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Poetry As Liturgy: An Anthology by Canadian Poets.

Poetry As Liturgy: An Anthology by Canadian Poets. Edited by Margo Swiss. Toronto: The St. Thomas Poetry Series, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9735910-4-0. Pp. 239.

This beautifully-produced anthology offers an introductory essay by Margo Swiss that serves as a worthy apologia for poetry as liturgy. Swiss and thirteen other writers who deserve a place in the library of religious poetry in the twentieth century have collected their selections in response to this unique rubric. The compelling results represent the work of acclaimed and seasoned poets who form the literati of the poetry of religious experience in Canada. Poetry as Liturgy draws its selections from seven different Christian denominations; many of its writers have been published by the St. Thomas Poetry Series, spawned in 1996 by Swiss and her husband, the co-editor of the series, David Kent. Some of the poets are devoutly centered in liturgical practices; others are from non-liturgical traditions. Each poet's collection is pertinently titled; all of the poets offer their own understanding of liturgy as a preface to their contributions. These enlightening clarifications become valuable hermeneutics for reading the poetry that follows.

In her introduction, Swiss offers a well-researched and persuasively argued investigation of the history of liturgy from its Greek and Hebrew origins and practices, up until current Christian adaptations of its uses. Readers and teachers will find that Swiss's essay and its bibliography make this book well worth having in their offer of an excellent syllabus for serious study of poetry as liturgy. The introduction follows three instructive epigraphs, one each from George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Kathleen Norris, in which poetry authenticates itself as liturgy in modern times.

Calling on Karl Rahner as her authority for the theological principles undergirding the conflation of poetry and liturgy, Swiss makes a strong case for the purposes of the anthology: "For Rahner, God wills that human beings should ... produce books as well as read them" (19). The poet is by this identified as a doer of God's will in the world in making life and language sacramental, as does the priest. Their work is completed when readers enter their sphere and thus facilitate "a process in which [they] commune with the 'Real Presences' of literary art," described by George Steiner (23). Augustine, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Sydney, and in recent times, the esteemed Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, all give credence and authority to these claims. Adding to their voices, Swiss appropriately invites contemporaries such as Kathleen Norris, Scott Cairns, and Mary Karr into the discussions. Ultimately, her argument contends that Christ is the liturgist who "enacts liturgy 'in and through' us," the Word by which all other words are made sacrament (14-15). As a corollary of this paradigm, "Christian poets mediate reality to their audience by employing words for their fully redeemed worth" (27).

The anthology is dedicated in memoriam to Marianne Bluger, renowned Canadian poet and humanitarian activist who died in 2005 shortly after preparing the canticles written specifically for this volume's opening selections. Especially well-known for her fine expertise in the Japanese forms haiku and tanka, Bluger appropriates her own imminent death as both the form and content of the liturgical songs she offers in this collection. The lyricism and delicacy of her language resonate with closures of joy and hope that have been hard-won by her acceptance of mortality and her embrace of immortality: "may my heart, sweet Lord, / receive you in pure joy / as the easeful moment when I die," she prays. The poems are explicitly liturgical in their impulses and musicality, celebrating the natural cycles of life, death and the incarnation in all of existence: "the One who had crossed / the bridge of pain / heard where He stood / on the other side / & wept for me"; "the warm rain of His tears / soaked my bones in goodness" (35). The simplicity of Bluger's diction, in tension with the profundity of her life's interior geography, produces a clarity and wisdom belonging to saintliness without as much as a hint of sentimentality or melodrama. Her sensitive engagement of caesura, oxymoron, alliteration and understatement melds to make her themes authentic and accessible and breathtakingly transparent. The final words of her last entry, "On the Saints," are both her epitaph and eschatology: "singing even as [I] die" (40).

