Review of How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider

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Pat Schneider. How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice. Oxford University Press, 2013. 303 pgs. $18.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Pat Schneider’s How the Light Gets In is not exactly a memoir, although it is that. It is not exactly a writing guide, although it is that also. It is not exactly a spiritual reflection, although it is grounded in spirituality and would not exist if the author had not foregrounded her spiritual orientation to the world beyond herself, the world within herself, and her commitment to writing as both spiritual discipline and craft. Schneider is the founder of Amherst Writers and Artists, an organization that emphasizes a particular method of facilitating writing workshops. I would characterize the Amherst method as hospitable; it is particularly effective in working with community groups, although I would like to see it practiced more often in the academy also, where writing workshops too often disintegrate into competition and hostility. Schneider was able to develop her method, I suspect, because she has attended to her spirituality and has worked to integrate it with other aspects of her life. In How the Light Gets In, she explores activities directly associated with spirituality (e.g. prayer, forgiveness), emotions that spiritual honesty won’t let us avoid (e.g. fear, shame), and her personal response to them through writing.

Throughout the book, regardless of the specific chapter topic, Schneider focuses on writing as a spiritual practice. Like all spiritual disciplines, such a practice entails commitment, but more significantly it requires attentiveness. It requires an openness to surprise, an appreciation for the mystical. (In this respect, Schneider resembles many contemporary Christians who have returned to medieval devotional practices, seeking divine union more than rational doctrine.) In her opening chapter, Schneider explains it this way: “Putting pen to paper has become my most essential spiritual practice, my most effective prayer. That is not to say that writing is my only prayer, or that all of my writing is prayer. But more and more, the two acts have merged” (15). As prayer, writing is expression in search of the divine. Yet the attentiveness required of the writer is reciprocal. Schneider describes a conversation with a former theology professor, Dr. Hugh Vernon White: “his word, ‘attention,’ helped me to understand my own experience in prayer. I feel held in the attention—the companionable attention of mystery” (19). As prayer, writing moves toward mystery, the experience of mystery rather than necessarily the understanding of it.

While such a practice can appear private and is often done in private, Schneider specifically states that the writer’s connection to the mystical must open outward and become connected with the world. Schneider comes to her practice through a specific tradition, and she holds herself accountable to the demands of that tradition: “Writing as a spiritual practice, it seems to me, while it fully includes and involves the self of the writer must also include the other. The tradition of spiritual practice out of which I came, all the way back to the great prophets of Israel, stressed justice and righteousness (‘righteousness’ meaning…not a code of behavior but right relationship with others as well as with God). Those who turn toward spirit, I believe, must consciously, actively, work to turn the world toward justice” (177). This is not a book, in other words, that rigorously separates “spiritual” from “religious” or defines the spiritual as personal fulfillment in contrast to the communal engagement of religion.

That’s all very abstract, and I don’t want to suggest that this book is highly theoretical or irritatingly general. Schneider makes these points by telling her own story, describing the poverty of her childhood and the shame it brought, her struggle living with a mentally ill mother, her attempts to understand her father’s abandonment of the family, but also the figures who intervened to save her, even if their assistance was imperfect. The narrative vignettes in this book feel honest without being exploitative—of her family and friends, of herself, or of the reader. And every story, regardless of its content, returns to writing. The extended narrative portions of the book assist Schneider in conveying the value of writing as a spiritual practice, whatever other purposes it might also serve.

On one level, this book is an easy read. The prose is clear and often stylistically enjoyable. The narrator is likeable, even companionable. The material reaches out to the reader, offering an invitation. But the book is also difficult. Schneider’s honesty demands a similar honesty from the reader. Reading this book was, for me, often exceedingly uncomfortable, but only because it was so transformative.

Review of Recluse Freedom by John Leax

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John Leax. Recluse Freedom. WordFarm. 2012. 127 pages. $18.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Longer than many collections of poetry, John Leax’s Recluse Freedom reads almost like an edition of selected poems. The poems are arranged into five sections which differ from each other in form or style as well as content. The first section, “Writing Home,” consists of ten narrative poems that follow the speaker’s development from boy to young man and then into the near present. Although these poems are not rigidly metrical, neither are they absolutely free verse; they demonstrate Leax’s skill with accentual patterns, for while the stressed syllables clearly resonate in the reader’s ear, there is no thump, thump, thump of the bass drum that sometimes dominates contemporary poems written in metrical forms. The second section, “Bright Wings,” contains eleven poems about birds—crows, herons, grosbeaks, a hummingbird, an owl, even vultures. Although the speaker is occasionally present via a first-person pronoun in these poems, more often the world beyond the human is central. Obviously, someone’s eye is observing the birds as they turn their necks, build their nests, take flight, but they are not reduced to containers for human insight or catalysts for human epiphany. In the third section, “Recluse: An Adirondack Idyll,” prose poems predominate, although four pantoums are interspersed among them, each pantoum consisting of four stanzas. Next, “Walking the Ridge Home” contains seven poems, or seven sections of one long poem, that are among the more formally experimental in the book. Devoid of punctuation, they depend for their rhythm—and to some extent their meaning—on line breaks, indentations, and white space. Each of these poems takes a line from the Psalms as an epigraph to guide both the writer and the reader. Finally, the last section is called “Flat Mountain Poems,” and the poems here explore that oxymoron and other paradoxes of human life. Yet Recluse Freedom is not simply five chapbooks bound within one cover. The poems are united through their attention to the natural world and through the contemplative tone. The speaker honors the world by attending to it, and by receiving it without wishing it to be other than it is.

