Good & Evil : E.E. Cummings & Rae Armantrout

maybe god

is a child
‘s hand)very carefully
to you and to
me(and quite with
out crushing)the

papery weightless diminutive

with a hole in
it out
of which demons with wings would be streaming if
something had(maybe they couldn’t
agree)not happened(and floating-
ly int


-E.E. Cummings

Theodicy has been too long in the hands of philosophers. Men with minds least likely to enter heaven are ill equipped to deal with the issue. Poets do better with their deep play. “Amen, I say unto you, unless you turn and become as children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” saith the man from Nazareth. Here, Cummings, in the voice of a child, posits the  problem of evil and its resolution. Maybe god is a child’s hand bringing to us the world out of which demons would be streaming had he not placed his hand into it. [Here is a more full discussion of the above poem]

I was reminded of Cummings’ poem when I read the following poem by Rae Armantrout:


My dreams are cruel
children. They taunt me.
I dream I’m telling a story
the punch line of which
will involve deviled eggs.
                           I’m saying
some idiot
asked me where they originated.
I found that funny
or unfair.
Launched into this anecdote,
this dream, this poem,
I’m already worried. Now I see
the pair I’m addressing
have put their heads together,
hatching something,
over the crosswords.

A joke, of course, is a story that has a punchline, but what joke ends with deviled eggs? Perhaps: what does the devil eat for breakfast? or more likely: from where does the devil come? This is the question of the poem: whence evil? In the dream, the speaker is telling the joke and some “idiot” asks the origin of “deviled eggs” (the ole chicken or the egg dilemma). The speaker finds this funny/unfair; funny because the idiot is missing the point, unfair because the pursuit of theodicy is not for bullies.

Launched into this telling, the speaker records two people putting “their heads together” to solve a problem (perhaps butting their heads? there’s the idiot, but who is the other addressed?), “hatching” something over “the crosswords”. The scene is the kitchen table, the newspaper before them, and the idiot and the other are solving (resolving) a problem over over the crossword puzzle, but there’s more than that. In her economy Armantrout has excised “puzzle” and rather than say “crossword” she uses “the crosswords”. So the idiot and the other entity are indeed opposed, using cross words, angry words, to solve this problem of evil. But perhaps even further these crosswords are the words of the Cross, the answer, perhaps the punchline to the problem of evil.

The speaker here, searching for answers, taunted by dreams (no doubt “chicken! chicken!”), feels the anxiety, feels the puzzle and gives us the yearning for these answers, the resolution, for the final waking.

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