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Words made flesh: poetry and the eucharistic feast.

Little Low Heaven. By Anthony Butts. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University Press, 2003. ISBN 1-930974-26-4. Pp. 60. $14.00.

Radiance. By Barbara Crooker. Cincinnati, Ohio: Word Press, 2005. ISBN 1-9323-3991-4. Pp. 85. $17.00.

A Slender Grace. By Rod Jellema. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004. ISBN 0-8028-2782-9. Pp. 116. $18.00.

Rebekah Orders Lasagna. By John Jenkinson. Topeka, Kansas: Woodley Press, 2006. ISBN 0-939391-38-4. Pp. 57. $10.00.

Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation. By Majorie Maddox. Cincinnati, Ohio: Word Press, 2004. ISBN 1-9323-3943-4. Pp. 110. $17.00.

More and more often, in literary journals and conversations, the question arises, "What, exactly, is Christian poetry?" Consideration of such issues used to be confined to books and magazines explicitly religious in their orientation. We expect to find this discussion taking place in the pages of Christianity and Literature or Image; what we may not expect is to find it in traditionally, and even militantly, secular journals. For example, a recent issue of Poetry featured a lengthy essay by Mary Karr reflecting on the influence her Catholic faith has had upon her poems. In fact, Karr herself confesses in the essay to her surprise at receiving the letter soliciting such a piece for that particular journal and to her reluctance to write it. (We, as readers, can be grateful that she finally overcame her hesitancy, as it is a fine piece.) Indeed, a number of writers and critics across various disciplines have noticed a recent sea change, one that is attributed, in part, to 9/11 and subsequent events that have shocked Americans out of our complacency and forced us to consider ultimate questions. Others point to the fact that the election (and re-election) of an evangelical Christian president has brought religion into the realm of political, and therefore social, intellectual, and artistic, discourse. Whatever the cause, or causes, there is little doubt that it has become acceptable, and even intellectually respectable, for the first time in many decades to write about one's faith.

This has been a great boon for poetry. Granted, there has been a long tradition in the United States of writing from a standpoint of faith, beginning with the Puritan poets of the 17th century and continuing well into the 20th and 21st centuries (witness the popularity of poets such as Thomas Merton and William Everson/Brother Antoninus, and the post-conversion poems of celebrated writers Robert Lowell, Alan Tate, and Denise Levertov, among other examples.) Yet, based on the number of recent collections of poetry that might be termed "Christian," the proliferation of journals that call for and feature Christian writing, and the many conferences springing up across the country that attract writers who consider themselves to be Christian artists, it seems we are enjoying a renaissance of faith-oriented poetry. Of course, not all of the poetry that might fit this category is necessarily good art--this holds true for poetry published in the past as well as for contemporary poems (the pious and sentimental writings of some lesser 19th-century poets assuredly have their counterparts in our own era). But to my mind, a significant portion of what appears in these journals and what one hears read at these conferences is good and, sometimes, even very good. The five collections of poems that I have the privilege of reviewing for Christianity and Literature are among the best of a number of fine books of Christian poetry that have become available to readers in recent years.

In reading these very different collections, I've been considering the question with which I began. Indeed, it is one I am compelled to return to often as a reader, a scholar, and a poet. A case in point: I attended an annual Festival of Writers in Texas several months ago sponsored by the Christian literary journal, Windhover. (Incidentally, it was at this annual conference that I first heard two of these five poets read some of their poems two years ago; in addition, four of the five writers have had poems published in the journal in the last few years.) In the course of the four-day conference, we heard poems that ranged from the openly devotional to ones that celebrated what poet Rod Jellema terms "incarnality" in explicitly secular and religious terms. Very few of the poems were specifically about Christ, none seemed designed primarily to promote what we might term Christian doctrine or dogma, and relatively few even featured references to New Testament events or personages. Some of the poems bore the stamp of the poet's particular religious observance--both Catholics and Protestants, the lapsed and the practicing, were well represented--but in most cases, this was subtly present, something inferred rather than heard by the listener. Yet all of the poems were embraced by the audience of readers and writers as Christian poems, a capaciousness that I found particularly remarkable since the conference takes place on the campus of a religiously conservative Baptist college situated along the Southern Bible Belt. The gathering seemed a testament to a kind of literary ecumenism that our respective churches might find enviable.