“Homecoming,” from the first section, is one of Leax’s most thematically complicated poems. Filled with scriptural allusions, the opening stanza subverts traditional assumptions about obedience and disobedience, violence and peace, safety and harm. Here is that stanza: “In the beginning there was war, / and my father, hardly more than a boy, / was called. Because he had no church / to witness to the peaceful heart / that spoke a living word within / his chest, he went, and he became / a silent man. In the chasm / of his obedience I fell, / plunged with my first steps / into the wash of blood—a slash / of milky glass split my face from nose / to cheek and left me just one eye to watch / for his return. My mother wept, / I’m sure. No one told my father. / He soldiered on in ignorance of the night / already settling on his day.” Obviously the first phrase harkens back to Genesis, but here there is no God declaring everything good. Violence begins, not after the fall, but with creation. The speaker’s father is “called,” not by God but by the draft board. His “living word” is silenced. And then the speaker experiences his own fall, not through disobedience but through his father’s obedience. In the center of the poem, the father is present for the liberation of Dachau, and after the horror there, “No prayer / he’d learned in the bright bedtimes / of his farm-boy youth could halt the stone / rolling inexorably between the close / enclosure of his mind and the wide / goodness of the life he knew before the word / descended void in vengeance, blood, and bone.” The stone here is not the one rolled away from a tomb to indicate resurrection, and the word that descends is not the messianic promise of peace. Thirty years later, the father dies with a shrug. At his funeral, the speaker considers his father’s experience, God’s knowledge, and the overlap between them: “should / God come down to answer for this world, / he too might break his silence with a shrug, / give up, and die, helpless before the blank / enormity he’d meet in flesh.” The speaker recalls the day his father came home from the war, when they would meet for the first time: “Each time a man, young, joyful, in uniform, / descended from a bus, I cried, / ‘Is that him? Is that him?’ / I can’t remember when she said, ‘Yes,’ / or if he took me in his arms / and touched my face with his.” He remembers the longing but not its fulfillment. The poem suggests that God remains aware of this world but also remains entirely absent from it, or, at best, powerless within it. Yet the speaker acknowledges that he might not recognize God if they did meet face to face. This poem is less angry than resigned. It is a poem of faith despite the evidence that should negate faith.

“Homecoming” is not particularly typical of Recluse Freedom—none of the poems in this collection is particularly typical of it. Yet each of them is interesting, and together they form a collection that testifies to the breadth of Leax’s skill, the variety of his practice. It is a book that should be read slowly, over a period of days, because the individual poems invite contemplation. It is a book that offers us a pause from our worldly concerns yet ultimately recalls us to the world.

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Review of Biting the Apple by Jeanie Greensfelder

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Jeanie Greensfelder. Biting the Apple. Penciled In, 2012. 58 pgs. $12.50.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Biting the Apple, Jeanie Greensfelder’s first collection of poetry (and the inaugural publication of Penciled In press), consists of short lyrics that aim to convey the speaker’s fall into knowledge. Many of these poems focus on specific encounters—with the self, with others, with the world—that contribute to the speaker’s self-understanding, the type of memories that rise again and again, demanding comprehension. They trace the speaker’s development from bewildered (and eventually disobedient) child through adolescence and early adulthood to the moment she finds herself in the near present, a woman approaching the status of elderly, if not quite there yet, the grateful companion of other children.

The book’s title is, of course, an allusion to the forbidden fruit, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and expulsion from Eden. Apples appear in several of the poems, but the one most directly linked to the theme of Biting the Apple occurs second in the collection. “The Bad Apple” describes the speaker’s father’s purchase of a whole bushel, enough for an entire season. Rather than celebrate abundance, though, the father insists that the speaker eat only bruised apples, perhaps to save the whole batch from spoiling, but the effect is a suggestion of stinginess. The bushel paradoxically creates an atmosphere of scarcity. Finally, alone in the house, the speaker sneaks to the basement and chooses “a perfect apple.” Then, “Upstairs I cut it crosswise / and eat around the stars. / I do not fall / into Snow White slumber. // When my father comes home, / I smile in innocence / and he smiles back, / unaware of my new friend / the serpent.” The most compelling image here is “eat around the stars,” for it is both precise and surprising. Although most readers will anticipate the speaker’s disobedience (for what child, given the chance, would not have disobeyed this father’s instructions?), readers will nevertheless sympathize with the child’s new knowledge at the poem’s conclusion, that disobedience doesn’t always lead to the dire consequences predicted by the book of Genesis.

The most effective poem in the collection, and one which represents Greensfelder’s style at its best, is “Sixth Grade,” recently selected by Ted Kooser for his American Life in Poetry column. The syntax here is straightforward, the vocabulary simple and direct. Yet there is a terror at the heart of this poem, but Greensfelder wisely conveys it through metaphor. Each of the first two stanzas consists of a single sentence, composed without symbol or figurative language: “We didn’t like each other, / but Lynn’s mother had died, / and my father had died. // Lynn’s father didn’t know how to talk to her, / my mother didn’t know how to talk to me, / and Lynn and I didn’t know how to talk to each other.” So the two don’t talk; instead, they create a game: “A secret game drew us close: / we took turns being the prisoner, / who stood, hands held behind her back, // while the captor, using an imaginary bow, / shot arrow after arrow after arrow / into the prisoner’s heart.” These final two stanzas acquire their power from the imagery, the straightforward language and syntax, and also from Greensfelder’s choice simply to dramatize the game, concluding the poem without a gesture toward explanation.

