Poetry Sunday: “Say Grace,” by Emily Jungmin Yoon

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This free verse single-stanza poem in 28 variable-length lines takes on the weighty and difficult issue of how Christianity and its purportedly humanity-loving doctrines can account for things like infant damnation and exclusion from heaven for most of this planet’s population that does not share its beliefs. Visit here for an informative and acerbic look at the doctrine of infant damnation (“Nothing but nothing motivates parents sucking up to church policy like the threat of roasting babies”). A central tenet of the religion is grace, or salvation, and in the end the poem asks Christians to show those qualities towards the rest of the non-Christian world. In effect, it holds this religion (and by extension all organized religions) up to the mirror, showing the gap between doctrine and practice and exposing its hypocrisy.

“Say Grace” is not divided into stanzas, but I see it as including three movements. In the first, lines 1-11, the speaker recalls her childhood religious instruction, perhaps parochial school because her teacher has daughters “who wanted to be nuns.” The teacher stands in contrast to the women of the speaker’s native country where “our shamans were women.” Unlike a shaman, this teacher shows neither wisdom nor compassion. When told that nonbelievers go to hell, the speaker asks, as children will, “What about babies and what about Buddha?” The response—eternal hellfire— has the intended and expected effect of terrifying the child into submission, “and so I memorized prayers / and recited them in front of women / I did not believe in.” At this point the poem borrows language from the litany to communicate the child’s frantic fear: “Deliver us from evil. / O sweet Virgin Mary, amen.”

Line 13 begins the poem’s second movement, away from the childhood schoolroom and into the realm of broader, more abstract thought, a change in locale signaled by the opening phrase (repeated in line 18), “In this country.” Here, the speaker talks in the present about what she, no longer the terrified child, believes now. The idea is less that Christianity is evil than that its doctrine of compassion is not followed, “in this country, which calls itself Christian.” In such a country, nothing is sweeter than hearing another familiar line of the litany, “Have mercy upon us,” especially when it is spoken by non-Christians (those serving different, plural, lowercase “gods”):

What is sweeter than hearing Have mercy
on us. From those who serve different gods.


These lines are part of a longer passage whose line breaks and inverted syntax allow for multiple meanings:

In this country, which calls itself Christian,
what is sweeter than hearing Have mercy
on us. From those who serve different gods. O
clement, O loving, O God, O God, amidst ruins,
amidst waters, fleeing, fleeing. Deliver us from evil.

One interpretation was stated above—nothing sweeter than mercy practiced by the very people mainstream American religion consigns to hell. Focusing on the last sentence above, though, you could also read these lines as words in the mouth of that scary elementary school teacher, imploring God to “deliver us” from evils that, besides destruction and ruin, include “those who serve different gods.”

This section of the poem concludes with an example of the kind of thinking the speaker deplores in this country: rejection of all that is magical in nature (and in other belief systems). It is shown by means of a wonderful, deft image: someone who, seeing a “hand full of feathers” pointing at wonders in nature, fixates on the “feathers” rather than on the moon, stars, and lake. What matters is the hand doing the pointing and the way it embodies something nontraditional, not the thing it is pointing at. Here, the hand with feathers is shorthand (a poetic device called “metonymy”) for any ritual not from mainstream American culture. What is scarier, the speaker says, is that they “will kill you for it”—for expressing religious beliefs outside the cultural norm.

The poem’s last movement, lines 22-28, begins with a supposition (“if”) and states a sort of creed. If religious hypocrites denounce a belief they don’t understand as hocus-pocus, then so be it: “let us have magic.” The speaker goes on to grant permission for any number of things that grade school teacher likely would have condemned: “our own mothers and scarves, our spirits, / our shamans and sacred books.” Reclaiming the beliefs and culture of her mother country, she goes even further, declaring “Let us keep / our stars to ourselves” rather than attempting to share them with bigots who’d rather focus on the hands pointing at the stars rather than the stars themselves. She adds, with defiance, “we shall pray / to no one.” The poem could easily have ended here, but it goes on to borrow one last thing from Christianity—the practice of communion. “Let us eat / what makes us holy.” The inescapable conclusion is that there is a whole lot more in the world that is holy than is recognized by, say, that grade school teacher and mother of wannabe nuns.

The poem conspicuously avoids meter and end rhyme, but other devices are at work to contribute to the subtle musicality of its lines. The most important is repetition of sound, and it happens on several levels ranging from repetition of initial consonant sounds to phonemic and syllabic repetitions, to lexical repetitions of words, to  syntactical repetition of multiple words or phrases. Some lines contain consonant alliteration—“babies” and “Buddha” in line 8 and “country,” “calls,” and “Christian” in line 13. Repetitions of discernible units of sound (phenomes), the backbone of all rhyme, are present in the internal slant rhymes and assonance of the last syllables of  “shamans” and “women” in line 1, “multiple” and “people” in line 2, and “ecstasy of rosaries” in line 3. Lexical repetition occurs in the repetition of the words “O,” “god,” and “stars,” and others, and the poem includes many examples of syntactic repetition, such as “O sweet,” “in this country,” “point at,” and “let us.”

Less a condemnation of Christian doctrine than of those who quote scripture but do not practice its principles, today’s poem takes aim at religious hypocrisy everywhere and makes a plea for mercy on us all, regardless of individual belief. It opens and closes in the injunctive voice, telling us to “Say Grace” and inviting us to “eat / what makes us holy.” As such, I see it not as a rejection of faith but instead as an affirmation of a larger faith, one that applies the concept of mercy across the board.



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