With us today is poet Murray Alfredson. Here is a little taste of his poetry and an explanation on his style.
Perhaps it is not altogether odd that I as an atheist concern myself with religion as a subject for poetry. Religious people have their own experiences as part of the spiritual practices and thoughts. It is not so difficult for an atheist of religious disposition to imagine his way into those realms. It happens, however, that I did find a religion that harmonised well with my atheism, namely Buddhism.
The Buddha himself would not be drawn into discussions about god, the soul where it might reside, whether the universe be finite or infinite, and so forth. These concerns he saw as unprofitable, not tending to lead us out of our suffering or pervading ill. So we cannot say exactly what the Buddha thought or knew in these matters, it is clear he thought them unimportant. Thus his essential teachings say nothing of god as Creator or Sustainer, nothing of a universal god nor of a Siva of the cosmic dance. In this sense, his teachings were atheistic, not asserting, ‘There is no god’; they are simply without god. One implication of this, however, is that atheists have no business asserting that god does not exist, no business proselytising for atheism. Any effort in the negative direction here is as unprofitable as asserting god.
This leaves for me a wide field open for religious poetry in the broadest sense, entering the experience of religion. I have written a body of meditative and contemplative poems within a Buddhist frame of reference, though these are not my concern here.
Although I have been an atheist from my early twenties, a person unable to believe in god as having any existence outside the minds of individual men and women, I have always remained a person of religious disposition. Giving up my Christian faith, although it was for me the only honest decision I could make, was a very painful one. I eventually stated the reasons why I could not believe in god in a fairly recent poem, that was early in 2013 published in an e-zine, Psaltery and lyre, a Mormon web site; it is also included in my collection, The Gleaming Clouds, Brisbane, Interactive Press, 2013.
Still voice that ripples
through skull’s fluids,
vibrates grey folded
swimmer in dark
whose echoes barely
sough from skull-dome,
whom once I thought
to take on tongue
as melting wafer,
to sip with fume
of full-red wine —
o quiet indweller
can we ever
know if you
To some it might seem odd that an atheist is published in a Christian journal. In fact I have had poems appear in Christian journals over about 10 years.
Myths are not only of the divine, of course; they have a way of growing around revered figures, be those seen as divine or human. And, of course, people have long had a sense of the divine mixing in the affairs of men and women, sometimes disruptively, even destructively. After all, many myths and divine figures arise to ‘explain’ forces of nature, our own nature included. Thus, for example, the various gods of fertility, Osiris as a corn god, Persephone, and related to this, of sexual love and lust, Aphrodite, who could wax murderous in her jealousy, or the Nordic twins, Frey and Freya.
So, like nature, the divine is not necessarily imagined as benign and good. This is true of the Greek gods. Zeus was, not to put too fine a point on it, a rapist, for example. I have dealt with one such case in a triptych, ‘Stolen’, where I have dealt with the one time when Zeus took deliberate thought to pleasure the lady. So instead of ravishing, he took the form of her man.
Horn ready for the hunt,
Zeus thought for once to please,
lengthened the night for sport
and wormed into Alkmene’s
bed and body, taking
Amphitryon’s form in detail.
He fathered Herakles;
but rode away on dawnwinds,
left weight of fatherhood
on cuckold’s shoulders.
And the sequence becomes one of the effects of Zeus’s pleasuring on the mind and confidence of Amphitryon. After all, no doubt, a god must be a hard act to follow.
No, the hardest thing is this. When I arrived that morning,
she glowed and thanked me for the long night’s joys. That hurt.
I never could forget her look of love’s content.
It told me all. How could I match the god’s performance?
The Greeks did not have an altogether benign view of their gods. But there was as we can see particularly in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophokles and Euripides, they had an enormous sense of divine power.
The Hebrews, too, had that sense of divine power. How could they not have, living as they did in a seismically active part of the world? And their God also does not always come across as benign or virtuous. I take as it stands, for example, that central story of Abraham and Isaac, a story central to the theology of both Jew and Christian, the preparedness to sacrifice his son. I took a cue from that wonderful Danish Existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, who shifted the focus from Abraham to Isaac. To have his father take him to the very point of sacrifice must have had a devastating effect on the lad.
Nor does the record tell the young
lad’s terror as his father raised
the newly whetted knife of bronze;
nor does it tell the narrow glint
of sun along the edge, burnt deep
in Isaac’s memory.
And this story of Abraham was taken up in the New Testament as a prototype of Jesus’ death. My poem, ‘Agnus dei’ treats of this in a like way.
Somehow, not all peoples have conceived their gods as everlasting. From memory, the Greeks saw their gods as immortal. The Germanic gods, the Æsir, the family more or less corresponding to the Greek Olympians, were not so conceived. Baldr was slain. And there is that famous battle, Ragnarök, where Ásgarð and the gods are destroyed. I see impermanence, fleetingness, as a characteristic of all existence. Three hundred and more years ago the stars were still held up as models of the everlasting. We now know then to have a limited though very long life. And religions and their gods are likewise ephemeral. When the peoples, the civilisations, who conceived them peter out or change, so do their gods. That is the evidence of the broad sweep of history. Sometimes those gods might last only hundreds of years, sometimes thousands, but eventually our ‘eternal’ truths die. I have dealt with this in a serious way in my triptych, ‘The twilight of the gods’, (Ygdrasil, July 2012) and in the poem, ‘Of gods and truths’, that lent one of its phrases as the title to my collection, The gleaming clouds. I have dealt with it in a rather lighter way, however.
The pilot flushed with holy thought
believes his message comes from god;
he paints with vapour on the sky:
Jesus loves you.
Yet this I know: the world with two
great elements, with wind and heat,
in twenty minutes blows away
that man’s eternal verity.
Murray Alfredson is a former librarian, lecturer in librarianship and Buddhist Associate in the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy at Flinders University. He has published essays on Buddhist meditation and on inter-faith relations, and poems, poetry translations and essays on poetics in journals and anthologies in Australia, UK, USA, Canada, and Sweden, a short collection, ‘Nectar and light’, in Friendly Street new poets, 12, Adelaide: Friendly Street Poets and Wakefield Press, 2007, and a full-length collection, The gleaming clouds, Brisbane: Interactive Press, 2013. A further collection, Trees on the slope, has been submitted for publication. He has won a High Beam poetry award 2004, the Poetry Unhinged Multicultural Poetry Prize 2006, the Friendly Street Poets Political poetry prize 2009, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009 and again in 2012.
He lives on the Fleurieu Peninsula.