As I recall that conference and as I read (and reread) these books, I realize that what unifies these poems, so wonderfully disparate in subject matter and in style, and what marks them as Christian, is a common disposition toward the world: the belief that the creation is good, that human experience in the physical world bodies forth certain spiritual truths, and that our actions are meaningful, efficacious, and sacramental in the sense that they are signs of a higher order of reality within which we play a significant role. Most of these poems contain themes and symbols that we readily recognize as part of Christian faith: the sacredness of the body, often represented and expressed in Eucharistic terms; the redemptive power of suffering, modeled most clearly by Christ on the cross, and the fact of the resurrection, analogically represented in the birth and rebirth of all living entities, from the God-Man himself to the smallest sprout. These principles constitute the bedrock upon which the poems are built--even the ones in which the speakers struggle with darkness and doubt--making them substantial, almost tangible. To borrow another metaphor from Christian tradition, these are poems in which words body forth or enflesh the seemingly abstract beliefs that characterize a Christian disposition toward the world and, thus, invite readers hungry for spiritual and aesthetic sustenance to participate in a linguistic version of the Eucharistic feast. Yet each of these poets accomplishes this end in a unique way, composing a voice, evoking a vision, preparing a dish for the reader's consumption, that is distinctive and entirely his or her own.

Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation

This Eucharistic quality is evident in each of these collections, to some extent, but is perhaps most clearly visible in Marjorie Maddox's book. Indeed, from the moment one reads the title, the reader enters into a vision of the world that is unapologetically incarnational and sacramental. Maddox's concern is with the body--its fragility, its beauty, its terrible necessity. The narrative arc of the collection traces a series of painful losses the speaker experiences, beginning and ending with the death of the speaker's father, despite his temporary resurrection from a heart attack by means of a transplant, the death of the anonymous stranger whose heart her father received, of two young men (one unnamed, one a student she had taught), and, perhaps most poignant and most understated, the loss of the speaker's infant whom she addresses in "Teaching Summer School Two Years After."
 And you, child, curled
 in your small box,
 never forgetting to breathe
 us back to your brief year,
 you cling to their queries:
 a question mark,
 a fetus.

The queries of the persona's students, indeed the students themselves, remind the speaker incessantly of the child she has lost and of her own unanswered (and unanswerable) questions. Unable to teach them the metaphysics she is supposed to know, all the persona can do is observe, record, and try to connect the seemingly accidental images and events that recur and befall us all. This she does faithfully, with unerring eye and in language that is painfully precise.

Indeed, this paradoxical image of the child, who is dead and yet alive in the speaker's memory, haunts the collection, as surely as does the figure of her father. The speaker returns obsessively to images of children grieving for lost parents and, conversely, to parents who grieve the loss of their children. In the case of the latter poems, she explores the grief of people she knows, as in "How It Begins," wherein one of her colleagues loses a son; and those she does not, as in "Flight Patterns" and "Feast and Famine" wherein the speaker considers the paradox of the growing child within her womb against the deaths of "the neighbors' children" who perished in the unaccountable explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996. In "Feast and Famine" she describes the anguish of one such parent in explicitly Eucharistic terms:
 Beside us on the rail,
 A man grieves for his dead daughter,
 clutches her framed photo to his chest
 as he chews the wafer,
 the only food in a stomach
 that hungers for her.

The Body of Christ in this poem serves as a substitute for the Beloved the bereft father longs for. Maddox uses the metaphor of consumption brilliantly, both here and throughout the collection, drawing on the implicit meanings of the act of eating: to take something into our bodies, to digest it and make it part of our own corporeal nature is an expression of the desire for the closest intimacy possible. It is no surprise to us that the theme of insatiable hunger runs through the poems. The Eucharist feeds the father in this poem but does not satisfy. Yet the very fact of his presence at the communion rail signifies a faith, a hope that God will take care of him in his extremity of suffering. The speaker resists the temptation in this poem, as she does throughout the volume, of making this Christian consolation seem easy or certain. She concludes the poem with a question rather than an answer, attesting to both the limited solace participation in the sacraments brings and our absolute need for them: "What can we eat and sleep / but the world we live in / and the world beyond?"

