James Goldberg’s Let Me Drown with Moses: A Review

Mormon poetry has always been invested in history. The earliest Mormon poems, for example, argued for Mormonism’s place in the grand narrative of Israel. Later poems, fashioned in less apocalyptic times, sought meaning in Mormonism’s nineteenth-century struggle against the land, the world, and its own idealistic ambitions.

The poems in James Goldberg’s Let Me Drown with Moses take both approaches to Mormonism and history. Organized into seven sections, each with its own thematic concerns, the collection is a kind of composite of Mormon historical and mythic remembrance. Frontloaded with biblical imagery, it reaches back to the New Testament with its first poem, “The Kingdom of God,” which echoes the parable of the great banquet:

The Kingdom of God

Is not the feast. It’s the cry that goes out

and echoes through the streets that you

and I and all the beggars have been summoned

tonight to the sovereign’s table.

Like The Five Books of Jesus, Goldberg’s fictional retelling of the Gospels, this introductory poem asks readers to set aside what they know about the Kingdom of God and indulge in an exercise in devotional imagination. We are to set aside what we think we know for a chance to see the familiar with fresh eyes.

The second poem follows this track, reaching further back in time, imagining a pivotal moment from the Exodus story, when Moses is midway through the Red Sea, but his deliverance from Egypt still remains uncertain:

If these walls of water fall, O Lord,

let me drown with Moses.

Yes, let me die with the same fire in my eyes

Moses saw in a desert bush.

Titled “Prayer on the Red Sea Shore,” the poem gives the collections its title and serves as a kind of statement of purpose and allegiance. Like those who followed Moses between the “walls of water,” the collection casts its voice on the side of Moses. It is an act of literary faith that responds to the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” Matthew Arnold describes in his classic “Dover Beach.”

From there, Let Me Drown with Moses continues to draw upon scripture for imagery, often in a deeply personal way. “Ghazel (Again),” for example, portrays a sinner reflecting on the biblical longsuffering of God and its meaning in his modern life:

I’m a sinner since the prophet wandered off to talk with God

Once Moses broke two tablets; for me he’d break three again

Your hand is stretched out still, but it’s no use

I’ve fallen asleep. Left you alone in Gethsemane again.

The sinner’s engagement with Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus—the way it compresses and collapses history—is typical of other moments in the collection. The sinner draws from a sacred past, unable to disassociate himself from the Law and Christ, yet he remains ambivalent about its legacy—as if he is at odds with what to do with a Law that makes him a sinner and a Christ that makes him clean. History, in a sense, becomes something to wrestle with—an inheritance from God that compels the heir to struggle with difficult, vital choices.

Such engagement with the past becomes all the more central as the collections explores the intersections of Mormon history and twenty-first-century life. In the poem “History,” for example, two Mormons on a commuter train in Utah connect through “an 1894 issue/of the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star.” Like the biblical allusions in “Ghazel (Again),” the newspaper catalyzes another time compression, transporting the two commuters (and the reader) to a shared past that they can celebrate:

And so we sit, sharing a train and a century.

If time is a river, I think,

thank the God who planted us

on the banks of this rich,

alluvial faith.

“History” recounts a chance, conscious meeting with the past, showing how history can serve as a welding link between persons and generations. Other poems in the collection, however, are more deliberate in their evocation of history. For instance, in “Turn of a Century,” one of the best poems in Let Me Drown with Moses, the speaker addresses Mormons of the future. Pressed with the weight of his own historical burdens, acquired from experience and study of preceding generations, the speaker wisely counsels:

You who inherit

our unfinished business—

don’t mistake it for emptiness.

Know this

when you walk the streets

of an alien future:

we hid cities inside you.

And who can tell what wildernesses

they will fill when you finally

find a way

to let them out.

If “Ghazel (Again)” is characteristic of the collection’s wrestle with the past, then “Turn of a Century” is typical of its optimism for the future—particularly Mormonism’s future. Absent in the collection, that is, are world-weary poems that romanticize doubt and Mormon faith crisis. Rather, Let Me Drown with Moses makes a case for the ongoing value of Mormonism, its continued relevance, and intrinsic ability to heal itself and others. In the poem “And when that morning comes,” for example, it imagines a resurrection “when Elijah abel raises brigham young/from the dead,” positing a future when Mormonism’s struggles with racism—past and present—will be overcome through charity and the exercise of non-hierarchal priesthood power:

he’ll put his perfect black hands on

that old prophet’s head

he’ll call out in Jesus’ name for those

bleached bones to walk

when he goes to brigham’s grave and

finally rolls aside that rock

for the master of the priesthood said

the first would be the last

and then all would be forgiven what

they’d done in the past

The collection’s reflections on history find their greatest expression, however, in a section titled “This is the Place.” It features a sequence of poems treating the Provo River War of 1850, an early conflict between Mormons and Utes in Utah Valley, which has now been largely forgotten. Let Me Drown with Moses, however, revisits the history with an eye (once more) on the present and the ancient past. For instance, in the poem “Old Bishop,” we learn of three Mormon men who murdered an Indian man nicknamed “Old Bishop” for the way his face and curved shoulders resemble those of Bishop Newel K. Whitney. Following the model of earlier poems in the collection, it engages history with a scriptural allusion—this time from the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price:

Get drunk now on your courage.

