This is the third and final essay in our series of studying each others’ poetry.

The Utterness of Creation

by Lynn Michael Martin

This week, I am discussing a poem by my friend Obi Martin—“Fixed Song.” In looking for a method by which to dissect the poem, I immediately gave significance to the title, which I think suggests the controlling idea of the poem.

Fixed Song

by Obi Martin

I see the disparity here
and would despair of all comparison
of the Word and of men.

oh wild one of beauty,
extravagant inventor of
endlessly embellishing decoration
heedlessly intimate extender of mysteries
elaborate lover of particulars
and merciful master of infinities,

oh cantus firmus
from whom all blessings flow
from whom all form is found
from whom creation rises
whose cloudscape footprints
walk our tallest skies
whose thoughts are brighter than
a million suns above our own
yet whose faintest finger tips
have left
indelible prints upon our hearts

though this judas jury would despair
we will not rest until we are convicted
sentenced and condemned completely
of your blindingly elusive guilt as author,
from our distance be acquitted,
with your final and beginning
face become acquainted.

Cantus firmus, literally “fixed song” was a method of musical composition employed by late medieval and early renaissance composers. It entailed taking a preexisting melody, often a Gregorian chant, and using it as the basis for a complex choral motet. One part, usually the tenor, would sing the original melody, while the other parts added lavish countermelodies that served both as harmonic accompaniment and as a rich musical texture full of counterpoint.

Unlike most music today, the cantus firmus or original melody was not simply the melody of the musical composition and the other parts simply a harmony to support it. Instead, each part was a melody in its own right, and usually a far more elaborate melody than the cantus firmus was. The cantus firmus provided the source of the composition’s inspiration, and could thus be compared to a folk melody arranged by Alice Parker, but it also provided a stable reference point for the other singers to rest on, and in that sense was more like the basso continuo of the Baroque era. These two most important aspects of the cantus firmus—that it is both the source and the continuing foundation—help us to understand Obi Martin’s poem “Fixed Song.”

I see the disparity here
and would despair of all comparison
of the Word and of men.

The first stanza begins without a direct reference to cantus firmus, but it sets up the dualism on which the central tension is based—the dichotomy between the Word and mankind—they are so far removed that the poet cannot compare them. He repeats the sound set of “disparity” in “despair,” thus highlighting the overwhelming nature of the disparity. Even the word “comparison” rings along with the two words, but its difference excludes it from the poet’s pun; in fact, the words “comparison” and “disparity” come from the same root, but have opposite prefixes, and their phonetics highlight this.

The poem continues

oh wild one of beauty,
extravagant inventor of

Here we begin to see the metaphor of cantus firmus. The “wild one” is the extravagant inventor of all else, a circumstance that compares the cantus firmus to the Word of John 1, “without [whom] was not any thing made that was made.” Just as the Word is a creative power, the fixed song creates a multitude of derivative voices.

The stanza then catapults into the lavishness of the Word’s invention. He is inventor of

endlessly embellishing decoration
heedlessly intimate extender of mysteries
elaborate lover of particulars
and merciful master of infinities,

The endless adjectives and the phrases, uninterrupted even by commas, give us a sense of the embellishment in the cantus firmus style and, more importantly, in the creation by the Word. The phrases remind us directly of the lavishness of the world itself. Though most of us see the world through the simple eyes of an impressionist, it affords enough detail for the realist of realists, until the artist must despair of depicting nature’s intricacies. Furthermore, the parallel nature of this stanza: “[adjective] [noun of agency] of [qualitative noun],” multiplies the effect. Between each line/phrase, the words act in paradoxes, and within each phrase, they create more paradoxes. For the sake of brevity, however, I must leave these paradoxes undiscovered.

oh cantus firmus
from whom all blessings flow
from whom all form is found
from whom creation rises

Now the poem begins to address the exact parallels between the “fixed song” and Christ—that, just as the cantus firmus is the source of the entire song, the Word is the source of the world. However, the poet soon dives into several more complex metaphors:

whose cloudscape footprints
walk our tallest skies
whose thoughts are brighter than
a million suns above our own
yet whose faintest finger tips
have left
indelible prints upon our hearts

These descriptions seem not to be in keeping with the cantus firmus conceit, because of the extreme Otherness that the poet depicts—the Word’s thoughts “are brighter than / a million suns above our own.” The poet seems to see a wild and utter separation between us and the Word, even while the metaphor to describe this separation seems to suggest affinity rather than alienation, since the cantus firmus melody and the derived song have many things in common. Here is perhaps where the poem departs from a strict adherence to the idea of its title.

However, to see it in this light is to blur the categorical distinction of creator from creation—of contingent from noncontingent. The cantus firmus provides the only reason for the existence of the song, and it is the source of all musical exploration and virtuosity within and throughout the song. Notes may be notes, and music may be music, but the cantus firmus preexists the song and exists entirely independently of it. Conversely, the song is dependent from beginning to end on the cantus firmus.

Since the highest heights of the derivative melodies in the musical composition derive themselves from the cantus firmus, the “fixed song” leaves fingerprints in every detail of the song. Similarly, the image of the Word (as creator and sustainer of all things that exist) is present in all things, though all things are not the Word. The Word exists as the basis of humanity, but mankind is superfluous to the completion of the Word. This one-way relationship, between contingent mankind and the uncontingent Word, is an utter difference. Though we bear God’s image, there could be no greater difference between us and God than that he is our creator and we his creation. Yet his fingertips write on our hearts.

The final stanza bears out the extreme distance between creator and creation, but also develops the relationship between them. It begins

though this judas jury would despair

Here the poet returns again to the word “despair,” which he previously used as a natural consequence of the “disparity” between the Word and mankind. Here, however, the poet calls himself a “judas jury,” one of those who betray Christ by their judgments. Somehow the comparison does exist between us and the Word—however, it is not we but the Word itself that makes this judgment:

we will not rest until we are convicted
sentenced and condemned completely
of your blindingly elusive guilt as author,

Rather than being a jury and judging the Word, we allow ourselves to be “convicted / sentenced and condemned” of the Word’s “guilt.” Since he is above us, we cannot judge him; we can only judge ourselves. He is guilty of our creation, but we are the ones convicted by it. This is not unfairness of sentence—since he is Son of the Father, the ultimate source of morality, the Word is the picture of fairness and therefore does nothing unfair, just as the cantus firmus is the ultimate judge of the success of the derived parts, rather than the derived parts judging the success of the original melody.

we will not rest until we . . .
from our distance be acquitted,
with your final and beginning
face become acquainted.

In being convicted of the wild Otherness of the Word, we are in fact acquitted of the distance that seems to come from otherness. When we recognize the utter difference between us and our Creator, we can begin to understand our relationship with him, and the difference does not have to result in distance. Though we are convicted of the Word’s guilt, he acquits us of our smallness and distance, and we can at last become acquainted with the maker and sustainer of the stars.

Jesus said that he came not for the healthy, but for the sick. Those who see their own frailty are given healing.

Instead of judging the Word, we submit to his judgment of us and become acquainted with him through his creation of us, and can finally experience him relationally—revelationally. Those who are acquainted learn about each other from each other and not from some intermediary. This, too, comes from the cantus firmus theme—the parts of a song derive from the cantus firmus directly, and not from a demigod in between.

Like David, we have the choice to position ourselves under the mercy of God rather than under the mercy of men. We have the opportunity to be in relationship with something that is foreign from us, and to join the Word as sons and daughters of God. The utterness of creation is overcome—by becoming flesh, the Word has bridged a great chasm.


Artwork: After Church, Nikolai Makovsky (1842-1886).