This obsession with and complex attitude toward the sacraments is evident in a number of poems but is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the poem "Eucharist" in which Maddox departs from her characteristically narrative approach and engages in lyric mode:

 the small circle of face
 we see by
 in light of wine

 the sliver of why
 that bends the bones
 begs "Come!"

 the orbed cross
 bright in the palm
 of the poor

 the crucified moon
 nailed high
 on the night of the tongue

The poem reads like a series of haiku, a formal tradition we do not readily associate with Christianity, and, thus, takes the reader by surprise, forcing us to see something that is familiar in a strikingly new light. The four consecutive vignettes appear independent, unconnected by any logical linkage, and employ paradox and highly condensed metaphor to create disparate images that defy rationality. Subtle echoes provided by end-rhyme, slant-rhyme, and internal rhyme imply relationships, both sonic and imagistic, that the reader is invited to ponder. The cumulative effect of the poem is to remind us of what a mystery the Eucharist is--one which no amount of consideration can ever penetrate. I was reminded, when I read this poem, of C.S. Lewis's celebrated statement regarding the Eucharist and our limited ability to comprehend the sacrament that Christ passed on to us through his disciples: "The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand" (102).

Maddox's poems convey to the reader a compelling story, a compassionate voice, and a theologically complex vision in language that is, appropriately enough, both ethereal and corporeal. Her diction is rife with body words--corpuscles, cochlea, dead centipede of spine--and rich with words that summon heaven--pianoforte of Corti, lunula glows. The sound-play in many of the poems is densely textured, and many of poems embody interesting relationships between form and content. There are even several concrete or shaped poems, reminiscent of those created by one of Maddox's masters, George Herbert. Most striking among these is the powerful "The Sacred Heart of Jesus" (a poem that appeared in Christianity and Literature), a prayer arranged in the shape of a heart that constitutes a visual and aural aid to meditation. The poem is an address to Christ's heart, "O holy auricles, venerable ventricles;' and features a list of musical and alliterative appositives, reminding us of yet another great master of Christian poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Maddox's poems, thus, demonstrate the poet's knowledge of the rich tradition she is working in, yet they bear the stamp of her own imagination and characteristic craft.

Rebekah Orders Lasagna

Readers will find a similarly complex and captivating engagement of Eucharist in the poems of a recent collection by John Jenkinson. The unusual title of this volume indicates not only its preoccupation with food and its myriad metaphoric possibilities but also the poet's sometimes audacious humor and his focus on the events of daily life as proper subject for poetry. In Jenkinson's hands, however, ordinary people and objects serve as reminders and representative members of a transcendent reality in which we all participate. The title poem, located at the heart of the collection, is, in fact, a narrative tour-de-force within which the speaker describes the events of a typical family meal yet places them within the context of a broader history, one which stretches from the distant past to the future none of them can yet see.

The poem begins with a quotation from the Marchione di Coppo Stefani's history of Florence which describes in harrowing detail the effects of bubonic plague on the city's suffering citizens. The particular lens through which Jenkinson invites us to view the events of the dinner is a description of medieval burial methods: "The next morning, if there were many [bodies] in the trench, they covered them over with dirt. And then more bodies were put on top of them, with a little more dirt over those; they put layer on layer just like one puts layers of cheese in a lasagna." Jenkinson takes this premise--the macabre juxtaposition of the burial of decaying human remains with the preparation of the well-loved Italian dish that is the centerpiece of the meal--as the metaphoric basis upon which to build his poem, which becomes, in turn, a linguistic lasagna in its own right. Jenkinson alternates layers of conversation among family members (wife and mother, sons and daughter, the latter's boyfriend-du-jour) with descriptions of the preparation of the meal in terms both literal and suggestively allusive to the Marchione's lurid lasagna of the epigraph; this culminates in a horrific vision of the dish before them (all baked in a Pyrex sarcophagus) as it is transformed in their imaginations, through son Nick's vivid account of his recent reading, into the stacked layers of "buboed Florentines" complete with "pustulating sores, / Black-egg swellings suppurating groin and armpit" Those gathered around the table to partake of the meal, which includes, literally and symbolically, bread and wine, are forced to see it in Eucharistic terms, as flesh and blood. However, this is not a conventionally sacramental meal, but is, instead, a strange and darkly comic version of the Mystery, one that reveals our common mortality, our fragility, and our ultimate dissolution.

