Ps. 121: An American Psalm

Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. He directed UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies from 1992 until 2020. He is UNC Asheville’s Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts & Sciences. He is one of the lead organizers of the Faith in Arts Institute, which will be presented by UNC Asheville and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Spring 2021. For more information on the Faith in Arts Institute, visit faithinarts.unca.edu. You can find him at www.richardchess.com.

When Or Rose gave me the deadline for my poem based on Psalm 121, I was relieved. I had a few weeks to write it. I was also terrified. I didn’t know if I could write the poem. I’d already written an occasional poem, based on UNC Asheville’s motto, Levo Oculos Meos In Montes, “I lift my eyes to the mountains,” for the installation of a former chancellor. From the university quad, where the installation was held, you can see Mt. Pisgah. Psalm 121 offered me a fitting point of departure for that poem.

But the circumstances are, well, different now. And I was stuck. From where will my help come? I turned to Psalm 121. But when I reread it, no verse, no phrase, not even a single word called out to me. From where will my help come? I sat down to write. The writing was forced. But I had to write. I had a deadline.

Regular fixed prayer is not part of my practice. I understand that aside from fulfilling a commandment, by praying at fixed times, even when you don’t feel motivated, you create conditions in which you will be released, if only for a moment, from the narrowness of the small self.

Honestly, for years now I haven’t even kept up a discipline of writing every day. But I had a deadline, and I needed a poem. So I kept returning to the screen, hoping a poem would come. But from where? I couldn’t find a poem in me, and a poem didn’t seem to be coming from somewhere, something beyond me. And then this: “Alone, I shelter in place.” And, a few moments later, this: “This is my song of ascent.” Psalm 121 is a song of ascents. I started to sense a direction. I could hear, faintly, a voice. I listened; I received; I wrote. Where did my help come from? The words. The world. And they—the words and the world—maybe, just maybe, freed me from the narrow place of self and moved me, for a moment, a little closer to whatever it is that dwells within and beyond words and world.

An American Psalm by Richard Chess

Facebook never sleeps. 

What’s on your mind, asks

the maker of heaven and earth.

From where will my help come?

Though I walk alone, I hold 

a thousand friends in my right hand. 

This is a psalm of quarantine.

 

Black lives. I lift my eyes 

to City Council. Council receives 

public comment on a plan 

to remove monuments. 

The chief of police reports 

on a plan to reform. 

From where will our help come?

I lower my eyes, look to my feet.

This is a psalm of steps.

 

I turn my eyes to 1619 and read: 

“They could weep 

for overworked Uncle Ned 

as surely as they could ignore

his lashed back or his body 

as it swung from a tree.” 

That’s Wesley Morris on white

audiences for blackface 

minstrelsy shows. This is a psalm
of American entertainment.

 

As if it were yesterday, I remember

places, years: 586 before, 

70 after, and on and on. 

Babylon, Rome, Venice, Spain, 

Damascus, Jerusalem, Pittsburgh, Berlin--

way back and around the world. 

As if it were yesterday.

I’m a Jew. I remember. 

I’m an American Jew. 

How, until yesterday, could I 

not have known Black Wall 

Street, T. D. Rice, Juneteenth?

This is a psalm of omission.

 

By day the sun, the moon by night.

By screen light, by streetlight,

by light of the fire of righteous

indignation, which, on the Sabbath,

thou shall not light. That’s Heschel.

But no time now to slumber, no time to sleep.

This is an urgent psalm. 

A psalm of pilgrimage from privilege 

to the past unmasked.

 

From where will our help come?

I keep my distance. I wear

a mask. I wash my hands.

You keep your distance. You wear

a mask. You wash your hands.

We guard our lives.

This is a psalm of the moment.

 

This is a psalm of the ages.

I lift my eyes. I lift my eyes and begin

to see what I’ve failed to see. 

I lift my eyes and see America.

With the Lord at my right hand, I see

and step and stumble and rise.

This is a psalm of public health.

This is a psalm of fierce hope.

Now and forever, O Lord,

I lift my eyes and sing.

This is an American psalm.

This is a psalm of ascent.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.