Boast Loud in the fort of the bloody deed.

We’ve become Mahan, the masters of a great secret

(so why do I wake in the middle of the night,

see his shoulders curve against the silt:

eyes blank beneath the waters but still open wide?)

Significantly, it is here, in the final lines of the poem, that the point of view shifts to first person plural—a move that asserts a kind of collective ownership of the murder. The poem itself remains ambiguous as to who is speaking. Have Old Bishop’s murderers become Mahan, or does the “we” refer to all Mormons, newly initiated into the secret? Or is it the contemporary Mormon reader who is waking in the middle of the night, haunted by Old Bishop’s ghost?

The answer, perhaps, arrives in another poem, “Provo, 2010,” which again does the work of collapsing history, but this time with a haunting effect:

Downtown, behind the mall,

Old Bishop’s ghost rises each night,

takes stones out from his abdomen,

throws them one by one into the water:

the ripples are wiped away by the current

almost as quickly as he throws each stone.

He watches as they are erased,

as we are sitting in a Cinemark nearby

watching a British comedy of manners,

wishing we had accents like theirs,

that we’d share their elusive overseas attractiveness.

Importantly, the poem follows this image with a question that begs us to consider how our shallow memories create mental distance between us and the history of the physical spaces we inhabit: “Are we even in this valley/which our bodies share with the past?” The poem seems to suggest that we do not, the Cinemark (and its product) providing a kind of imaginative transport away from the tragedy of Old Bishop and the landscape that would have been familiar to him and his murderers. We are not in the valley, that is, because we are distracted from—or we simply ignore—the ways the past is inscribed upon it.

While history is never far from any poem in Let Me Drown with Moses, the collection does treat other subjects and themes. In a series of personal poems, for example, it reflects on love and family. Other poems treat God, creation, faith, and devotion. An undercurrent that runs through each poem in the collection, as a kind of counterpoint to its reflections on history, is a sense of limbo brought on by agency. Throughout the collection, speaker after speaker pleads with God for forbearance, for a sign that all is not lost, expressing a desperate hope that atonement can overcome the tangible and intensely overwhelming challenges of the fall.

You get a sense of this in the poem “You Sent Us”:

You sent us to a world

where justice is never a given

where it’s hard to tell dumb luck from grace

where your ways are an unattainable dream

You sent us to a world where

our backs grown bent, our bones brittle

and our spirits strong and deep

And again in “Tell Me Heart”:

There’s nothing that I fear like you

the things you’d love to make me do

the walls you wait to slip right through

There’s nothing that I fear like you.

I know there’s good inside you yet

so many ways to cause regret

my greatest strength and greatest threat

I know there’s good inside you yet

At times despairing, the poems nevertheless point to a time of healing. While some forms of healing arrive in the form of post-traumatic memory loss, as in the case of “Provo, 2010,” most come from the wisdom of persevering with God, of clinging to the promise of a beloved-savior, of not giving up in the face of opposition and confusion. Religious devotion, the collection suggests, is about taking stock of the past, finding hope in the future, and finding value in the present. We see this best in “The Builders,” a kind of lament for the epidemic of doubt that has troubled some twenty-first century Mormons. The poem imagines Mormonism as a carefully constructed house of faith, sadly abandoned (via a kind of mass suicide) before it is understood and appreciated:

Let’s say it took sixty years

for the first generations

to lay a foundation

for this faith we share.

Another sixty

for those who came after

to raise up the walls of practice

that protect us.

That puts us around 1950 when the builders

climbed up on the first planks of the roof,

got a chance to look out

and take in the view

of a wide open world.

Which makes it 2010,

another sixty years later,

when the roof is in good, solid shape.

And my friends start jumping off.

The poem, like the collection, begs for more time. Both are invitations—pleas—to look around, to see the beauty of the house, and appreciate all it took to build it.

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One thought on “James Goldberg’s Let Me Drown with Moses: A Review”

  1. Great review! Goldberg’s book is my latest acquisition after Amazon offered me a sample poem out of the blue. I was struck and decided to purchase it before I even knew Goldberg was LDS. Some of the poetry is easily digested, other poems have a lot of raw fiber that calls for slow chewing and might get stuck in your teeth, making you wonder if you need dental floss to strip it out or whether you should just let it fester because that’s where it belongs. For now I’m letting it fester.

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