapped up in Darwin, but felt, sometimes,
Despair because I could not love God, nor even know his address.
How about this? God, c/o Heaven-Special Delivery? Well,
The letter was returned: Addressee Unknown. So
I laughed till I vomited. Then laughed again, this time
At the wonder of the world, from dawn to dark, and all
Night long, while stars spoke wisdom in battalions of brilliance.
Sometimes, since then, I have, face up, walked a night road,
Still adolescent enough to seek words for what was in my heart,
Or gut. But words, I at last decided, are their own truth.
There is no use to continue this conversation. We all
Know that. But, for God’s sake, look the next blind man you meet
Straight in the eye. Do not flinch at prune-shriveled socket, or
Blurred eyeball. Not that you have
The gift of healing. You will not heal him, but
You may do something to heal something within yourself.
I, too, have sometimes wondered, like many people I suspect, if I would recognize a Savior if I saw him preaching on the streets. Or would I, like Warren, see him as just another charlatan telling ignorant people what they want to hear? Would I consider myself too “wise” to listen to some street-corner preacher and miss the opportunity for real salvation?
Perhaps it is a sense or intellectual superiority that makes it difficult to blindly believe everything your told in church. Certainly rational thought, in this case symbolized by Darwin, makes it difficult to accept the concept of God. Unfortunately, that rationality doesn’t prevent you from feeling a sense of despair at having to make all your own choices in life. Even those incapable of believing in a traditional God often find themselves wanting to believe in Him.
No matter how intelligent we think we are, though, it’s difficult to experience the wonders of the universe without believing in our heart that there is something there beyond us. That magical universe is represented by the stars in this poem as it is in several of Warren’s poems.
Doubter though he may be, Warren still seems to have absorbed and accepted Christ’s message to us, for his advice to “look the next blind man you meet/ Straight in the eye” seems to suggest the kind of Christian compassion, empathy, that one should expect from a Christian, not because it will help the blind person but because it may heal something within yourself.
There is something within us that needs a compassionate, forgiving God, even if, in the end, we must gain that compassion from truly looking each other in the eyes and seeing our condition for what it is.