Occasionally the poems do explain a bit too much for my taste. For example, in “The Bad Apple” quoted above, the phrase “in innocence” could be cut, a deletion that would intensify the poem’s complexity, I think, without creating any confusion for the reader. In some of the poems, the language could be tighter, becoming more memorable through compression. “Knitting” begins with this stanza: “I hold out my arms. Mother / puts coils of yarn around them. / Starting with a thread, / she winds ball after ball, / colors for her afghan.” If the second line read, “coils yarn around them,” would anything be lost? I don’t think so, and then the most interesting word in the line, “coils,” would both acquire the significant position of first word in the line and also function as the verb, enhancing its imagistic power. On the other hand, the first line is remarkable for its enjambment. How much more effective it is to break the line after “Mother” than it would have been to simply follow the grammar of the sentence—many poets would have begun this stanza, “I hold out my arms. / Mother puts coils of yarn…” Greensfelder’s choice illustrates the significant difference poets can create by attending to the structure of the line as well as the grammar of the sentence. We see the child holding out her arms to Mother here, although the sentences suggest a separation between the child’s gesture and the mother’s action.

Greensfelder’s poems challenge us to consider the contributions of ordinary speech to literary language, a discussion that has been ongoing for at least forty years and is likely to continue as contemporary writers infuse their work with allusions to pop culture and classical culture simultaneously. This discussion actually begins with a consideration of audience and then leads to debates about accessibility or exclusivity, a debate I do not care to enter into here. Greensfelder achieves accessibility, and Biting the Apple would be a good collection to hand to any person who claims not to be able to understand contemporary poetry.

Review of Given Away by Jennifer Barber

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Jennifer Barber. Given Away. Kore Press, 2012. 80 pgs. $14.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Given Away, Jennifer Barber’s second collection of poetry, is spare, meditative, thought-provoking. The poems illustrate what we hope for when we describe poetry as compressed language—for no word is wasted here, and yet the poems still invite the reader in. They are personal without being hermetic, lean without being spartan. They progress through implication and association rather than straightforward narrative, although a narrative of sorts does develop through the collection. As I read and reread this book, I found myself lingering over many of the poems, as if time were slowing, as if we—I, the poems, the speaker—could engage in a reality apart from time, even though the poems trace the speaker’s movement through time.

Barber accomplishes this paradoxical effect through her skilled use of the line, her fearless hospitality to the white space surrounding a poem, and her confidence in the power of the concrete image. The poems reveal their subjects as one deceptively quiet observation follows another. I found myself repeatedly startled by the accuracy of the poems’ references to the material world, and by the juxtaposition of objects I had never before experienced together.

Motifs of separation and connection dominate this collection. It opens with a poem called “Away,” and another poem of the same title opens section three. Section two concludes with “Three Days Away,” and the book closes with the title poem “Given Away.” Other titles also refer to this theme, “Proximity,” for example, and “Arriving When It Does.” The poems themselves explore the boundaries between one thing and another—light and darkness, language and silence, breath and air, a human being and God. And though we name separation—afternoon, evening, night—the poems often situate themselves in that moment when one thing is indistinguishable from the next.

The opening poem “Away” begins this way: “I count to twenty / and back. // The first day of the world, / light slanting through the trees, // though cities have been / built and destroyed / and rebuilt, / pollen and lamentation filling the air.” Obviously this poem is not set on the very first day of this world, regardless of which culture’s creation story one adopts. Yet the light slanting as it does recalls a beginning, even as history has intervened to create and destroy. The final line of stanza three, “pollen and lamentation filling the air,” evokes both hope in a future and grief at the past. Hope and despair are not quite balanced, however, since hope rests in the natural world and the “lamentation” proceeds presumably from human activity. The next stanza, consisting of a single line, returns us to the speaker’s present and also to stillness, to a consciousness of “is” rather than a concern for either building or destroying: “Not here. Quiet reigns.” The poem proceeds imagistically—a carpenter bee, a field of sheep, a hummingbird “who seems a twig from here.” Finally, the poem concludes with a metaphor that is, if not exactly ominous then modestly oppressive: “the wheel of August touches down.” This poem has stayed with me because the speaker is so attentive to her world. The poem is receptive to the things of this world, yet it permits them to remain what they are, translated into language, yes, and occasionally described figuratively, but not themselves reduced to handy metaphor.

As the collection proceeds, the references and vocabulary become increasingly Biblical, yet the poems are not, for the most part, overtly about Biblical passages. Instead, they demonstrate how the language of one’s tradition remains a living language. “In the Hebrew Primer” is a good example of Barber’s strategies. Much of this poem consists of a list of words, concluding with a simple conjugation of a simple verb, yet these sparse words reveal everything the reader needs to know. “A man. A woman. A road. / Jerusalem” the poem begins. It continues: “Nouns like mountain and gate, / water and famine, / wind and wilderness / arrange themselves in two columns on the page.” Studying a lexicon of a particular text is, of course, very different from studying a complete language, and if we were to study the Hebrew Bible, we would expect vocabulary like “famine” and “wilderness,” words that wouldn’t ordinarily show up on early vocabulary lists of a foreign language class. Yet a Hebrew Primer might also include words like “feast” or “riches” or “sabbath”; Barber’s selections imply a narrative that will be fulfilled by the end of the poem. The next stanza considers the other significant part of speech: “The verbs are / remember and guard; / the verbs are / give birth to and glean.” The concluding couplet circles back to the beginning while revealing where the beginning was headed: “A woman, a man. / I was, you were, we were.”

I appreciate Given Away for both its craft and its content, if those two categories can be separated. The language is absolutely controlled and absolutely natural. The poems are best read slowly, line by line, over a period of hours or days. And then when you close the book, you’ll want to begin again, as the world does moment by contemplative moment in these poems.

