A Slender Grace: Poems.
How right that the Conference on Christianity and Literature should have designated this book of poems by Rod Jellema, whom a colleague calls "... a poet of deep and humane good sense who's infused with an abiding awareness of the holy ... " the Book of the Year in 2004. Jeanne Murray Walker, in a recent issue of Christianity and Literature, pointed out how our culture shuns facing intense experiences, including death itself, by searching for technical solutions to problems and noted, "We have fashioned a prose world.... [But] to sit with great poetry is to reflect on love and death, to open the window to mystery, to ask childlike questions again, to find a path that is not the broad way." And in a lecture some months ago, Jellema explained the process by which he went from discovery to affirmation, and from these to fascination--sheer exuberance at this world so full of surprises at every turn, and all begging for a voice through the miracle of language.
Karl Barth observed of God that he is "so unassuming." Moses is permitted to see the glory of God--but only barely, from the cleft of a rock. Something of this sense--that God is accessible, but only through crevices, flashes, and epiphanies, splinters, threads, rather than through direct encounters--underlies this sprightly anthology of 67 poems by this professor emeritus of English and poet-in-residence at various venues.
This motif--the "slender grace" of the title--appears throughout the collection. In the poem "Bicycle Parts" we see it in the phrase "narrow strings in sudden slants of light ..."; in "Car Pool Radio," where he describes "the thin line of absence of static" (20); in the quotation of Plotinus, who says, "If only we could see for a moment the holy light we pursue ... " (87); in the poem "We used to Grade God's Sunsets from the Lost Valley Beach" (33), where he urges us to affirm "how much promise there is/on a hurtling planet, swung from a thread of light and saved by nothing but grace"; and in his charming defense of the dignity of the green bean against a detractor, when he talks about "the holy scent of turned earth / slendered into a bean ... " (34). But it occurs with special poignancy in the poem "Letter to Lewis Smedes about God's Presence" (13). Jellema and Smedes, a friend, reflected together about life's mysteries--both global and personal tragedies. Their correspondence leads the poet to conclude that, though one knows with his head that "God's mercy is as wide as the ocean, as deep as the sea, ... " we all must, including mystics and poets, experience God in "the slender incursions of splintered light, echoes, fragments, odd words and phrases/like flashes through darkened hallways ... The thin and tenuous thread we hang by" (13).
In a helpful preface, Jellema explains how he has practiced the art of "the double vision:' It begins with fascination--by reveling in this amazing, dazzling, surprise-filled world we have received as gift. Look where you wish--in the heavens, or the sea during a snorkeling expedition, or a dryer at a laundromat, full of clothes, tossing off colors like a kaleidoscope, or the six components of a bicycle, or the pineapple (he persuades us that we need to recover the art of preparing this fruit), or having us listen to Blind Willie Johnson playing the blues, or the painter Van Gogh, or life in Nicaragua, or the contrast between a nun open to unusual phenomena in the skies during Epiphany and the tired watchman who wishes only a cup of coffee and his shift replacement--look where you will, this world "moves." And it matters in the moving.
This poet's eye is keen, "giving to airy nothings a local habitation and a name." The double vision comes into play as the poet filters his experiences into the carefully nuanced prisms of the miracle of language--part of the fascination we are missing in our prose world. He comments on the rewards of linguistic stewardship in "Words Take Water's Way," where he notes that words need to be burnished as water burnishes stone. Images and experiences need a second look. When God pronounced his creation Good, he also gave us the gift of language to express that goodness--its richness, its depth, its power to arouse, to suggest. He created a world with opportunities for metaphors, which can illuminate similarities in unlike objects or ideas, a world displaying a divine profligacy, a world in which tears and joys, weddings, life and death, all jostle each other in unending profusion.
Language rewards him for his linguistic husbandry. Words embody. "They crystallize to form little incarnations, the very body of thought and insight, the enfleshment of awareness and vision," as he said in his lecture. (What reader has not been moved by C. S. Lewis's wonderful lines, "Aslan is on the move," or the description of the White Witch's domain as the place where "it is always winter and never Christmas"? Language permits his recollection of the ice delivery man to bring back a whole world of childhood--an experience similar to Proust's when he tasted a piece of madeleine cake. But he exercises his "double vision" by going a step further, as he reflects on "the spin of star-ice in space" as a foil to the warm tar of the street. He sees double in his "A Caribbean Cruise: A Letter" (80). He tries to live into the exuberant life available on this floating palace--the solicitousness of the crew, the pleasing amenities, the varied rhythms and sounds of the languages. But instead of attending the floor show, he will go to his room to do some reflecting, holding this world of "the glitz of a lit-up ship" at arm's length.
