I’m sixteen, I have been for a little while now, but I still don’t have my license. I haven’t been so eager to get it because a car feels like something beyond my control. I know that even when I’m sitting in the driver’s seat it will hurtle on without me. In Steve Scafidi’s “Thank You Lord for the Dark Ablaze,” time takes the form of a pick-up truck, crashing down “on the deer this morning,” whose “gut busted open [is] splayed/on the gravel margin of the highway.” So the deer is death, or a reminder of it at least, but even when it’s right there, it’s still pushed over to the side of the road that we’re all driving on, pushed outside of this intersection of time and space. (Once I heard the space-time continuum compared to a car traveling down the road, and that analogy seems to hold up in the context of this poem.) Meanwhile we all keep rushing past the deer, maybe noticing the blood and bone, or maybe not. Death is an inevitability for which we live only on the edge of awareness.
Yet Scafidi also states that “dying is a song the body is learning,” despite his own resistance to it. In a 2014 interview, he talks about growing up Catholic and learning prayers and songs as protection against death — “singing of death was to sing of my salvation from death.” A poem is a sort of song, too. And this one also takes on an aspect of a prayer: just look at the title if you don’t believe me. Of course, in a title you’re supposed to capitalize all important words, so whether or not “Lord” is a proper noun remains ambiguous. In the poem itself, though, Scafidi uses the word three times. The first and third time the ‘L’ is lowercase. To me this represents a wavering of faith, a desire to believe in God but an ultimate inability to do so. Scafidi said in that same interview that he no longer considers himself religious. Why bother praying to a god you don’t think is real? I think that the lowercase lord is a metaphor, while capitalized Lord is the idea of a literal figure. Scafadi does believe in god, if not in God, and it can still be useful to believe in and pray to a metaphor. After all, this is a poem before a prayer.
So what about the other part of the title, the “Dark Ablaze” part? At first glance the phrase seems to be an oxymoron, but I’ve since been convinced of its truth. Where I see it most clearly in the poem is when Scafidi thanks the lord for that moment between sleep and waking, when “all is bright/behind the eyes.” It’s that moment in which the dark beneath your lids is illuminated by the intensity of its own light. Perhaps this represents a sort of naive optimism: with your eyes closed you perceive a brightness not likely to be confirmed by the opening of your eyes. Or maybe it doesn’t represent anything. Maybe this part is the reality and not the metaphor. I kind of like that better.
All of this — the poem, this analysis of the poem, metaphor — is an attempt to extract meaning from reality. But sometimes the only meaning in reality is that it’s true, and sometimes not even that. Time keeps going forward, “this/enduring whir of days [that] we ride the way/a chisel carves down deep,” cutting through the stone to try and find the sculpture hidden within. But we are the ones who create the sculpture, not the stone. Scafidi writes that “the days turn so fast meaning/rattles hard and nearly breaks off,” and I imagine that same pick-up truck going around a bend in the road too quickly so that you almost lose the meaning, which is connected to time, apparently. But I prefer to think of meaning as luggage you loaded onto the bed of that pick-up truck just before you started out, luggage that you’ll carry with you all the way until you reach your destination and finally stop driving.
Photo by Desi Krasteva Gale