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Review of St. Peter’s B-List, edited by Mary Ann B. Miller

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Mary Ann B. Miller, ed. St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints. Ave Maria Press, 2014. 261 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I particularly enjoy anthologies that are conceived because of the editor’s interest in a topic, so when I saw a reference to St. Peter’s B-List before it was submitted to me for review, I was intrigued—for there are so many saints to choose from after all, and so many potential attitudes to express. It is one of those anthologies that’s just fun to pick up and browse through. Contributors include the well-known (e.g. Kate Daniels, James Tate, Jim Daniels, Dana Gioia) and poets who were new to me, though looking at their contributors’ notes, I wonder how I could have missed them until now. That’s a virtue of anthologies, of course, how they introduce us to poets we’ll come to love. There’s an equal range among the saints considered, from beloved St. Francis of Assisi, his companion St. Clare of Assisi, his contemporary St. Dominic, to the equally if differently beloved St. Patrick and St. Nicholas, from the Biblical St. Mary Magdalene and St. Joseph to the legendary St. Christopher, from the recently canonized St. Kateri Tekakwitha to the not-yet canonized Dorothy Day, from the famous St. Joan of Arc to the obscure St. Magnus of Füssen and St. Spyridon. Lest the obscurity of some of the saints intimidate readers, Mary Ann B. Miller has provided a helpful summary of each saint’s life, in addition to an introduction and contributor bios. The anthology is arranged in three sections, “Family and Friends,” Faith and Worship,” and “Sickness and Death.” Although many of the poems are interesting and memorable, I’ll limit my discussion here to one poem from each section.

The book opens with a Credo poem by Martha Silano, “Poor Banished Children of Eve.” It begins conventionally enough, “I believe,” and then develops through loose allusion to the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, though its content quickly becomes, shall we say, unorthodox. Yet it is also highly reverent, spoken in the voice of someone who recognizes a blessing when she receives one. The poem is written in tercets without punctuation, and Silano exploits this form to surprise the reader, to create layers of meaning through the juxtaposition of anticipation against the unexpected. Here’s something of what I mean—the poem begins with this stanza: “I believe in the dish in the sink / not bickering about the dish in the sink / though I believe the creator.” Unlike any canonical Christian creed, this poem focuses immediately upon the concrete material world, as if to suggest that she remains unconvinced of an abstract, invisible, ineffable world. Yet she immediately mentions a “creator,” admittedly lowercase, but perhaps the missing capital letter corresponds to the absent punctuation. But no—the sentence is interrupted with a stanza break, and the subordinate clause that has begun at the end of stanza one is completed  in stanza two: “though I believe the creator // of the mess in the living room / cleans up the mess in the living room.” The poem continues this way, mentioning purgatory and hell, father and son, martyrs and saints, glory and mercy, but returning always to her immediate family, their modest inconveniences and immense blessing. Its last two lines are nearly transcendent: “grant us eternal grant us merciful / o clement o loving o sweet.” The poem is skillful and imaginative. In gesturing toward doctrine, it becomes so much more substantive than rote recitation; it ends as the prayer of a believer, one who surpasses orthodoxy to express profound gratitude.

Not all of the poems in this book express such a convincingly present faith, but many of the most moving ones do. Nicholas Samaras’ “Apocalypse Island” is filled with humor and hope. It is a list poem, structured in couplets, that describes a day from the speaker’s youth. Each of the first six couplets contains the clause “I remember” or a close synonym followed by a concrete image—though only the first two couplets actually begin with these repeated words. Samaras introduces enough variety in the length and structure of his sentences so that the repetition of “I remember” becomes resonant rather than monotonous. Then, exactly mid-way through the poem, we come to two couplets that interrupt the pattern: “Halfway up the mountain path, we came to a sign / nailed to an olive tree, a white sign in the rough // shape of an arrow, inscribing ‘this way to the Apocalypse.’ And my stunned translation, hysterical with laughter.” Five more couplets follow, two of which include “I remember.” The pacing of this poem is masterful, as is Samaras’ superimposition of his own individual future upon that revealed by St. John and the simplicity of what follows: “I remember the coolness of the air as we entered // the chapel of his Cave—Saint John of the Revelation. / All of my future was ahead of me. I framed // the twine of flowers around the ancient gold icon / and walked back into light, both empty and full.” The speaker’s future is presumably no long all ahead of him, yet we sense that this experience opened a future that will not close.

As might be expected, many of the poems in the final section are more somber than those earlier in the book. “Rose-Flavored Ice Cream with Tart Cherries” by Karen Kovacik, for example, is poignant and wistful. The poem begins evocatively, “The June air’s woozy with unshed rain,” and develops through concrete imagery, addressing a “you” by the end of the first stanza, a “you” whose favorite saint was Thomas, the doubter, or as the speaker says, “your favorite saint, who had / to touch the wound of light to believe.” The speaker orders the ice cream of the title, so exotic as to seem almost impossible, “crisp as a chilled corsage, / fragrant then tart.” Only with the subsequent line are we certain the addressee is absent, and only in the third and final stanza do we realize why—the speaker is a widow, recalling the attentive erotic care of her deceased spouse. The poem concludes with an imagined gesture reminiscent of the first stanza: “I can almost feel, a continent away, / the flutter of your impatient hands.” It was Thomas’ hand, after all, that convinced him that Jesus was alive, just as a lover’s hands often convince us that we too are alive. Like many of the poems in this anthology, “Rose-Flavored Ice Cream with Tart Cherries” doesn’t examine the life of a saint so much as it achieves understanding of the speaker’s life through reference to the saint.

The poems in St. Peter’s B-List vary in length and form; although many are written in free verse, the anthology also includes several written in received forms. Most, however—and this is my only complaint—are stylistically similar; the personal lyric dominates the collection, perhaps through the editor’s preference or perhaps because contemporary poems incorporating references to saints are most often written in this lyrical scenic mode. If the latter is true, let it also be a challenge—what can we poets do next, exploring our relationship with the saints and their influence on us, to make it new?

