Fall 2019, Volume 27

Without My Asking by Robert Cording

Review by Bill Neumire

If the inimitable Socrates was right when he decreed that the unexamined life is not worth living, then Robert Cording’s oeuvre, especially his latest book, ​Without My Asking, is evidence that he has lived a life of spiritual reflection. In fact, according to Mark Cadigan in an article for ​Holy Cross Magazine, the retired professor, who was the school’s Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 1995, “asks big questions and digs underneath little details. He candidly discusses his own problems as a poet, the nagging, recurring bouts of self-doubt. Ultimately, he leaves his students with a taste of the powerful and transformative effect this concentrated art form can have on an individual.” Cording himself has said that writing is “almost a form of spiritual discipline (...) It’s self-reflective about your relationship to mortality, to the world, to those fundamental questions: Who are we? Where are we going? Why are we here?” And the poet’s speaker in ​Without My Asking ​ is the autobiographically lyric doppelganger I, a character in his mid-sixties facing the death of parents and looking back over his life in contemplation. In four sections of poems pinned together with internal rhyme, alliteration, and rhythm, the controlled language bucks against our uncontrollable mortality. Each section is framed with a prayer poem, an apostrophe to God, very definitely here a Catholic vision of God, but also a silent interlocutor whose very silence teaches the speaker to be self-reliant, present, appreciative of nature, art, fellow humanity. Cording, who has said he hated high school and was disillusioned by college, confessed that what he most learned in his education was how to be his own teacher, a lesson any reader should find valuable.

The speaker wields three powerful weapons as he faces the death of his parents and the shadow of his own future expiration: he turns to nature, religion, and art, humanity’s only enduring powers. One of the primal comforts of religion, as of art and even nature, is received wisdom, and Cording’s speaker is comfortable referencing a slew of poets, painters, saints, and philosophers: Hopkins, Dante, Herbert, Updike, Donne, Bonnard, Pasternak, Euripides, Saint Catherine of Siena, Blake, and Ben Franklin all make cameos in these pages. The impressionist paintings, ​Inferno ​ excerpts, and saintly aphorisms come to Cording’s aid even as he wrestles the characteristic self-doubt of any true man of faith. He busies himself with his work, saying of his mother’s passing, “Your death’s become a blank page I have to keep / writing on” (23) even while conceding the power of silence: “Neither of us could cross that baffling silence // even though I suspect that you felt as I did / that there was still so much to say” (22). This silence can, on occasion, be pregnant with comfort, as his heart-aching teenage self plays basketball with friends and “together, no one says / a blessed word” (70); however, doubt often seeps in as his “words cannot alter [his mother’s death]” (19) and “[he has] felt so often these past two months / as if something immense and absolute had entered / [his] life and gone away, and nothing had come clear” (19). But the work of words is a sacred succor: “A simple task, like this poem, / Mother, which I’ve ordered myself to write / because I didn’t know what else to do” (18). Sometimes, too, it’s in refutation of a writer like Euripides with his “eyes focused on the tragic” (3) that Cording finds solace:

                [Euripides] said, ‘No man should count on happiness,’
                which, while true, doesn’t mean I should not welcome this flock of cedar waxwings
                gliding in like good luck (3).

The book begs the question, what is a prayer? Is it a request for help or expression of thanks? Is it simply talking to oneself, a type of internal monologue? In this collection, prayers are calls to take on the responsibility of our own grieving, to recognize, as Saint Catherine reminds us, that “All the way to heaven is heaven,” even if most days are “replete with / the stabbed, shot, run-over or into, / the stroked, heart-seized, and cancer-stricken.” On most nights in prayer, for the speaker, God is

                A door
                against my knocking,

                the beat of my hands a song
                I’d like to think I make with your silence,

                a song that makes me who it is I am,
                but could more easily be failure’s recurrence (xv).

This one-way quality of prayer makes the speaker dependent on himself, on this world and its fellow humans, which is both epiphanically joyous and terrifyingly lonely. And the struggle with this is apparent as the speaker “fears being only what [he is]” (35).