Lief Vaage, a Lutheran priest, offers the point of reference by which all of the poets might be measured in their attempts to propose and define liturgy. For elucidation, he hearkens back to the Greek use of the word which "denotes a public service at one's own cost and often involv[ing] sponsorship of activities related to the gods" (106). Liturgy is not worship, if only because it was done for the sake of the people, while worship was done for "the sake of the gods" (106). Vaage's setting of this paradigm eases the tension readers might experience with poems in the anthology that make little or no mention of the divine, allowing their poetics of the natural world and human experience to implicate the spiritual without theological cues or allusions. His own contribution to the anthology is a twelve-part Advent litany entitled "Love Come Down" depicting the days between the Nativity and Epiphany. With numerous allusions to Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi" and to the scriptures with which the poet is profoundly familiar, the poem is a moving portrayal of the incarnations immense mystery--the divine and human becoming one in the experience of all. With their finely orchestrated feminine and masculine line endings, the poems verses also display their liturgical strength in the repetitions and catalogues of images replete with visual and auditory stimuli: "I am the highway / The straightened desert / The lowland lifted / The rough plain / The mountain low"; "[I am] It]he ... God / Who waits for you / Who wakens with you" (108). This incarnated Christ, "perfumed / With myrrh ... [f]or the day he weds / For the hour of/His darkest gladness" comes in Advent, prepared for his crucifixion, death and resurrection through which we will accompany him in hope, even as we long for his coming.

Susan McCaslin's short but exquisite offerings, "A Liturgy of Creatures" demonstrate this approach. Except for a beautiful prayer to the "Holy One" whom she petitions to speak in the words that "sound in the crevasses of [her] speech", to "sing ... transformations / even to the outermost cul de sacs of suburbia" (121), her poems, though rich with biblical and literary allusions, focus on the natural world. Simulating the language of the Psalter, McCaslin discovers and embraces language and nature as the "open secret[s]" of the divine. In the sensuality that is aroused by the poet's art, the creatures of her rural locale, from the monarch butterfly to the lowly bovine, find themselves in a chorus of sight and sound that fills the earth with praises. The dramatic power of McCaslin's psalmody arises from the palette of sophisticated language from which she paints the existence of the common, even mundane: "Squat brown hare / you, sensitive / to all playing ectoplasm / acclimatized to your element-- / constant angst / ... quivering stasis" (127).

In this vein, one finds also the offerings of David Reibetanz, who explains in his preface that "the intersection between poetry and liturgy ... is a praise of that wholeness of being ... as it exists among us in unregarded splendor"--what Richard Wilbur has called "the beat of the spirit" (194). Influenced by Christian and Buddhist texts, Reibetanz bookends his selections, titled "a going that can never be a home," with poems whose locus is the tree, opening with an Edenic "apple" tree and closing with Kiidk'yaas'--the world's only giant golden spruce--brought down by a West Coast logger in 1997 to protest logging policies. "[S]unday meditations" depicts the subject in whose "ear and eye ... the unseen unheard within" reveals the "anahata of ... [his/her] heart / beats" (197). Synesthesia, alliteration, and linguistic improvisation provide the orchestration for Reibetanz's praises wherein "natural blues" drum the "troubles you and God alone know"; he testifies that "what you have given / in soul blood / gives itself back / in this chorus" warning that "you cannot only lotus your way to freedom" (198). The intersections of language and being arouse divinations of the spirit in "first blood and the stars" and "grandmother spirit"--poems of genesis, exodus and revelation: "eyes brim with what becomes the sea / voice opens / to mouth / the water of the earth" (199, 196).

Although highly biblically-informed, John Terpstra's poems are liturgical, as he says, only in the sense that they are "anything that ... would be appropriate to read on a Sunday morning during worship" in his own congregation (42). His recent book-length prose-poem, The Boys, which narrates the stories of his wife's three brothers, all of whom suffered and died in adulthood with muscular dystrophy, has won numerous prestigious awards. Their lives and deaths are the occasion for Terpstra's moving ode "Easter Ballade, for three brothers": "Paul the Apostle says they've fallen asleep, / And I wish they hadn't, in spite of my thanks; / It's a blessing forever so sad it numbs ... / ... we draw a blank. And pray our Father's will be done" (54).

