Chasing the Imago Dei through Jason Myers’ Poems
The late saint Mary Oliver rhapsodically described her encounter with a nest sheltering “four warm, speckled eggs.” She slipped away “having felt something more wonderful / than all the electricity of New York City.”
Poet Jason Myers handles a live current—if possible, more charged than the one Oliver knew—throughout his debut, Maker of Heaven &. This electric force holds gospel power to revive, but will singe to scar if misused or left unattended.
Myers, also an Episcopal priest in Texas, defines this current in two words, then many: Imago Dei, the divine image common to all humanity. This image, the way Myers writes, does not force readers to wear one godly expression, but manifests in a million ways great and small; the poet’s senses are extraordinarily sharp, picking up on the people, places and things coming alive around us, picking up on more than most.
Myers’ opening statements form a set inspired by fatherhood. “How to Make a Sound” and “Brooding” trace the connective tissue from Adam’s childhood to Jesus’ body, from the first man to a newborn sent to save all men.
But souls who feel every vibration of the current binding us know its twinned danger. Myers senses countless ways our connection is marred, interrupted, practically extinguished—especially through violence and racism. He writes both sides, the blessing and curse, spurring us toward stirrings of recognition, a desire for reclamation and restoration.
In the poem “Imago Dei,” something like a thesis, something like a burning heart, this lyrical antennae welcomes divinity in the exquisite, the tragic, all points between. God is in every word, even the common ones, and our every recitation of these words:
“in the image of larkspurs & larks & lurk late & the woman who / wrote lurk late in a poem”;
and “in the image of creek / in the image of whatever feeling the word creek evokes, memories / luscious & wounding, the / water, the water, its purple vocation.”
God is in “the talk of rain,” the need for sex, the shape of everyone and everything we’re losing, all beginnings and endings, “& the field you walked past on your way to school & / the seeds in the field that knew another time, another / time, some other time, the gone, the going, the good / goodbye.”
Myers’ opening statements form a set inspired by fatherhood. “How to Make a Sound” and “Brooding” trace the connective tissue from Adam’s childhood to Jesus’ body, from the first man to a newborn sent to save all men. Seeing these children in his own steals Myers’ breath, stokes his ambition to breathe life toward others.
“Now my amazement has something folded into it, / call it longing, as I call most feelings I identify, / or anguish, that cousin of amazement that lurks / inside each breath to remind us of breath’s brevity.”
Myers’ trembling, beautiful and so welcome, at the strangeness of our shared life doesn’t betray someone newly awake to the siblinghood of man. His thinking and feeling throughout the book are too deep and raw to conclude this. But a new father’s poems recognize dimensions and details that will never again go unseen.
“Though I did not give him life, I give him life,” he writes at the end of “Brooding,” the rest between that line and the rest of the book pregnant with the hope of seeing bodies and souls flourish wherever they exist.
Common humanity and divinity spring forth in poems such as “Spies” and “Oral History of Insatiability” as the poet naturally, perceptively sees all we share in our very language; the Word become our words, Imago Dei in our imagery. Myers wouldn’t claim credit for bringing the Bible, Martin Luther King Jr., Leonard Cohen, Homer and Homer Plessy into conversation—they were already talking, he’d no doubt say—but his noticing, his eavesdropping, breeds our own.
“The sounds of / heaven & the sounds of ache echo,” he writes in “Spies,” and these poems transcribe the echo.
Aching sounds, notes made by the heavens rent and mourning, reverberate in poems concerning the deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Draylen Mason—the silencing of the 17-year-old Texas bassist and his future music particularly droops Myers’ shoulders.
These minor-key melodies sound as the poet sits with racial and social double-dealing from church people; we read implicit woes to those who blow out candles before they pass from pew to pew, congregation to congregation, one side of the street to the other. Sometimes the so-called good white Christian chooses to miss God “in the image of the gone, the missed, the massive & least” and this rightly wrecks the poet.
For the beauty of Myers’ project is also its truest tragedy: if all are connected in life, under God, all are complicit in life’s denial. “The liturgy of time pours / ice cold water over our imperfect / implicated heads,” he writes, bringing one poem to its stunning close.
How we live with this knowledge, how the hell we live with ourselves, becomes Myers’ chief concern.
How we live with this knowledge, how the hell we live with ourselves, becomes Myers’ chief concern. A response may assume many shapes; we thumb pages of more inspired theological dictionaries, not redefining words so much as fulfilling them, as in “Spies.”
“When I say nectar, I mean clean water, affordable housing, nobody / calling the police.”
We begin to wish for higher music, “to hear trumpets not / pitched to war or mourning / but in the sheer elation / of brassy sensuality— / the groove, the vamp, the blue note, the red,” Myers writes in “Philadelphia.”
Then we rehearse this music ourselves; Maker of Heaven & is a Greater American Songbook. Yes, these poems speak of jazz and blues, pay the respect due Robert Johnson and Charles Mingus. But the poems themselves are jazz and blues, making the sounds of heaven’s instincts and Earth’s ideal.
And, with Myers, we exercise faith in what is still unseen. The most wishful, tender page turn comes in “Oral History of Silence.”
One page ends with “I’m / reading the history of holiness.”
The next opens: “It’s a very frail book. I’m reading / a collection of apologies. I want / to be true to what I’ve seen / what I’ve heard.”
Such desire renovates our response to Imago Dei, and our response renovates our desire. This circle cannot be ignored. We tune our ears to the blood of Abel (“there are no people just the land / groaning where is your brother where / is your brother where is your brother,” we read in “This View of Life”).
And redeeming Cain, we present a better offering. “What God wanted was not quiet so much as the immaculate feeling that stills / you / when you know something you have made has moved someone,” Myers writes in “Maker of Heaven.”
Our very understanding of God—of what God wants—shivers, then shifts across fault lines. We seek supernatural consolation, to see God wind up his creation and its creativity to work forward and backward through time, baptizing every wrong to newness of life.
To read Myers’ poems, to chase Imago Dei alongside him in footfalls alternately heavy and hovering, is to come away understanding this doctrine.
Truly encountering the Imago Dei means seeing it everywhere. “Maker of &” is a new Pauline exaltation over the goodness of what God has made. Myers’ three-page litany cannot possibly contain all the beauty in the world—in each other—and yet a couple lifetimes couldn’t exhaust thanks for what’s here.
My favorite entries come as we praise the God of:
“& public libraries / & private libraries / & libraries of skin & song & silk & sweets”;
“& Van Gogh’s sunflowers & starry nights & sowers & sore”;
“& pimento cheese & bourbon & overbred horses”;
“& the harps & saxophones of the Coltranes”;
“& Blue Ivy & Beyonce & Solange”;
“& the Grand Canyon & all canyons who feel inadequate by comparison”;
“& humiliation & adoration & anonymous art”;
“& the names flowers give one another”;
“& the affection of bees”
Thanks be to God, we keep sounding out grace until all these chords drown out our weary dirges. Till then, holy discontent.
“I am tired of everything / that isn’t lovely,” Myers writes in “Closing In.”
To read Myers’ poems, to chase Imago Dei alongside him in footfalls alternately heavy and hovering, is to come away understanding this doctrine. Not in your head, though now you have the language, but in a coursing through the body. You sense how atoms coexist, how your body mirrors your neighbor’s, how warm eggs and holy electricity—at our truest and best—feel the same.