Ritual, of course, provides comfort not just in its sacred faculties, but also in its capacity to keep one busy, a quality that lends even mundane tasks a brand of holiness, the speaker’s mother advising, “​Doing the wash makes you happy. / It says you can begin again.” (72). The wise mother figure also reminds her son that “​[l]ife requires constant adjustments of hope” (31). It is this painful process of pushing through grief, silence, and doubt that makes the speaker wrestle with egotism, first expressed in lines like “[m]y aim has been an I / that would be worth giving away” (xv). Indeed, the act of publishing a book is egotistical in its effort to leave an individual mark, so how to reconcile this lyric poet self at odds with the book’s anti-ego stance? Gradually, ​Without My Asking ​becomes a case for humility, moving to lines of self-erasure, like “[n]ow that I am smaller, I pray that it will be / easier to recede from the center of my picture” (10). And who can’t forgive a speaker who fully admits, “Lord, at every moment I have been a beginner” (10)?

The epigraphs from George Herbert, Elizabeth Bishop, and Psalm 90 are further received wisdom used to frame this collection of poems and its speaker’s tenuous grasp of death. In the very first poem of the book, the speaker makes a crucial choice between witnessing the tragedy of this world and witnessing the majesty of it; he chooses to center the majesty:

                I learned in Sunday school to love
                what we never see by loving what we do—
                this plum-colored mug, say, underglazed
                in deep blue we brought back from Cornwall.
                Bedside, it’s giving off steaming auras of tea
                and waiting for you to step from behind the curtain
                as this golden light yields to the loosening dark
                and, ultimately, to that emptiness
                we can never see into that waits beyond
                the little, loved kingdom of our everyday things (39).

He spends the rest of the book “trying to turn / [his] day into prayer,”as if he’d been “driving, sitting up straight, / looking around as if [he’d] been kidnapped / and [his] life depended on what [he saw]” (74). This holy appreciation is most often expressed through nature, an age-old trope. The diction of the church is a cypher with which to read the wild landscape painting around us in Cording whose world is populated with “the live oak quivering with starlings” (21) and “chickadees / (...) / all hey sweetie, hey sweetie / in the shine and sheen of new leaves.” (33) Even the poet’s vultures assume clergy-status:

                Blessed are these vultures, robed in black,
                blood on their beaks, on their clawed toes,
                who attend most single-mindedly
                to what we most want to forget—death (55).

Landscapes, lakes, crabapples, waxwings, starlings, oaks—it’s nature that resets the faithful ​I, recalibrates his broken hope, retorts to his doubts and capitulations. God is interwoven with the world, often reflected in birds—vultures, chickadees, turkeys, kingfishers—both for their angelic flight of freedom and also their reassuring simplicity: “Grounded, down-t0-earth, the turkey / Seems to know exactly who he is” (5). The speaker continually attempts to both live and reflect on living, a seemingly impossible charge captured in “the kingfisher [who] hovers above, /a surface that can be seen /or seen through, but never both at once” (9).

James Kee, an English department colleague of Cording’s since 1981, has said that “in some sense, the key to Bob in all of his various roles is quite simple. For him, to be human means to live with wonder before the miracle that there is a world and that it has somehow given rise to us, to our existence.” ​Without My Askin ​ g’s speaker, not without intentional labor, chooses to “put down the newspaper’s infernal sadness” and instead “take joy whenever [he] can get it” (33). It’s a practice, not a destination, a practice for life and its end, as the series of four prayer poems end with the speaker standing at the site of his future grave:

                And if I’ve spent my life
                trying to look at what I can’t see by looking at what I can,
                what’s here, a kind of daily gift and daily leave-taking
                and, I hope, a kind of practice for my end (75).

For all the nonsensical madness of life, loss, grief, joy, it’s the reflection that matters most, that makes our lives “even if they are almost a story now (...) ordered in retrospect, made complete” (15), and Cording is a master of reflection, of teaching himself through sound and sense—and thus, teaching us--how to appreciate, how to pray.


Sample Poem:

Evening Prayer with Opening Question

What does it mean to call this life my own,
as if it could be possessed
                        rather than simply lived,
its discrete stages just that,

even if, at moments,
                        they seemed intentional
(as though signs had been posted and were readable)?

A life to lose? Certainly.
                       To gain?—that, too, I suppose,
though my aim has been an I
          that would be worth giving away,

or back to you, Lord, whom I love
         but know almost wholly as a door
closed against my knocking,

                       the beat of my hands a song
I’d like to think I make with your silence,

a song that makes me who it is I am,
          but could more easily be failure’s reoccurrence.


BIO: Robert Cording has published nine collections of poems, the most recent of which is Without My Asking. He taught for 38 years at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and now is a poetry mentor in MFA program at Seattle Pacific University. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in poetry and his poems have appeared in publications such as the Nation, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Poetry, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, New Ohio Review, New England Review, Orion, and the New Yorker.


Without My Asking By Robert Cording
Published by Cavankerry Press 2019