In a compilation of narratives about scriptural characters alongside acquaintances and friends, Terpstra's voices dramatize landscapes, memories, conversations and reflections in language that is precise and interpretable, at times stunning in its gravity and grace. His epigraphs and glosses are salient advisories in the reader's approaches to the intersections of pain and joy, sorrow and comfort, dismay and delight that are the fabric of his poetics. He writes: "It is good for us to be here / on this broken rock"; "all the daily dirty truths / our lives contain, / which somehow never stop / the mysteries of faithfulness / and pain's / transfiguration into light ..." (47). Terpstra's writing is perhaps the finest in the volume in terms of its melding of prose and poetry, requiring the best of both.

For Alice Major, liturgy alerts us to a sense of a "present [that] has become allen-compassing": "[a]ny liturgy--as any poem--retains elements from the past and carries them into the future" (58). She locates herself in this duality as she cares for her father, stricken with Alzheimer's, "caught between a 'now' that seems to last forever and the simultaneous knowledge that it will not" (58). The confessional of poems that follows her situating of this very personal narrative records a strikingly honest and raw record of her responses to her father's decline into that place where they are "locked in to [Eden's] stabbing loveliness"--their shared tending of their earthly garden has become the Eden that must be preserved; it is a "beautiful prison that enables [their] existence." Just as the tags naming the plants in their rows in the garden come loose over time, the words in her father's vocabulary have been lost from their "stakes'--he has become dysphasic: "Time has stopped. Now / is his only moment" (58). In a courageous lament resonant of Adrienne Rich's "Storm Warnings" Major's narrator reduces their impossible task to what is at hand: "This is all we can do. Chop plants into small pieces. / Fill soup pots" (610). The overarching theme of these poems is articulated in a powerful evocation of pathos at the conclusion of "Eve learns endearments":
 We are captives
 Together in the garden
 casting endearments--
 our collective net
 of love. (62)


In fine images of birth, life, and death imagery, Major chronicles the devolution in the "architecture of [his] braiN' as "a vivid vacancy" (71). "Fall in the garden" is not only the arrival of autumn but the process of cremation that occurs as saplings, soft maples, and the oldest elm "burn out" in a "measured procession": only the "soft rose" remains--a kind of funereal memorial surrounded by "cinder drifts" (70). Death in this natural cycle is the metaphor of her father's mind as it decomposes in the apocalyptic "fall" devastating their garden: "[T]he lit lamp / of[her father's] mind" now goes "past the / black swords of the pines" (71) as darkness falls.

Sarah Klassen, an Anabaptist by tradition, privileges liturgy as the work of the people as well as their gathering together. The Sabbath is the rhythm of rest from work during which one dwells in apprehension of the ineffable, mysterious and meaningful in "ordinary time"; as such, she worships, writes, and waits (89). Klassen's poetry is articulated in the nexus of these activities rendered in her visits to the massage therapist, the overheard noise of neighbors who work loudly in their garden on Thanksgiving, and the daily routines of her involvements in Sunday afternoon concerts, family dinners, and the sewing of blankets and clothing for Afghan war victims. The collection's liturgical impulses form an antiphon of poems counterpointed with gentle humor and given titles such as "Advent," "After Epiphany," "Lenten Verses" and "Ordinary Time." Klassen's poems are a study in the complexities of humanity juxtaposed on the simplicity of the natural world. In her poems, the liturgy of life is "the song" that "inhabits / every corner" ... "Our litanies of wanting, like the helpless wailing infant" are "sung to rest" (103).

