99 PSALMS. By SAID. Translated by Mark S. Burroughs. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013. 147 pages.
The Psalms are both the hymnal and the prayer book of the Bible. They are both a collection of human words spoken to God and a word from God to the recipient of the collection. They help facilitate our worship and our personal encounters with the living God. Therefore, when a book comes on the market that includes the word “psalms,” we pay attention. The title intrigues us. We assume that this will be more than a book of poetry. It must be a collection of prayers and songs directed to God. Perhaps, we think, this book will help usher us into the presence of God.
The book that carries the title 99 Psalms enticed me to request a review copy. But it wasn’t just the title that intrigued me. The name and birthplace of the author of these 99 Psalms also caught my attention. I’m not a person who reads poetry. I love music and hymnody, but poetry as a genre isn’t something I attend to. But the title and the author were intriguing enough to take a read.
The book is a collection of ninety-nine brief poems/songs directed to the lord. The author of these ninety-nine poem/prayers goes by the name of SAID, a resident of Germany who was born and raised in Iran. He moved to Germany for school and work and then found it impossible to return first because of his opposition to the Shah and then to the Islamic Republic of Iran. From a life of exile, a man who went to Germany to study engineering became one of Germany’s most beloved poets. These poems, originally written in German have been rendered into English with a preface and afterword by Mark S. Burroughs, a scholar of mysticism and poetry who teaches theology and literature in New Mexico and Germany. It was while attending a poetry reading held in conjunction with the Second Kirchentag (an ecumenical gathering bringing together Roman Catholics and Protestants in Germany). Once he heard the reading, Burroughs felt the need to bring at least some of the poems to an English-speaking audience. Thus began the collaboration that brings to us this collection.
Like the Biblical Psalms these are poem/prayers/hymns that are deeply personal and yet can be expressive of the reader's own sense of the divine. But to whom are they directed? What is the religious orientation of these prayers? The number 99 gives one clue – for in Islam God has ninety-nine names, the last being hidden and thus unknown. Being that SAID hails from a Muslim country, it is not surprising that the collection would have roots in that faith tradition. But, the word “psalms” links the collection to the Jewish and Christian traditions as well. As one reads through the collection, one realizes that SAID is speaking from his own realities, and that one might hail from any of the three traditions and find a word fitting to one’s own situation. Thus, the collection transcends any one religious tradition. Indeed, one of the themes of the collection is a call for toleration of other faith traditions and beliefs.
The poems address god. The use of the lower case might be surprising to many Christians, but SAID (whose name is printed in upper case letters), uses all lower case letters in his poetry. This includes the word lord, translated from the German herr, which translates the Hebrew adonai. It is important to note that SAID puts all words in his poems/psalms in lower case letters. Most of these psalms are written in the form of a complaint, and all address God with a sense of bluntness that is reflective of the Psalms of the Bible, but might make some readers uncomfortable. So consider:
because I’ve endured much
without a single sign from you
perhaps you’re only the echo of my cry
if so help me
make a song of my lament
with which approaching strangers might warm themselves
(Psalm 32; p. 48).
In a word that reminds us that prayer and worship can be used in adversarial ways – especially across faith lines, SAID prays:
to engage prayer as a weapon
i wish to be like a river
between two shores
for I seek neither punishment nor grace
but rather new skin
that can bear this world (Psalm 43; p. 59).
Such is the manner of SAID’s poetry – strong, blunt, pulling no punches with God. It can be off putting, and yet perhaps freeing as well.
As a reviewer of the book I must again acknowledge that I'm not a reader of poetry. Therefore, I must also admit that I'm not the best person to analyze the poetics of these psalms. I must leave that to others. But, I can get a sense of their spiritual value as a means of directing one's spirit toward God. In this they are quite affective. They might not be a song book from which one draws on a daily basis, but they have their place. They might not be the foundation of songs and hymns or congregational prayers, but for the personal engagement they surely do speak from the heart. Furthermore, what SAID does here is invite adherents of at least the three Abrahamic religions to begin creating a bridge across their divides. One of the debates that we continue to have is whether the God of Islam (Allah) is the same God as worshiped by Christians (the majority of whom understand God to be a Trinity) and Jews. At least for a moment SAID enables us all to come and find a seat in the presence of the one we address as God (remember that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God). If nothing else the book does us a service.
I do believe that if the reader will pick up this book they will find something of abiding value, a contribution both to one’s spiritual life, but also one’s life in the world where persons engage the realities of life – including encounters across faith lines. These 99 Psalms, all brief, are presented to us by a careful translator (at least I assume the translator has rendered the songs in an appropriate manner. Most helpful are the preface and afterword written by the translator. The afterword is, in my estimation, is essential to understanding the author’s vision. Thus, as a non-poet, I can say that I recommend these psalms for common use!