This week we’re featuring a poem by Mark Wunderlich, runner-up from our latest Editor’s Prize issue. Wunderlich is the author of The Anchorage, which was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1999 and received the Lambda Literary Award, Voluntary Servitude, which was published in 2004 by Graywolf Press, and The Earth Avails, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2013. He has received fellowships from the NEA, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Wallace Stegner Fellowship Program at Stanford, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Amy Lowell Trust. His poems, interviews, reviews and translations have appeared in journals such as Slate, The Paris Review, Poetry, Yale Review, Fence and Tin House, and his poems are widely anthologized. He has taught at Stanford and Barnard College and in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University, Ohio University, San Francisco State University and Sarah Lawrence. He is a member of the Literature and Writing Seminars Faculty at Bennington College in Vermont and lives in the Hudson River Valley.
A couple years ago, while visiting my family in Wisconsin, I came across an old Lutheran prayer book, written in German and published in St. Louis in 1876. The book was small, meant to be carried in a pocket or reticule, and consulted during times of need. The prayers in it—set in the old German Fraktur-script and printed on cottony paper—are notably specific: prayer to be said before setting off on a journey by sea, prayer to be said in the first hour of a deathbed watch, prayer for a birthday, prayer to be said during a time of drought, etc. I found these pleas, addressing mostly harrowing circumstances to be moving and psychologically compelling. By begging for the attention of an all-knowing distant father, the prayers seemed to me an interesting model for poems. I set about writing my own versions loosely based on the prayers in this book, but quickly my own version took on new and contemporary contexts.
I began writing these poems some time ago, and resisted showing them to anyone or sending them out to journals. I felt embarrassed to be writing poems with religious underpinnings, and as queer agnostic, I felt exposed somehow—found out. Of all the poems I have written, these—mostly devoid of autobiographical detail—are also the most personal poems I have ever written.
A Servant’s Prayer