If I were not a “devout” atheist, I would have to proclaim, “Thank God for Philip Appleman!” Appleman’s name is familiar to many who have been involved, to one degree or another, in the secular revolution in America and in the humanist movement which has tried, with great recent success, to shine the light of reason and compassion on the dark passages and chambers of religion. He has done it with assurance, intelligence, and a directness which can only come from a great personal courage and a deep conviction. Philip Appleman’s landmark scholarly writings on Darwin and Malthus are considered crucial to the defense and the promotion of reason based upon scientific evidence. On these subjects he is considered an authority well beyond the confines of literature.
But moreover and more importantly, Appleman is a poet, and not just any poet, but one who has used an ample gift and sometimes peculiar insight to expose, in splendid terms, the wild hypocrisies and insane contradictions of the pious potentates who dictate the terms of living for much of the world’s population. With wit and understanding, poignancy and wisdom, Phil Appleman has been the best among poets at exposing the game, in making us face ourselves and all of our silly, nonsensical devotions with clear eyes. When one reads his retelling of the story of Judas or Jesus, Noah or Eve or Sarah or Job, Appleman is a master of exposure, using the words he has found in the holy books as a foil, or better yet, a scalpel to carve them up like the proverbial holiday bird.
However, it is not all humor. Appleman can express the pains of existence just as ably, reaching deeply into our humanity and the sadness we must bear by our knowledge of our own mortality. And so it is with his latest collection of poems, “Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems-A Satirical Look at the Bible” recently published by Humanity Books. In it, you will find a delightful array of small miracles, insightful, often funny, sometimes jarringly direct, and all of it in that voice which rattles the heavens like no other.
Here we will find a re-examination of what the faithful consider irrefutable, reduced by Phil Appleman to be read as some of the most dopey and illogical things ever written, the “Holy Books” of Man. Now, we atheists and agnostics and humanists and free thinkers have a holy book of our own, and a prophet as well, all anointed in the wonderfully cynical, tender, touching, often humorous, and always insightful new collection by Philip Appleman, “Perfidious Proverbs”. I am pleased to share three selections with you all in the week’s Humanist Voices in Verse, with my compliments.
Daniel Thomas Moran
DAYS ONE THROUGH SIX, ETC.
You keep on asking me that –
“Which day was the hardest?”
Blockheads! They were all hard –
And of course, since I’m omnipotent,
they were all easy.
It was Chaos, to begin with. Can you imagine
Primeval Chaos? Of course you can’t.
How long had it been swirling around out there?
How long had I been there?
Longer than that.
It was a mess, that’s what it was. Chaos is
Rocky. Fuzzy. Slippery. Prickly.
As scraggly and obstreperous as the endless behind
of an infinite jackass. Shove on it anywhere,
it gives, then slips in behind you,
like smog, like lava, like slag.
I’m telling you, chaos is – chaotic.
You see what I was up against. Who
could make a world out of that muck?
I could, that’s who – land
from water, light from dark, and so on.
It might seem like a piece of cake
now that it’s done, but
back then, without a blueprint,
without a set of instructions, without a committee,
could you have created a firmament?
Of course there were bugs in the process,
grit in the gears, blips, bloopers –
bringing forth grass and trees on Day Three
and not making sunlight until Day Four, that,
I must say, wasn’t my best move.
And making the animals and vegetables before
there was any rain whatsoever – well,
anyone can have a bad day.
Even Adam, as it turned out, wasn’t such a great
idea – those shifty eyes, the alibis,
blaming things on his wife – I mean,
it set a bad example. How could he
expect that little toddler, Cain,
to learn correct family values
with a role model like him?
And then there was the nasty squabble
Over the beasts and birds.
OK, I admit I told Adam
to name them, but – Platypus?
Let me make one thing perfectly clear –
he didn’t get that gibberish from Me.
No, I don’t need a planet to fall on Me,
I know something about subtext.
He did it to irritate Me, just plain
spite – and did I need the aggravation?
Well, as you know, things went from bad
to worse, from begat to begat,
father to son, the evil fruit
of all that early bile. So next
there was narcissism, then bigotry,
then jealousy, rage, vengeance!
And finally I realized, the spawn of Adam
had become exactly like – Me.
No Deity with any self-respect
would tolerate that kind
of competition, so what could I do?
I killed them all, that’s what!
Just as the Good Book says,
I drowned man, woman, and child, like
so many cats. Oh, I saved a few
for restocking, Noah and his crew,
the best of the lot, I thought. But
now you’re back to your old tricks again,
just about due for another good ducking,
or maybe a giant barbecue.
And I’m warning you, if I have to do it again,
there won’t be any survivors, not even
a cockroach! Then,
for the first time since it was Primeval
Chaos, the world will be perfect –
nobody in it but Me.
Gertrude Appleman, 1901-1976
God is all-knowing, all-present, and almighty.
–A Catechism of Christian Doctrine
I wish that all the people
who peddle God
could watch my mother die:
could see the skin and
gristle weighing only
seventy-nine, every stubborn
pound of flesh a small
I wish the people who peddle God
could see her young,
lovely in gardens and
beautiful in kitchens, and could watch
the hand of God slowly
twisting her knees and fingers
till they gnarled and knotted, settling in
for thirty years of pain.
I wish the people who peddle God
could see the lightning
of His cancer stabbing
her, that small frame
tensing at every shock,
her sweet contralto scratchy with
the Lord’s infection: Philip,
I want to die.
I wish I had them gathered round,
those preachers, popes, rabbis,
imams, priests – every
pious shill on God’s payroll – and I
would pull the sheets from my mother’s brittle body,
and they would fall on their knees at her bedside
to be forgiven all their
Last-Minute Message For a Time Capsule
I have to tell you this, whoever you are:
that on one summer morning here, the ocean
pounded in on tumbledown breakers,
a south wind, bustling along the shore,
whipped the froth into little rainbows,
and a reckless gull swept down the beach
as if to fly were everything it needed.
I thought of your hovering saucers,
looking for clues, and I wanted to write this down,
so it wouldn’t be lost forever – –
that once upon a time we had
meadows here, and astonishing things,
swans and frogs and luna moths
and blue skies that could stagger your heart.
We could have had them still,
and welcomed you to earth, but
we also had the righteous ones
who worshipped the True Faith, and Holy War.
When you go home to your shining galaxy,
say that what you learned
from this dead and barren place is
to beware the righteous ones.
-from New and Selected Poems, l956-l996, University of Arkansas Press, l996