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, an Augustinian monk and priest, ceased all writing but poetry for fifteen years after entering the monastery. He explains and concludes in the preface to his collection that "our poems [are] synchrony with the music [God] composes" but then cautions that "[w]ords are so much more painful to concoct than the sentiment by which the word blesses itself" (74). His joy and humility are an alchemy of love that presents itself in the transcendence of the ordinary, arising as he narrates the mortality in which he "wait[sis for God to finish what [he] cannot"--God who is "the melter of ... dreams, melter of what / comes between us, like vellum earth" (75). His poems are set in moments of hand-shaking after church services, contemplative meditations in the arbor, and the intimacy of lyrical interior monologues about disenchantment as the ground of transformation where one can be "an icon of happiness ... still, and wonderful and happy for something" (77); occasions when gratitude overwhelms language and the secret ecstasy of the life beyond allows the poet to "leap past [his] own grave / with a song ... and when [he] is gone ... be redeemed / for the love of/the world" (80). The most significant of De Cicco's contributions is an eight-part study titled "Poetry and Liturgy." Here the poet defines and refines his ars poetica, grounded in an aesthetics of the spiritual: "God writes to Himself, through us, loves himself by us / sings by creation, by our re-create" (83). In prose-like declarations, the explorations of this premise are interrogated and pursued. The poet debunks the notion that poems are liturgies; rather, "[poetry] is the witness of the lust for God / in many forms"--"the singing of it / is the arrival [of the music of God] in the timeless" (85). De Cicco's poems, at their best, are the precise exemplar of these poetics.

Meaghan Strimas, also a Roman Catholic, takes up the Greek leitourgia as her praxis of poetry as liturgy: the "communion of spirits, invoked by the poet's offering, is in itself a form of worship" (148). Her poems respond to the arousal of reverence for all of life--job searches, familial relationships, drunks in the park, walks to work, an old woman on Montreal's Sherbrooke Street, and the temperaments of agapic and erotic love. Strimas's poetry offers a largesse of curiosity and spiritual self-examination that avoids piety and sentimentality but remains intensely personal. Highly narrative in its rhetoric, the meticulous phrasing preys on the reader's senses in its evocations of the pathos of the human and natural conditions. Ultimately, submission to this condition evolves into compassion and reverence in the poet: "That, maybe, / here is love, exactly as it should be: splayed" (154). At times, the language tends to cliche; at others, it is remarkably fresh in its sensuality and metaphor: "Your hand, a green tendril, / found an arbour in mine" (147). Strimas attends obediently to the details of her life, inviting the reader into its communion with her soul and with the "other," divine and common in their graces.

Hannah Main-van der Kamp calls on Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, to assist her entrance into the interstices of poetry and liturgy with the claim that "both take us into 'the unitive state' to which mystics obliquely refer" (178). She qualifies her choices in this collection by explaining that they may not be "specifically about liturgy but about the experience of being deeply absorbed in Nature" (178), beginning with "Four Sundays of Advent Weather" This cycle of nature poems is inflected by the passages from Isaiah's prophetic heralding of the Messiah, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people" whose coming will make "the rough places smooth." It is also strongly informed by the poet's ornithological awareness as are most of the poems in her selections. Main-van der Kamp draws on a painterly lexicon, flourishing with color, texture, and light, portrayed in images that seem to transcend the words that are her medium and also to mimic the onomatopoeia of nature's orchestrations: eagles "whistle," ospreys "bristle," ravens "glare," flickers "call / vibrant / as burnt amber" and sandpipers "totter," Such tracings accompany the poet's contemplative awareness of a consciousness that, deeply engaged in the natural world, also penetrates Lenten observances that include, among others, the interior spiritual examination simultaneous with the divesting of possessions often accompanying midlife. Her poetry is replete with careful intonations, precisions of thought and feeling, embedded in lively personifications, perfectly-crafted metaphor, exquisite phrasing and an unusually delicate tensile strength of language.