The double vision occurs as irony in several of the poems included under the heading "Assignment Nicaragua" He notes the disparity between the words on a 1930 plaque affirming "the cordial relations" between that country and the United States, and the reality symbolized by the scarred cement and the broken-off water pipe. The fountain yields no water, and children's names on crosses of wood speak of death by diarrhea. But he speaks to an even "deeper angrier fountain" than the children's names--the exploitation by one nation over another, masked by ritualistic diplomatic language. Something of this bifurcated angle of vision occurs in the poem "Take a Chance" (47), where, using three different situations, he celebrates the good that comes from choosing the road that others neglect: staying in place to watch "the quick red rage of a torn leaf before it gentles itself onto the quiet pool"; the student who chooses to pursue mathematics--the subject in which he is weakest; and what the child will never learn about light and darkness if you keep his night light burning. In his brief poem "Contact" (91), he praises what the Japanese might call "Wabi Sabi"--the case for imperfection, the need to be satisfied with less than a perfect amethyst or whatever, given the world we inherit.
What gives the poems this depth of vision is the poet's Christian sensibility. He affirms theology but wishes to have it incarnated in wisdom and experience. To use the phrase of another poet--Emily Dickinson--he tells the truth "slant." But his sensibility serves as a spiritual compass, honing in on biblical wisdom--sometimes directly, sometimes intuitively, but truly every time, as in his poem on Epiphany, the letter to Lew Smedes, the poem on sunsets, which concludes by reminding us that God gave us the palette, we are to do the painting. Again, his poems of respect for the painter Van Gogh, the "A Prayer for Darkness in the Age of Glare" and the very fine "Frisian Psalms, 1930"--all these and others show their religious grounding more or less explicitly. One might say that Jellema's robust religious commitment being what it is, the poetry will inevitably carry the fingerprints of his faith.
But this disposition also comes to expression frequently in especially two clusters of themes--the theme of home and of improvisations on darkness and light. "All of life is but a wandering to find home" says a character in John Ford's play. In fact, ]ellema uses the heading "Some Place Called Home" for the poems in this group. His "Travel Advisory" (79) wishes to say that being a citizen of "that dim outlandish civitas dei" implies that we ought not to feel too satisfied anywhere--not in our travel destinations, and not even in our own homes. "The Housekite" (5) suggests that the pilot of this contrivance should not entertain too lively a "spirity dream of home." He borrows aptly from one of his favorite poets, Czeslaw Milosz, in a quotation that introduces the poem "Why I Never Take off my Watch at Night" (82). Says Milosz: "Tell me, as you would in the middle of the night / When we face only night, the ticking of a watch, / The whistle of an express train, tell me / Whether you really think this world is your home?"
The poet has traveled far and wide and is, as Tennyson put it, a part of all he has met. His poem on his summer home (95), however, is not one that would bring a rush of buyers. It is what it is, we learn, but no more than that. He has no illusions about this world offering a permanent abiding place. His poems on light and darkness also exhibit nuances arising from his double vision. Light, of course, is a condition of our lives. But we have not handled it well. Our world has too much glare (88), too much unfriendly illumination, and is haunted by the threat of a nuclear blast. Thus, we often derive wisdom and truth in the mystery of darkness. The final poem says so as well, one of my favorites, where we learn that in the Fridsma's Frisian home the kerosene lamp did not get lit until the family had sung some psalms--in order that they could get used to the dark and appreciate the light when it came.
Jellema has a wide circle of acquaintances, and many of the poems are dedicated to such people. Those relationships enhance the pleasure of such poems. But they are all rooted in life, in experience, in astute observation and reflection. They shun the tortuous self-scrutiny of so much contemporary poetry. He suits the meters to the subject; one feels the beat, but it is not obtrusive. Reading these chastely-chiseled compositions provides a pleasure of a high order--health to the mind and challenges to live reflectively. They prove the truth of Milosz's observation that "One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose."
Steve J. Van Der Weele
Calvin College (Retired)