Review of The Eye of Caroline Herschel by Laura Long

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Laura Long. The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems. Finishing Line Press, 2013. 26 pgs. $12.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

What role do chapbooks fill in today’s poetry world? Are they just pre-books, a sort of trial run until a poet writes enough accomplished poems to fill out a full manuscript and then persuades a publisher to print it? Are they worth the effort at all, since many brick and mortar bookstores refuse to stock them? They’re hard to shelve after all, since there’s no spine, no place to print the title and author’s name aside from the front cover. Although they’re generally less expensive than full-length collections, they’re not that much less expensive. On the other hand, production values are often high—as material objects, they can be attractive, pleasurable to behold and touch. And when the poems are closely linked, the chapbook can be an ideal form of publication. Such is the case with Laura Long’s The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems.

Consisting of 21 poems, none longer than a page, this collection is “A Life in Poems” in several respects. Most obviously, it conveys the major biographical details of Caroline Herschel, whose life spanned nearly a century, from 1750 to 1848—that her mother had determined that Caroline would earn her keep through the performance of menial domestic tasks, that she escaped to England with her brother William, that together they created precise telescopes, that she discovered numerous stars and comets, that after William’s marriage she resided in boarding houses even as she pursued her astronomical passion. More importantly, however, these poems convey the imaginative life of Caroline Herschel, at least as her imagination is imagined by Laura Long. In these poems, Herschel notices concrete detail and thinks figuratively—though for her, every metaphor leads back to the stars.

Herschel’s associative imagination is most effectively conveyed in “The Eye of Caroline Herschel.” This poem understands Herschel’s mode of seeing almost as a vocational call: “I cannot stop how I see even though / sunlight floods in to blind me.” Then the poem consists of a series of visual images, ordinary objects whose form evokes the form of a comet: “a ribbon trails //from a woman’s sleeve, the tail / of a cat slithers beneath a chair, / a bloom at the loose end of a morning / glory vine wavers from the fence // into the breeze. I stare at the flowers / erupting from green. Each blossom / is a comet sprung from seed…” We can see now how each of these tendril-like items is reminiscent of a comet. Long’s line break at the beginning of the second stanza is particularly telling: “the tail / of a cat…” for other poems will reveal the process of astronomical discovery, often focusing on the presence or absence of a “tail” following a point of light. Finally, the poem concludes with a metaphor that is provocatively layered: “Every darkness / waits to be stung open by light, as a string / on a violin waits to be touched.” A comet does open darkness, does provide form for darkness. And a comet does resemble a string—at the end of the penultimate line, readers are expecting another item in the list of visual images. But the strategy of the poem turns here. The string itself, which transforms the darkness, is also waiting to be transformed, this time by a human hand. The list of visual images is completed by an image that is auditory and tactile, and the metaphor suggests that a comet, too, perhaps becomes most resonantly meaningful through being observed.

If “The Eye of Caroline Herschel” is among the most imaginative ones in this chapbook, the most provocative poem for me is the opening one, “Caroline Talks Back to the Poets.” Laura Long knew what she was doing, of course, in placing this poem first, immediately inviting her readers to an argument. I’ve long felt superior, as a poet, to the philosophers whose language is often so abstract and unmemorable. Years ago, I read a description that distinguished between the two classes of thinkers this way: philosophers praise the light, while poets praise the moon and the stars. But here, in this poem, Caroline Herschel suggests that astronomers are superior even to poets: “The poet can sing to a lone bright star, / but we astronomers look at all of them / and the shining nebulosity between.” Oh, you misrepresent us, I want to say. And then I could point to the figurative language of the poem itself as evidence of the value of poetic expression: “Poets, attend to // the river of milk braiding and unbraiding its hair.” But I catch myself. This debate is not one I believe in after all—the argument that science or art or any other creative human endeavor is more necessary or more valuable than any other. Ultimately, I think the poems in this chapbook reach the same conclusion, but by placing this poem first, Long provokes her readers to pay attention, just as she demonstrates through the language of these poems that she has paid attention to the world around her.

The collection concludes, not with Herschel’s death as would most conventional biographies, but with a summary of her life and a bit of further advice in the voice of her ghost: “Watch the glitter drift until dawn / erases the dark. Hunger for another night.” These lines reverse the stereotypic associations of day and night with life and death, yet they nevertheless express the longing so many of us feel, the desire to receive the world again, and again.

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Review of The Wishing Tomb by Amanda Auchter

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Amanda Auchter. The Wishing Tomb. Perugia Press, 2012. 87 pgs. $16.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Before I read a single poem, I suspected I would enjoy Amanda Auchter’s The Wishing Tomb. Simply by skimming the table of contents, I could tell that Auchter is a poet engaged with language, its specificity, the sounds of one word colliding with another. Here are some of the poems’ titles: “The Good Friday Fire,” “The Punishment Collar,” “Testimony of Evangeline the Oyster Girl, 1948,” “The Angola Inmate Coffin Factory,” “The Chicken Man Walks the Quarter.” These are not generic titles, the last resorts of a poet desperate for anything more creative than “untitled.” And fortunately, the poems are as interesting as their titles.

Like some other recently published collections (Lesley Wheeler’s Heterotopia and Nicole Cooley’s Breach spring immediately to mind), The Wishing Tomb focuses on a particular city, documenting in this case the history of New Orleans. It is divided into three sections, the first beginning with early European contact and proceeding through the nineteenth century, the second exploring events of the twentieth century, and the third tracing the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. The book is not, however, simply a history text broken into lines. The poems imagine the perspectives of specific characters, some famous, some anonymous, and the effects of catastrophic events on ordinary people. Not surprisingly given its location, the books overflows with water as a literal and metaphorical presence. Images and figures of speech echo each other from poem to poem, enhancing the collection’s unity, yet the writing is taut and requires an attentive reader. Individual poems also connect with each other to weave each section together, “The Good Friday Fire” and “The Good Friday Flood, 1927,” for example, or “Early Pastoral” which is the second poem in the collection, “Highway Pastoral” which is nearly centered, and “Late Pastoral” which is the final poem in the collection. As a book, The Wishing Tomb is as thoughtfully constructed as the individual poems.