Suzanne Collins introduces her collection by locating poetry in the attempts to capture the effects of the liturgical cycles which inform us that "life has a rhythm and a recurring significance" (208). Her poems tell the stories of a poet who reads her life "as a Bible-based liturgy," whose parables teach that there is salvation-salvatas--in the midst of death and destruction. In the fifteen poems that follow, Collins recollects her journeys in Europe, confesses her vexed relationship with St. Therese, offers a beautifully musical sonnet on silence, and leads us through autumnal rituals and dreamscapes, ending with a modern psalm for Matins. The subtle influences of Frost, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and other contemporaries seem apparent in the prose rhythms of Collins's poetics as do the obvious satires on the parables and stories of scripture where her wit is tart and dry. Recounting seniors' day at a local mall full of walkers, canes, and the hunt for bargains, she sharply observes that "It]his mall may be a Via Dolorosa / but no one wants to see the Lord of life / meet Death on a Tuesday in ordinary time" (216).

In "Conversations with the Dead" David Waltner-Toews presents seven poems "as communal prayer and public celebration" (162). Although they have been performed in many Mennonite churches, he does "not know if this is liturgy" but does claim that they are his "own kind of verbal, musical smoke & incense" confirming that "we are not alone" (162). Indeed, the poems are evocative and sensual incantations and lamentations giving rise to a transcendence and unity that is predicated by experiences of the divine in all. In "Conversations with Nature" earthy language and salty questions combine in a kind of Last Rites in which the poet comes to be one with nature without making it a god. Waltner-Toews's diction is appealing in its juxtapositions of the colloquial and the scientific. It has a captivating allure for readers who love to romp in words and phrases: "djin," "pizzle," "hantavirus pulmonary syndrome" and "ululating dry seas" tease the auditory and visual centers of the brain with curiosity and imagination. The musicality of the poetry draws on forms that include grammatically and syntactically rhythmic litanies, psalms, and narratives rife with alliteration, metaphor, allusion, and anthropomorphism. In short, the poetry is a reader's treasure of language and life.

John Reibetanz provides the superior poetic intelligence and philosophic dynamics of the anthology. His concise but equally profound and eloquent discussion of liturgy is grounded in his debt to Owen Barfield for whom coagulum spiritus--"a concentration or suspension of spirit" is the description of matter (132). From this premise, Reibetanz produces poetry that creates mirages of the ephemeral and ethereal as if they are, indeed, matter. The musicality of the poems is stunning, arising from sophisticated puns and deeply pleasurable alliteration. In "Cross Road Blues," the poet paints a triptych of performances that include the duos of Mama Soul and Papa Body (or vice versa) of Southern roots, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of film's contrivances, and Mary and Gabriel of scripture's histories. All are, wittingly or not, haunted by the cross foretold by the Annunciation: "soul[s] as lonely in [their] uprising / as ... the man and the angel/singing the blues in solo all night long" (136). In "Touch" a short dramatic story written in prose-poetry, splendid contraries form the borders of Fra Sebastiano's understanding of the risen Christ's words to Mary Magdalena in the garden: Noli me tangere ("Touch me not"). The rich evocations of Reibetanz's selections end with "What We Owe The Stars" which serves as a Compline for his liturgies: "into death's cold country ... [we] launch / our warm-blooded breath: ... then the stars ... stop shivering with loneliness / and the night ... close[s] its eyes on sleep like a stone" (145).

With characteristic humility, Swiss adds her poems as a liturgical footnote to the anthology. They form a Marian sequence beginning with the Annunciation and concluding at Pentecost. In her prefatory note, the poet reminds us that "[l]ike Christians everywhere, [Mary's] faith would have matured through a deepening relationship with her son and Saviour" (222). An epigraph of its Gospel source precedes each entry, providing a lectionary with which to read the poems. The self-sacrificing mother archetype is very present in the characterization of Mary--at times, uncomfortably so for a modern reader. Dashes and ellipses allow readers to complete the narratives with reflections of their own, a grace that the lineation complements. In prose-verses depicting Mary's possible responses to her son's mission, Swiss sensitively weaves the stories one might imagine if reading between the lines of the scriptural accounts.

With first and last words, Margo Swiss has offered us a very fine anthology whose contributors can take pleasure in her meticulous and dedicated work of service and prayer. This poetry has, indeed, become liturgy.

Lynn R. Szabo

Trinity Western University
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Author:Szabo, Lynn R.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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