Phil Memmer’s How Many Shapes Must A God Take and Psalm

This is Talk About Poetry about two poems by Phil Memmer, which are here:

How Many Shapes Must A God Take?


Poet, editor and teacher Philip Memmer is the author of four books of poems: The Storehouses of the Snow: Psalms, Parables and Dreams (2012); Lucifer: A Hagiography (2009), which was awarded the 2008 Idaho Prize for Poetry from Lost Horse Press; Threat of Pleasure (2008), winner of the Adirondack Literary Award for Poetry; and Sweetheart, Baby, Darling (2004).

Memmer’s work is centered in an agnostic search for meaning, and his questions return both thematically and formally to the discarded Biblical stories of his youth. In Lucifer, Memmer re-imagines the age-old character as God’s first son, whose rebellion against his Father is an act of self-making, not war-making: confronted with the reality of death in God’s new creation, Lucifer leaves Paradise as an act of solidarity and defiance—a decision he wrestles with throughout the collection. In The Storehouses of the Snow, Memmer writes psalms to a god that is “always ceasing / to be, and then ceasing / to cease to be.”

Memmer lives in upstate New York, where he works as executive director of the Arts Branch of the YMCA of Greater Syracuse. In 2001, he founded the YMCA’s Downtown Writer’s Center, a literary arts center in downtown Syracuse. He also serves as associate editor for Tiger Bark Press.

Our exciting discussion about these two wonderful poems is here:

Phil Memmer – Talk About Poetry

Participants in the discussion are: Phil Memmer (of course), Executive Director of the Syracuse YMCA Downtown Writer’s Center (DWC); Georgia Popoff, a Community Poet in Syracuse and teacher at the DWC, Stephen Kuusisto, Director of the Syracuse University Honors Program / Professor of Disability Studies for the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies in the School of Education, and me, Bob  Herz, founder & editor of Nine Mile Magazine, and publisher-editor of the W.D. Hoffstadt & Sons press.

Phil explains the background of On How Many Shapes Must A God Take? this way:   A poem in response to the theme of “stranger” and Exodus 3:2-4:  There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush,“Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

More from Phil:  In general, the offer to work with the Spark and Echo project came at an interesting, complicated time for me… I had not completed a poem in well over a year and a half, and while I was reasonably sure about what sort of poems I wanted to try to write next, I was completely baffled by how to go about it. In my last two books, I had written dozens of poems that used Biblical characters, or addressed a god figure through psalms, in order to explore my own spiritual concerns. At some point in early 2013, it occurred to me that I’d done enough talking to and about god: it was time for me to allow him/her to speak.

I identify as an agnostic, but I was raised in an evangelical Protestant family. Oddly enough, though, I spend far more time pondering the nature of the divine now than I ever did in my church-at-least-twice-a-week youth. The Creator is the ultimate “Stranger” when one does not hold a particular faith. This particular tension is what gave rise to “How Many Shapes Must a God Take?”

In my own spiritual history, god needed to vanish in order for me to seek him; she needed to be silent if I was to cup a hand to my ear. And while this poem was written more or less in the order it now appears on the page, and took its initial impulse from the “Burning Bush” story in Exodus (along with images from other religious and mythological traditions), I believe I somehow understood its conclusion before I reached it. Upon completing the poem, I felt “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew,” as Robert Frost once said. I also realized something I hadn’t previously understood about these new poems: that they are not simply poems in which “god speaks”… they are poems in which “god speaks to me.” And while that sounds dangerously like talking to oneself, I hope they move beyond that and speak to others as well.

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