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Rosing from the Dead: Poems.

Rosing from the Dead: Poems. By Paul J. Willis. Seattle: WordFarm, 2009. ISBN-10: 1-60226-004-4. ISBN-13: 978-1-60226-004-7. Pp. 99. $12.00.

Since he began publishing creative writing in the early nineties, Paul J. Willis has become a literary powerhouse--prolific and versatile. Rosing from the Dead appears just a year after his last poetry collection, Visiting Home (2008). These full-length collections were preceded by five poetry chapbooks. In addition to poetry, Willis has published several novels, a collection of essays, and--as co-editor--an anthology of poems responding to Shakespeare, which is not surprising given Willis' scholarly interests in Shakespeare. On that note, Willis has published or presented an abundance of scholarship as a Professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. A successful Christian writer and scholar, Willis has become a bit of a superstar within the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Longtime readers of Christianity and Literature have frequently encountered his poetry and book reviews (by him and about him), and conference attendees have heard his presentations.

If we do not already know Willis as a writer of faith, he introduces himself in the first two poems of Rosing from the Dead: "When You Say" and "Paul Jonathan Willis." Here he contemplates his name as though the very sound of it "rising on the wind between us" (15) somehow affects his identity, or as though his identity intertwines with that of the Apostle Paul and King David's best friend, Jonathan. About his last name, he writes, "I like that, a last name that could be my first, rising from what Paul the Apostle / regarded as the ends of the earth, that place / where his gospel was going" (20). In these lines, Willis reveals to readers his complementary literary identities, each rooted in his acceptance of the good news. He is a Christian writer living in--and frequently writing about--a particular "end of the earth" he knows well: the southern California coast and surrounding mountains and deserts. He is a regional writer, but more accurately, a nature writer, no matter his locale. His Christianity impacts his views and subsequent descriptions of nature. In "Creatures of Place: An Interview with Paul J. Willis," published in 2006 by Mars Hill Graduate School's, Willis says, "Like Hopkins, I am a sacramentalist. It seems to me that one of God's mysterious ways is to uniquely express himself through his creation." As readers will notice in Rosing from the Dead, Willis captures this divine expression in poems that are predominantly free verse, autobiographical, and narrative.

The book's glossy cover shows a foggy sky above a dark ocean, presumably the Pacific. The blue-gray title hangs in the sky, understated as though shrouded in fog, while the author's name appears in light blue font in the ocean below. The collection holds sixty-seven poems--most of which have been published in periodicals, previous chapbooks, or anthologies--divided into three sections, each given a title from a poem in that section. The first section, "Faith of Our Fathers," contains thirteen poems; the second, "Higher Learning," contains twenty-three; and the third, "Signs and Wonders," contains thirty. One poem, "When You Say," stands alone to open the collection, leading nicely into "Paul Jonathan Willis," which opens the first section. Such smooth transitions continue throughout the collection, both within and across sections, resulting in remarkable cohesion, logical progression, and thoughtful resonance of meaning, imagery, and setting. This is far from a randomly ordered showcase of Willis' newest poetry; he has methodically stitched his collection together. Moreover, each section functions like a self-contained chapbook, the art of which Willis has mastered, and yet each contributes to the whole.

The first section, "Faith of Our Fathers," reveals to readers, poem by poem, some of Willis' personal history and identity, to the extent that he directly addresses his readers in the poem "Filius" to confirm something about his father (whom he has written about in several poems) and himself: "Did I tell you he was a teacher? And that I am too?" (31). At this point in the book, one poem away from the end of the first section, we can answer, "Yes," but without being annoyed at the reminder. That poem and the one coming after, "Early Morning," are together a good example of how Willis has carefully ordered the poems in this collection. Toward the end of "Filius," Willis tells us that his mother contracted polio soon after he was born and that she was bedridden for nearly a year. He laments, "It was not often she could hold me" (31). The next poem, "Early Morning," which ends the first section, takes up a similar memory of distance from his mother. Willis, presumably as an adult, sits at his mother's hospital bedside and silently addresses her: "Let me not disturb you, Mother, just as you//would let me curl in cribs on darkened afternoons" (32). Such intentional links between poems continue uninterrupted into the second and third sections.

