I like this translation by Robert Alter of Psalm 123:1. “To you I lift up my eyes, O dweller in the heavens.” It speaks to the gulf I sometimes still recognize between my natural life and the unseen realm of an Almighty Everything. Dweller. Heavens. Unseen.
I imagine the hard living and hard drinking shepherds of Tusheti. Them in their mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas at the boot bottom of Russia in the breezes of Turkey. Them in their vast wilderness. Living encamped in cold crags and half-life wood buildings the days of which have long ago been the better days. Cut off from the swifter world of cities, of Kiev, Tbilisi, Ankara. Civil and yet uncivilized for their requirement for movement in slower places where sheep need be. I imagine what it must be like to walk in the thin air ridge world and look out over a landscape that is an adversary even as it aids, and to speak: “O dweller in the heavens.”
I imagine one of these shepherds in smock and canvas pants might understand this translation, “O dweller in the heavens,” like I understand it. Which is to say, “O distant One.” O distant One whose power is unmistakable and yet who I cannot see.
I imagine the shepherd wonders, as all do who walk in lonely places: Where is this One?
It doesn’t matter the request that follows in the Psalm for mercy. For grace. The point is the grace has not yet come. “Till he has mercy upon us.” The point is the emptiness in the opening line. It is a long distance call. A remote communication. The shepherd seeks in the vast sky a voice that will come down to his foreboding landscape.
One day in Haiti in Cite Soleil, that notorious gangland slum of the movie Ghosts of Cite Soleil, I photographed a man in just this sort of foreboding landscape. At that moment Cite Soleil was a prison. The slum gangs were so terrible with their marauding and kidnapping that the UN forces encircled the slum with their garrisons. Official entry was virtually forbidden. A senior UN official, frustrated by the rule and the lack of reporting making it out of the slum, had me smuggled behind the frontline through a clandestine arrangement. I made my way to the sea. On the wharf was this man. Naked except a shirt he held in his hand like a broken wing flapping in sea breeze, he writhed in pain and doused himself with sea water. Children drew water with jugs to give him. The man had been in jail, one of them told me. When the police released him they did so by driving him to a checkpoint of the slum to drop him off, moving him from prison cage to hell. As a parting gift the police doused the man’s groin with a burning chemical. The man made his way to the sea where he fought to cool the pain.
I felt like I was photographing a man at his execution I was powerless to stop.
The photograph takes on a life of its own. Even I, responsible for its creation, can freeze the frame and wonder about the man’s form and body like a visitor in a cold museum of sculptures. He is a living David of Michelangelo. A twisted Rodin. Accepting my complicity in its formation it is a cubism blending indecency and memory with the image itself for the man’s body to become also a Picasso. A living sculpture of the outposts of pain. A man on a high, dusty ridge of misery, face tilted skyward, crying “O dweller in the heavens.”
For fairness to the Dweller and for hope such as this man may have found mercy, it is good to quote the verse entire: From Alter’s translation, Psalm 123: “A song of ascents: To you I lift up my eyes, O dweller in the heavens. Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters, like the eyes of a slave girl to her mistress, so are our eyes to the Lord our God until He grants us grace. Grant us grace, Lord, grant us grace. For we are sorely sated with scorn. Sorely has our being been sated with the contempt of the smug, the scorn of the haughty.”