“The Disordered Body” from section one illustrates several of Auchter’s strategies. It opens with a set of images that appeal to multiple senses: “Rain falls from the black skies daily, the city // a shroud of rot: garbage and heat and humidity, / the bright stink // of bodies. The body a branch after lightning, a language // of fever, delirium…” In the first line, the rain is comparatively neutral, even if the “black skies” are not, but by the second line, readers feel the weight of humidity and stench. The repulsion of the olfactory image extends into the next line, but then line four turns in a new direction, creating a visual image and metaphor that is almost mystical: “the body a branch after lightning, a language…” Eventually, with the mention of mosquitoes and suggestion of impending disaster, readers understand that this is a poem about yellow fever and the  inevitability of nature’s power despite human intervention. The poem concludes with these lines: “We do not / say it will not come. It will come. // It will bring its terrible song, hum it into our houses.” The penultimate line is effectively emphatic, with the simple sentence “It will come” concluding both the line and the stanza, without however calling undue attention to itself as it would if it had formed a line by itself. This line consists of eight monosyllabic words, and arguably up to six stresses, further emphasizing the inevitability of the fever. Then the last line, a stanza of its own, slows the rhythm down, becoming almost melodic—“It will bring its terrible song, hum it into our houses”—through the softer sounds, the number of unstressed syllables, the alliteration. This last line is equally ominous yet also oddly beautiful, an effect created through both image and rhythm.

“The Disordered Body” gains significance from its position, immediately following  another poem that describes yellow fever, “American Plague,” and preceding one that describes rituals of grief, “Mourning Brooch and Earrings, c. 1866.” This latter poem also begins with a reference to the body and concludes with an image of a person who “hums and threads, hums // and threads.” The humming here is different enough from the mosquito’s hum in “The Disordered Body,” however, so that the imagery remains fresh, echoing the language from other poems without defaulting to a poet’s linguistic tic.

Bodies and body parts—mouths, hair, tongues, hands—populate many of these poems, less to evoke eroticism than as signifiers of pain and loss. These are bodies that suffer and die and then are mourned through voices emerging from other bodies. Yet the book is ultimately as much about hope and longing as it is about pain and suffering. The final poem, “Late Pastoral,” describes an oil spill and its clean-up. Mourning a lost romanticized past, it opens with these lines: “How beautiful this was in the beginning: / white mulberry, Indian corn, a source // without suffering, without crime.” The speaker describes oil-covered birds, sand, fish. Then the conclusion recalls the opening lines: “How beautiful this was when the sun flickered / silver in its earnest rising. How much we want / to unstrangle the marshes, the oil-rolled shoreline, to return // to the light in the cypress, the mangrove, oxgrass. The stirring / of seabirds rising, rising.” As much as we long to return to an unspoiled paradise, we are unlikely ever to realize that dream. Yet the poem ends with ascent; sometimes individuals and even species recover.

The Wishing Tomb is Amanda Auchter’s second collection. (Her first, The Glass Crib, was published in 2011.) I hope we’ll have the opportunity to read many more.

 

Review of Descent by Kathryn Stripling Byer

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Kathryn Stripling Byer. Descent. Louisiana State University Press, 2012. 57 pages. $17.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Descent, Kathryn Stripling Byer’s sixth collection of poetry (her first, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest has also recently been reprinted by Press 53), is arranged into three sections, each exploring a different aspect of biological and cultural descent. Part I explores the lives and deaths of Byer’s ancestors, particularly her grandparents. Part II focuses on southern culture, including of course questions of race and privilege. Part III returns to more immediate, apparently autobiographical, experience, though these poems also situate themselves within the context of family.

Byer demonstrates facility with a range of forms in this collection, from free verse to sonnet sequences—many of the poems, in fact, whether in free verse or received form, are arranged as sequences. Byer seems unusually engaged with and adept at the demands of poems organized as a series or divided into sections, a strategy I appreciate. Such poems permit a poet to examine a subject from multiple perspectives, to return and return to an obsession without repeating herself.

Among my favorites is “Drought Days,” a long poem in nine sections centered in Part I. This poem explores several of the book’s central thematic concerns—belief and disbelief, what we see when we see ourselves, quotidian demonstrations of care for another, the significance of landscape. It is dedicated to the poet’s grandmother, and it examines her character and personality in a time of drought. “Rain, because prayed for,” the poem begins, “was always called God’s answer, / God being what gave / or withheld whatever we needed.” Everything comes from God, in other words, even when it doesn’t come. This opening stanza suggests the circular reasoning that almost inevitably forms a part of belief—expressing a prayer defines its fulfillment as an intentional answer in a way that expressing a wish, for example, does not. When rain follows a prayer for rain, the prayer has been answered by God. When rain follows a wish for rain, however, the wish has been fulfilled, but by whom? The speaker rebels against a God who withholds, the judgmental God whose judgments are inexplicable, and she describes her rebellion with a particularly memorable image: “God stank like a singed field.” Who would worship such a creature? Certainly not the speaker. Her grandmother does, but her grandmother would presumably describe God with different imagery. She looks out her window and sees “corn that sang when / the wind came, a husband who shoveled hay / into the cow pen, the empty yard waiting // for the child growing inside her…” “Drought Days” presents the grandmother as a woman who has both a simple life and high standards for it; the poem also develops an implied narrative as the speaker grows from a girl to a woman. In the last section, the speaker is a girl again, playing with cousins as they try to compensate for a dried-up pond. They fill an oil drum with water, pretend they’ve gone to the beach. But the “water began to smell / rusty, more tractor oil to it / than tropical coconut.” This image encapsulates the children’s identities: “We would always be / hicks. Pink and flabby like pickled / pig flesh in our grandmother’s jars.” To be persuasive, fantasy paradoxically requires some basis in reality, and tractor oil is simply too distinct from suntan lotion. Its aroma is too pervasive a reminder of their distance from the sea. The section ends with a reflection on “Soul food,” and stories that belong to others, returning the poem to its beginning. Although the speaker no longer seems to be actively rejecting her grandmother’s version of God, she nevertheless remains as excluded from the community of believers as she is from the social class of those who vacation on Myrtle Beach.

