In her poem “The Angel Over Patmos,”1 Tania Runyan imagines an angel circling “like a plane on hold” over the island while John “hunches in a cave down there,/picking at a skeleton of fish.” This image, of the message on high waiting to communicate with the human and the human seeking to communicate with the Divine (which occurs later in the poem), recurs in many guises throughout the attractive new collection Christian Poetry in America Since 1940. I hope you are enjoying National Poetry Month as I am, and reading this delightful book is one way to celebrate the season.
The title is misleading, in that the anthology contains poems by poets born in 1940 or later, almost all still alive; the poems themselves were published mostly from about 1980 to 2020, a welcome up-to-date collection of “Christian” poems. The editors explain that while there could be several ways of defining “Christian,” they mean poems that are “distinctly Christian in subject matter” (21).
Returning to Patmos, Runyan imagines the angel circling with a knapsack stuffed with “beasts/and rainbows, sulfur and emeralds.” The celestial world of God seems to exist in another plane, to encompass another reality from that of John, who has mites burrowing in his skin, “saltwater stiffening his hair/like the driftwood he tries to burn.” For most of the poem there is no communication between these two realms, just the angel circling and waiting for that one electric moment when contact is established, and the angel’s sack of revelation can be delivered.
Poetry, like prayer, can be an attempt to transcend the surface reality of the world as we know it to a mysterious meaning beyond. To accomplish this, poets have to be the most imaginatively reckless and, paradoxically, the most careful users of language. They refashion our tired ways of seeing, word by word. Poetry is not the ordinary language in which we write up a shopping list or text a colleague an invitation to lunch. It is a specialized construction designed to be treasured for the language and form with which it addresses its subject. It may be long or short; serious, comic or both; exalted or mundane–but if mundane, still made memorable by the exquisite way its mundanity is framed.
To give an idea of the way this is done, let me reference a few poems in the collection. Marilyn Nelson’s “Incomplete Renunciation” satirizes our materialism, beginning by asking the Deity to “Please let me have/A 10-room house adjacent to campus,” continuing with a further list of material wishes, and concluding with “And let it pass through the eye of a needle.” Like Nelson, I have enjoyed reading and writing poems that recontextualize Biblical stories or messages within a modern context, helping us wryly recognize how relevant they still are. Jesus came in “that” time, but for each of us he also comes now, as the poets remind us.
Scott Cairns’s “Possible Answers to Prayer” imagines God responding to the all-too-human prayers of someone perhaps like you or me. In each of six three-line stanzas God gently affirms the speaker while correcting flaws in matters like the speaker’s inadequate repentance and “intermittent concern for the sick.” The real kicker comes in the last two stanzas, where God notes the speaker’s “lipsmackingly righteous indignation” toward those who annoy him and tells the speaker “with what fervor I adore/precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.” It’s a salutary reminder of how differently from us God may see others–in his wisdom and comprehensive perspective–and how reticent we ought to be in assuming that we have the truth about them. It’s a poem crafted with great artistry, eliciting humility in the reader and awe at God’s patient lovingkindness with us.
I delighted in the six poems in the anthology by Jeanne Murray Walker, a poet previously unknown to me. I enjoy “quirky” and so does Walker, as represented in her poem “Light,” about her (I’m guessing high school) teacher Mr. Luman, whose comical passion for infusing students with cultural knowledge (“He dodged through/subjects like a bumper car at a carnival”) is cut short in an accident at a train crossing. She has a fascinating poem, “Staying Power,” dedicated to Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, which creatively represents how God keeps working to draw all people to him regardless of their persistent indifference. You have to read it to see how she pulls it off, but in my estimation the final image sequence is a small miracle of spiritual insight. The book also presents two of her poems about creation, “In the Beginning Was the Word,” a sonnet, and “The Creation,” which lovingly meditates on the absurdity of giraffes. Definitely worth the price of admission.
Continuing with the Garden of Eden, William Baer’s sonnet “Snake” imagines Genesis 3:5 from the serpent’s perspective, beginning with a line addressed to Adam and Eve, “Yes, you have a lovely garden here,” and ending with the closing sales pitch of his temptation: “put hiss in your voice and fork your tongue in two.” Baer also has sonnets in this collection on Adam, the Magnificat, and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian.
In this volume there is free verse and formal verse, poems about whippoorwills, hawks, Eve, geodes, little girls in church, the seven deadly sins, paintings by Millet and Fra Angelico, Amish uncles, Mennonites, seminarians, bees, Flannery O’Connor, Ash Wednesday, and a Japanese Maple in January. In other words, there’s considerable variety in subject matter and treatment, with 127 poems by 35 different poets. Most of the poems are short, with the “content” part of the volume at 193 pages. If you enjoy good writing, you’re sure to find some new favorites here.
Marilyn McEntyre, in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, tells us that “A good poem will model and require a quality of attention that can transform our vision and make it not only more precise but also more capable of gratitude and awe” (163). Those are surely worthy goals for spiritually inclined readers, and I will conclude with McEntyre’s wise words that “Time spent on seeing like this is never lost.”
Notes and References:
1 Runyan’s poem is also printed in this anthology.
Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University. He teaches creative writing in poetry and also writes poetry.
Title image credit: Paraclete Press / Spectrum.
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