The Corpse Flower: New & Selected Poems by Bruce Beasley (University of Washington Press, 2007)
Mary’s House: New & Selected Poems by David Craig (Idylls Press, 2007)
Some Heaven by Todd Davis (Michigan State University Press, 2007)
Apropos of Nothing by Richard Jones (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
IS THERE a contemporary Christian poetic aesthetic?
This question came to me as I was reading through Richard Jones’s new collection, Apropos of Nothing. Very soon I was aware of being in the presence of a distinctly Zen sensibility. The “nothing” of the title is the book’s controlling concept, the Buddhist “nothing” that is not at all negativity but rather a spiritually positive emptying of our false assurances of having figured the world out. Poem after poem gently pulls the rug out from under our assumptions of where meaning might be found, especially our assumption as readers or writers of poetry that words are the prime carriers of meaning. Words actually have no weight, the opening poem, “Heft,” declares: “I lift every word / like a stone or a feather.” In “The Other Side of the World” the poet is in a Chinese shop,
among the stationery goods
wishing to abandon all languages
and simply hold the salesgirl’s hand
So if words are weightless, are there other conveyors of meaning? Jones looks and listens attentively everywhere, but keeps finding sure meaning slip away. He picks up dead birds from the grass “holding them as if they were messengers, / as if they might speak.” But a sparrow falls “from my fingers / like a gift not mine to carry, like the lightest of stones” (“The Sparrow”).
Yet there’s value, he finds, in a tactile relation to the world. In one of the few poems with Christian referents, “Immaculate,” a young Hispanic window washer wipes “a sudsy / blessing over the glass,” the swift motions of his squeegee making “the sign of the cross.” Clearly (and this is the sort of pun Jones enjoys), the poet senses himself here in the presence of meaning. As he also does, amused, in the ritual of making his tea, despite the sacrilege of doing it in a microwave (“Tea Ceremony”).
Quiet enjoyment of life’s paradoxes, lighthearted self-deprecation, everyday images scrutinized for enlightenment, an unagitated bowing before incomprehensibility: these are marks of a Zen poetic aesthetic, though Jones identifies himself elsewhere as a Christian believer (see his essay in this issue). How, then, about the other poets under review, all of whom are professed Christians? Is there a shared aesthetic that characterizes their work?
I turn first to Todd Davis, because his poetic voice and temperament are closest to Jones’s: a tranquility, a comfort in living with enigma. The poem “How Else” images “everything / / we will never understand,” but in language that’s awed and grateful: “How else / would God enter this room except through curtains / of light, muslin sliding over your hip…?” Several poems muse on Davis’s experience as a Mennonite Christian in a faith community which counts on prayer, that is, on verbal communication with God; yet Davis has doubts about the efficacy of this use of language. Our “words will not make God walk across the earth / any faster,” he submits in “Litany.”
The prayers alluded to in “Litany” are “our lamentations over the darkness.” Here it is the literal dark of short winter days, the frozen ground and river that halt life for the farming community that is Davis’s home. But all of our darknesses—the suffering and loss and death that are humankind’s lot—are wrapped unflinchingly into the poems of Some Heaven. The heaven of the title poem is an imagined paradise for rabbits, “a place wild with carrot and dill” and “every coyote full”; but the rabbit which the poet’s young son prays is in heaven has just suffered gruesome injuries, ended by Davis’s own shovel-blow to stop the animal’s pain. In other poems the darkness is the clouding of confidence in God, a doubt which Davis accepts calmly as corollary to Christian faith.
The locus for the poems’ play between faith and doubt, as well as for their re-envisioning of the Christian movement from suffering and death to resurrection, is predominantly the natural world. Here is where Todd Davis is deeply at home, finely attuned (in the tradition of Emerson, Whitman, and Wendell Berry) to nature’s voice. For unlike Richard Jones, who felt the dead sparrow’s message slipping from his hands, Davis is confident that nature does speak to him, to us. In fact, nature teaches us to speak, to pray, as in “Catechism”:
We’ve been learning to pray
the prayer of the red eft, to make
the sign of the common egret….
Nature is also where God becomes incarnate. This is most powerfully envisioned in “Annunciation,” a poem in the intriguing contemporary Christian sub-genre in which nothing in the poem except its title has an explicit Christian referent, so that the entire experience of the poem is then drawn up into the meaning of the Christian story. Davis’s title “Annunciation” prepares our minds for Gabriel’s announcement of the incarnation to Mary, but in Davis’s worldview the incarnation happens in the very body of the earth covered by windblown snow: “Here everything we ever did / is lost beneath the drifts of our flesh, buried,” and death is ugly and apparently absolute: “bones gnawed open at their ends…the only bodies we’ve ever known consumed.” Yet a vision of resurrection arises from trust in nature’s renewal:
the earth, where everything returns
to that other body made of dirt and water
and a winter’s worth of manure, spread
on the field the first warm day of spring,
when trout lilies lift themselves near
the swamp and a thousand moons of trillium
illumine the forest’s green floor.