The figurative language in this poem works particularly well, as do other choices Byer makes. The lines breaks, for example, in one of the stanzas quoted above exploit the reader’s anticipation and then emphasize the children’s disappointment in their situation. Here is the full first line of the seventh stanza: “on the farm. We would always be”; the enjambment at the end could be read to encapsulate hope, but the full line, read as a line rather than parts of two sentences, undercuts that optimism, for there is no hope for change. The pessimism is confirmed with the beginning of the next line: “hicks.” Byer exploits this primary difference between poetry and prose to create layers of meaning that the sentence as simply a sentence—“We would always be hicks”—could not sustain. This final section of “Drought Days” contains 27 lines, 20 of which are enjambed. None of the line breaks calls undue attention to itself, yet they all contribute to the poem’s resonant effects. “Drought Days” is the work of a poet who understands how control of craft can significantly contribute to development of theme.

Descent contains several poems that expand the poet’s vision into a broader social realm, particularly the six-part sonnet sequence “Southern Fictions” in Part II. For me, however, the most memorable poems are those that explore the speaker’s relationships with her direct ancestors. These more personal poems remain interesting because the speaker herself seems not quite resolved on their meaning. There’s always more to be understood by the speaker—and so there’s also always more to be understood by the reader. These poems are effective because they can be known, but never completely.

Review of Songs from an Empty Cage by Jeff Gundy

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Jeff Gundy. Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace. Cascadia Publishing House, 2013. 294 pages. $23.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I am not the ideal audience for Jeff Gundy’s Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace, though I think I come close. I am a poet, after all, with a particular interest in the links between spirituality and creativity, and one who finds the transcendent and immanent equally compelling. But I am not a member of an Anabaptist tradition despite my attraction to some of the impulses behind the historic peace churches. So reading this book as someone who is a near bystander but not a member of Gundy’s community was a provocative and satisfying yet also odd experience. I noticed my readerly identity more than I often do while reading, and I recognized my outsider status, but I was an outsider this time because I am not in the minority, as Amish, Mennonites, and members of the Church of the Brethren almost always are—that was the odd part.

Songs from an Empty Cage consists of sixteen essays that engage the intersections of the four terms in the book’s subtitle. One of Gundy’s goals is to participate in a style of divine exploration that has recently come to be known as theopoetics. Theopoetics isn’t just eloquently written theology or poetry that functions as theology, but a different approach, a more imaginative stance, within theology. It is a theology of the mystics. It aims to infuse theology—which often strives for finitude and certainty and closure—with a poet’s approach to the world, an appreciation of mystery and longing and openness. Theopoetics, in other words, might be less concerned with doctrine as a source of truth than with metaphor and image as a means of exploring possibility.

Some of these essays are directed specifically toward Anabaptists, especially Mennonites, and assume some familiarity with Anabaptist history (the significance of the Martyr’s Mirror, radical violence in 16th century Münster) and contemporary political and theological questions (in the work of theologian John Howard Yoder for example). These essays both puzzled and intrigued me. Gundy provides enough context for those of us outside his tradition to situate ourselves, but he doesn’t feel compelled to rehearse the entire history of the Protestant Reformation or of Anabaptism’s place within it. As a result, I could follow his arguments, but I also felt a newly kindled curiosity, a desire to learn more.

Many of the essays are structured as interesting hybrids of memoir, intellectual argument, and creative expression. They enact, therefore, Gundy’s attraction to heresy (he confesses, on the first page of his introduction, to a “fascination (mostly intellectual) with transgression, opposition, and ‘heresy’”) by refusing rigid generic boundaries—without drawing unnecessary overt attention to the fact that that is what he’s doing. I don’t mean simply that he includes some poetry within his prose, but more importantly that he crosses the major division that existed in many English departments during the latter part of the twentieth century—that between the creative writers and the analytical writers, the emotive types and the intellectuals—a division that more recently seems to be dwindling, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Because of the structure of these essays, we not only witness a mind thinking, but we’re also privy to some of the intuitive leaps that mind makes.

“’Truth Did Not Come into the World Naked’: Images, Stories, and Intimations,” for example, illustrates Gundy’s struggle with abstraction. It begins with an anecdote—he had been invited to reflect on the contributions of a colleague, J. Denny Weaver, and to address among other topics how his “viewpoint on Christology” related to Weaver’s work. Rather than explain his understanding of Christ directly, comparing or contrasting it with Weaver’s, Gundy recalls a poem, “How the Boy Jesus Resisted Taking Out the Trash.” He includes the poem in this section of his essay, and then goes on to consider how his poem corresponds to the nature or style of some of Jesus’ teaching. Gundy’s response is decidedly elliptical, but then Jesus was also at times an elliptical fellow. In considering theological questions, Gundy returns again and again to the concrete and incarnate. He includes several other brief narratives in this essay, referencing Walt Whitman, Thomas Merton, the apocryphal Gospel of Philip, James Wright, and others with equal ease. The essay concludes with a description of a “poetry night hike,” organized by Gundy, that went awry. He blamed himself, but got a poem out of it anyway, “Where Water Finds an Edge,” which begins with the line “Nothing like a careful, thorough plan with one large error.” The speaker of the poem searches for a place to sit beside the river, and then the poem continues:

Every stone is a section of the mind of God,                                                                                           every leaning tree and breathing creature.                                                                                               We need the dark because it makes us clumsy,

because it makes us forget the banks we are rushing between,                                                         muttering about hymns and women while the Falls                                                                           open before us. We will not need to be ready

to tumble down. We will shine and shout                                                                                               and all the damage will be forgotten soon.                                                                                             The water is not wounded by its breathless journey,

it bears its troubles lightly, it winks to the sun,                                                                                          it does not falter as the full night arrives.                                                                                                And the hard ledges glow, long after all else is lost.