The second section combines poems about death, loss, the body, technology, and academia; together, the poems offer a complex definition of "higher learning," the title and theme of the section. Ultimately, Willis seems to assert that true higher learning springs not from academia, but from life itself--what our bodies tell us, how loss changes us, what technology cannot truly replace but only imitate, how children bless our lives, etc. In "Four," which appropriately consists of four stanzas that are four-lines each, Willis meditates on the uncanny significance of this number, leading up to a humorous prediction about the end of his life: "When I go, that's why there will only be four hairs / left on my head" (37). When readers flip the page to "Possible Endings," they will find that the end-of-life theme continues with overlapping narratives of deaths Willis has either heard about or witnessed firsthand. The final poem in the second section is the title poem of the collection, "Rosing from the Dead," and also a lovely example of the higher learning we receive from children. In this relatively short poem, Willis captures the moment when his daughter Hanna, riding in the backseat of the car on the way home from a Good Friday service, said, "Sunday... / Jesus will be rosing from the dead" (60). Inspired by this innocent grammatical blunder and gifted with fresh resurrection imagery, Willis writes in the second stanza:
 It must have been like that.
 A white blossom, or maybe
 a red one, pulsing
 from the floor of the tomb, reaching
 round the Easter stone
 and levering it aside
 with pliant thorns. (60)

He extends the metaphor further in the third and final stanza--a characteristic move--until we come to a name for Jesus we have heard before but now hear anew and with awe: Rose of Sharon.

Such shared revelations do not stop there, for in section three, Willis offers his readers the "Signs and Wonders" offered by nature, and as we read our way through the various landscapes Willis describes for us, the links between poems continue to impress us like well-marked trails. We journey with Willis, our expert guide, from one California wilderness to the next--like Wordsworth through his Lake District--with their stunning vistas, vegetation, rock formations, and rivers. Through his words, we glimpse the Sequoia National Park, John Muir Wilderness, Death Valley National Park, San Rafael Wilderness, Mojave Desert, Kings Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and other regions with their singular wonders. We quickly understand that Willis does not simply write about these places; he has inhabited them, climbed them, breathed their atmospheres. He could not describe them so sharply otherwise. Willis' powers of description are at their fullest and his language is loveliest in his nature poems: "the burn of thistle / in your fist, the slime of slug, the sweet / shine of poison oak" in "Minimum Wage" (63); "the endless ridge of scree and talus" in "Hilltoppers" (65); and "the golden tongues of brittlebush" in "Cottonwood Spring" (89).

Oftentimes, in his purely nature poems, Willis seems to favor description for the sake of description, and some readers may consider this a limitation, depending on their preferences and views about nature poetry. In "Trona Pinnacles," Willis describes this natural wonder in the Mojave Desert and asks, "What is there here to honor / and to know?" (74). This reviewer would suggest that Willis silently poses this question in every nature poem, as though he both honors and comes to know a place by merely describing it. Indeed, description is valuable in and of itself. Readers, however, who prefer more meaning beyond description, will not be disappointed if they closely read all of the third section. In certain poems Willis pushes beyond description toward an overall, satisfying--even if disturbing--observation. In "Still Here," he contrasts thriving, life-loving lilies with the "purple / flower of one man's face"--a man who has hung himself. Willis calls him "uprooted from our common longing" for life (81). Here and elsewhere, Willis fuses his rich descriptions with more or less overt meaning--political, environmental, religious, etc.

In the interview with, Willis asserts that his nature poems, grounded in specific locales, "become a way of connecting [him]self to a specific place, a way of naming that connection--and specific places can be a means of sacramental connection to God." This sacramental connection, evident in Christian metaphors and imagery, marks many of Willis' poems in the third section. For example, in "Low Water," he likens sandstone boulders to the stone roiled away from Jesus' tomb: "they know and yet believe they will be / rolled away from glassy mouths, / from autumn tombs" (83). Likewise, in "Cottonwood Spring," he likens the scenery to a cathedral, with "slow water sliding down the face of an altar / into a thick, grassy nave" (88). And he describes the pestilent tick in "Advent" with the language of sacrifice and redemption, asking "What is it I owe them there? / What measurement of blood and self/is given or is theirs by law?" and observing that "their bodies are broken in me" and that "Their quality of mercy is not feigned" (95). Willis' Christianity nourishes his descriptions of nature and place so that his poems become acts of worship.

When we reach the final poem, "Old River," we find Willis on the bank of the Tualatin, greeting the water and hearing it say in return, "goodbye, goodbye." This ode-like poem is an appropriate ending for obvious reasons, but it underscores how deliberately and masterfully Willis has ordered his poems until the very end. And so we say goodbye to Willis, whom we have come to know as a person and poet over the past nearly one hundred pages, and also to his cherished landscapes, which we have come to admire through his well-crafted, faithful descriptions--faithful in more than one way.

Shanna Powlus Wheeler

Lycoming College
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Author:Wheeler, Shanna Powlus
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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