The tension between death and Christ’s risen life is also core to the poetic vision of Bruce Beasley in The Corpse Flower: New and Selected Poems, but for Beasley death’s corruption often seems to be winning out. The book’s name refers to an actual flower which—in the title poem—simulates death’s “fish-rot / horse-corpse” stench in order to attract insects (“decoyed swarms of / death-hungerers”) to propagate it, lured by its “rancid / aphrodisiac air.” The paradox that life and its wonders are propagated through sexuality’s carnal muck grabs Beasley’s imagination throughout the volume. And for Beasley this procreative paradox is inseparable from an inscrutable God who claims to be the ground of meaning but whose meaning is inherently impossible to make out.
Typical of how Beasley knots these key concerns is a passage from “Is”:
In “our” image, male and female
Split, and teeming
out of that one “Am”
So she can fuck with Daddy you know
that’s what they’re doing when they say
they’re “taking a nap”
Inwardly penetrated and inflamed
by divine love, says Richard of Saint
Victor, the soul
passes utterly into that other glory—
That Is, penetrant and burning
God’s unspeakable name
made out of the imperfect
of to be,
Y H W H
Copulation as a working of the copula, that grammatical sign announcing difference’s dissolution: language play like this is Beasley’s mode for most of the past decade. So is the assertively non-lyric experimental form. Phrases are punched out into isolated spaces, hung as pieces of image/thought whose connections the poet wants to test: personal memory in deliberately crude slang intercut with snippets of higher diction from scripture, theologians, philosophers, other artists.
This is poetry engaging the mind’s love of intellectual play. For readers who prefer something that speaks more accessibly to personal experience, the volume’s earlier poems explore similar themes of death and the procreation of life and meaning, but in more traditional free verse. My favorite, “After an Adoration,” describes the figures in a crèche scene from the imagined inside of their bewilderment after they’re done with the adoring for which they came. (“One wise man’s / mind has begun to go.”) Quickly the poem generalizes to all our adorations, all our bows before the Word made flesh:
Into each adoration, some peculiar
disillusion intrudes: always
someone in the crowd of pilgrims
averts his eyes from the Christ child
and glares accusingly outward
as though the arrival
had satisfied nothing.
Beasley is that glaring pilgrim, the believer who yet remains unsatisfied: “After / an adoration, the shock / / of how much remains / unrevealed.”
David Craig, in Mary’s House: New & Selected Poems, is also fascinated by how much remains unrevealed, but his tone could hardly be more different from Beasley’s. Craig probes the depths with a twinkle in his eye. The keynote to his work might be his two-line poem, “Pentecost”:
Who is this Holy Spirit?
And what is He doing in the eggplant?
This wondering delight at God’s mysterious ways is what attracts Craig to the several saints whose lives he enters through his poetic craft. Major sections of Mary’s House consist of sequences reflecting on writings by or about Saints Francis, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Liguori. For Craig, the saints are more than models for us; in giving themselves totally to God’s will “these transparent saints” can actually “become us, / our breathing, the days we live in.” These lines are from his reflection on Saint Thérèse’s deathbed quip that since she had done no works worthy of God, he would simply have to reward her according to his own works:
Here, no sense of industry,
only the movement of intersection:
our works, hers. We are made new
in old skins.
Craig makes real for us the “intersection” of the saints’ lives, ours, and God’s. His poetic mission statement could be phrased in the words he applies to Saint Francis: “How could he get his friends / to know what was real, and missing, / what demanded so much?” Craig’s “friends” are his readers, and what he wants to help us see as real is the urgency of living well. Hence his interest in deathbed reflections: those moments when a life is reviewed and assessed. He has Saint Liguori, in his Preparation for Death, ponder:
Who can be ready?
And so we prepare, badly:
our heads filled with half-submerged
judgments, our hearts, stale with the weight
of the nearly forgiven.
Mary’s House abounds in sharp insights like this into our pitifully stale hearts. Yet Craig is tender toward our human stumbling. In a sequence of sonnets keyed to passages from Matthew’s gospel, he is as wryly tough on himself as on the rest of us:
What will I do when my Lord returns?
mutter about the sea, my hitching
Will I claim, “Master, I only knew how
when You pulled me from the song of
No, I’ll fall on my wayward Christian face,
wait without options, in sinful silence—
for grace. (Matthew 7:24-29)
Drawing now on the work of these four poets, can we find a consistent Christian poetic aesthetic? If an “aesthetic” is defined as the way an artistic medium makes its meaning—and for poetry this would be its use of language and form—then we’d have to say no. Even in Craig’s book alone, there is an enormous range of poetic styles, voices, and forms; this seems natural for a volume covering decades of a poet’s work. These poets do share a Christian vision—of suffering and death somehow redeemed and transformed by divine love—but each has developed a signature sensibility and particular ways of shaping his art to bring this vision to life for us anew.
They also share an underlying assumption that any meaning their art seems to make is provisional. This acceptance of the limits of language and intellect could be called an aesthetic, but I wouldn’t claim it as uniquely Christian. Contemporary poets of whatever grounding, religious or not, tend to write out of this characteristically postmodern stance that questions what meaning might be and how art might mediate it. Such foundational uncertainty can lead to a poetry of cynicism, but that’s not the response of the poets under review. For them all, life’s mystery is an adventure to be embraced with creative exuberance. They might not all throw us David Craig’s teasing jolts—
We live in such mystery it makes me
who invented red-tag sales?
(from “Cleveland December”)
—but they all help us to wonder, and that’s a wonderful thing.