The essay ends one paragraph later, with a reflection on the gift of error, the value of stumbling through the dark. Both the poem and the essay demonstrate the style, substance, and value of theopoetics. Rather than endlessly searching after certainty, we might become like the water, forgiving ourselves for our own clumsiness on our own “breathless journey,” leaping forward even “as the full night arrives.” Gundy never does directly address the instruction he began with, to provide some description or definition of his Christology. Nevertheless, by concluding the essay with this poem, he suggests that theology, too, needs its own darkness, its own glowing ledges. Precisely by living fully as incarnated beings in this world, he seems to say, we inhabit the mind of God.

Many of the essays in this collection reward close readings. Like the best theology and the best poetry, they open out onto the world.

 

Review of Monks Beginning to Waltz by George Looney

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George Looney. Monks Beginning to Waltz. Truman State University Press, 2012. 93 pages. $15.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Beginning to waltz or participating in other activities, monks show up frequently in George Looney’s sixth collection of poetry. So do artists, particularly Caravaggio, and violins and hearts and various species of birds—vultures, crows, parakeets, loons, and that other Bird, Charlie Parker and those other flying creatures, angels. What this suggests is that Looney is comfortable drawing from classical culture as well as nature for his imagery, metaphors, and motifs. Despite this range, the poems individually and collectively explore one dominant theme—the spiritual longing that works through and yet somehow transcends mortal flesh. Hence Caravaggio, that painter of fleshly abundance. Hence the birds, those beautiful fluttering creatures who are here and then gone, who embody our desire to rise above the very flesh that weights us to this life.

The opening poem of Monks Beginning to Waltz, “The Sorrow and the Grace of Vultures,” exemplifies this theme, and it is a particularly successful example of Looney’s craft. It is also my favorite. Through deft line breaks and carefully placed pronouns, the poem exploits ambiguity, not to confuse but to engage a reader’s conscious attention with the scene at hand. Most of us don’t ordinarily associate vultures with grace, either its physical or the spiritual form; yet the poem begins with the speaker’s father asserting that connection: “My father says they prove grace is possible / even in this world, // that memories only need the occasional / slow drag of wings to stay aloft.” This metaphor is accurate, I think—memories do stay with us without much effort, or reappear suddenly as if brought back with the breeze. But why would grace be affiliated specifically with buzzards, rather than with some more delicate or more majestic or simply more beautiful bird? The speaker interrupts to insert what seem to be his own metaphors: “They drift / thermals off flat tar, dark angels // some Italian might paint. I’ve seen them pray / over a deer with a second skin of flies, // an altar panel Tiepolo would not have / placed behind the cross.” Are dark angels necessarily demons? When buzzards pray, do they praise death? Is this poem going to become simply macabre, or is its author up to something else? I found myself both fascinated and repulsed by this imagery, yet also intrigued by a speaker who could imagine grace enveloping even a buzzard.

The poem contains an embedded story that reveals the relationship between grace and buzzards, a story in which buzzards become like angels, messengers of God if, as the speaker’s father wonders, God is who we’re praying to when we pray. A soldier during World War II, the father had found himself hiding out in an Italian church, along with several other soldiers, some wounded. “A local told him // Tiepolo painted the frescoes that flickered / around them. Explosions // brought the stained glass to life. / In the tortured light of saints // they cowered in the rafters.” They? By this point, readers have likely forgotten the buzzards, or momentarily set them aside, but within a few lines, we’re reminded that these birds led us into the poem, and now they’ll lead us through the story. “Could’ve been / the end of the world for all // they knew, he says. The wounded were / so afraid my father and a friend // opened fire. The first hit hung there, / claws stuck in wood. // It fell later, in the silence after / the shelling. They had to // shoot the rest out of the air. It was / awful, he says. Trapped // by the amnesia of panic, they flapped / from stained glass to wood, // looking for the rip artillery had left in the roof / where they had come in. // One finally broke through the flickering image / of Saint Francis and died. // Two escaped through the shattered monk.” Within seventeen lines, Looney has used the pronoun “they” five times. On each occasion, the referent of “they” is certain or nearly certain, yet readers understand that lingering beneath the buzzards’ panic is the panic of the soldiers, and the end of the world could be near for all involved. Looney’s choice to rely on a pronoun rather than on a series of nouns, in other words, contributes to the poem’s depth and complexity; seldom is a poem’s success so dependent on “they.” As the poem moves toward its conclusion, the layers of meaning depend less on grammar than on the connotations of icons. The image of St. Francis, patron of animals, leads not to freedom but to death, at least until the saint himself becomes “shattered.” These two buzzards who live through the ordeal to escape become “angels who flew / through Francis into a sky, // broken, with room for grace.” The father believes in this grace because he believes in forgiveness—for the multitude of sins implicit in this story, many of them almost unavoidable for the individual soldier.

While other poems in this collection include a range of content, they all challenge the received notion that the flesh undermines the spirit. Instead, these poems suggest that the flesh reveals the spirit, that the flesh opens onto spirit, that the spirit—if not identical to the flesh—nevertheless finds its meaning in this incarnated world.

If I would ask anything else of this book, it would be for greater stylistic variety. (With one exception, all of the poems are written in couplets or in a combination of couplets and tercets.) Yet the book’s consistency also contributes to its virtues, the consistency increasing the pressure, with each poem, to make it new. Looney does that by taking the old questions seriously, by insisting on meaning even in this modern devastated world.