And yet, the poem is generous in its temporal and geographical scope, offering us a mythic vision that is patterned, capacious, and unifying, like the reality it attempts to capture and convey. The poem contains additional layers: vignettes of deceased and sometimes notorious family members who hover about the edges of memory (Gramps, who is remembered for having once "pistol-whipped a black man over a poker game in East St. Louis" and, incongruously, for handing his young grandson, the speaker, "a stale Moon Pie"); an imagined conversation, unrelated to the events of the dinner in any logical way, between two Latino grave-diggers across town at the Gardens of Memory as they ply their grim trade and eat their lunch (described in seemingly gratuitous, yet ultimately meaningful, detail as "a Taco Bell/ Burrito: the seven-layer"); and, finally, an image of the future in which a beloved father-in-law is brought home from a nursing home to die in the same room in which the family now partakes of the meal before them:
 We do not know that one more year will fetch
 Walden back home. A broken hip. We'll rent
 A bed, hydraulic, to park in the dining room
 For easy access--lay him where the table
 Used to stand. We'll touch him, squeeze him water
 From a sponge; he won't speak, but rattle
 Down deep in his lungs. Cathy's song,
 A tear-brimmed "Old Dan Tucker," will earn a smile,
 But morphine rubs us out, a family
 Who could be anyone--his grandparents,
 Perhaps, or boyhood baseball players. We'll catch
 In a familiar pose around the bed,
 Each of us in our accustomed place
 At the vanished table, bereft of wine or bread.

It is a sad vision, one that emphasizes what has been lost, yet it is one in which human suffering is redeemed by acts of love, rituals, and spontaneous gestures informed by a faith that all of this has meaning, somehow, though we are incapable of fathoming it. The chance connections of language and story that run throughout the poem, though they may seem random and accidental, assure us of a larger pattern and become the means through which we receive glimpses of possibility, of our common participation in eternity. And at the center of it all is the symbolic meal.

I've dwelt mostly on the title poem because it serves nicely as a microcosm of the whole collection. Stylistically, the poem resembles others in the volume: it is infused with humor, and the vision is conveyed by means of language that is as passionate as it is precise, yet multivalent in its meanings and delightful in its texture and taste. Jenkinson pays close attention to form: the poem consists of a series of quatorzains, fourteen-line stanzas that resemble loose sonnets. His authoritative, iambic line, rich with slant and internal rhyme, propels the reader through the story yet often gives us reason to pause and admire the tension between lines, the deft control of cadence by means of caesura and enjambment.

In the course of the book, Jenkinson adapts other traditional forms to his material as he turns his attention to the sparse Midwestern landscape in which he lives and the creatures and people that populate it. For example, in "The Shalene Tree" an elegy for a dead child belonging to a family who once lived in the speaker's house, Jenkinson employs understated couplets to describe the loss his own family feels, paradoxically bereft of a little girl they never knew. The tree in the front yard, planted and named for her, has been decorated by people in the neighborhood with memorial angels made from feathers, wire, and blown glass. He concludes the poem with these lines, heartbreaking on account of both the sentiment they express and their bittersweet music:
 Their wings are feathered, soft as birds'
 that stanched the passion of the Lord;

 but hers? Little insect wings
 like those that buzz at backdoor screens

 when oleanders break in bloom.
 Here, the angels made no room

 to squeeze a flitting fairy--fey,
 and born like girls to fall away.

The lines echo and direct the reader back to the epigraph of the poem, an anonymous medieval lyric that sings poetically of nature's mourning at the death of Christ: "When from the Tree my God was hung / A thousand Birdes flew from the Woode, / Their Feathers blacked the very Sunne / And blotted up the living Bloode." The poems final lines, with their use of archaic diction (stanch, fey) in juxtaposition to contemporary language (backdoor screens) remind us painfully of a theology and a vision of reality the ancient lyric celebrates and the modern world no longer believes in, one wherein the natural order is permeated by the supernatural. The poem and poet yearn toward that reassuring vision, in part through the use of traditional rhyming couplets (a form long left behind by most contemporary poets), even as the speaker mourns the loss of it. This complex use of form as a vehicle of meaning is typical of Jenkinson's poems. He performs similarly successful marriages of form and content in a number of pieces in the volume: among these are "A Dim Estate," a poem that pays homage to one of Jenkinson's masters, Emily Dickinson, both in its vision and in its skillful use of common meter, and in "The August Patio" a poem that takes the poet and reader on a brief journey back to his childhood and his first harkening to the call of poetry, the means of conveyance a graceful terza rima.

Jenkinson's poems occasionally stray beyond his preferred subject matter, the world that lies immediately about him, yet these poems are of a piece with the rest of the volume in a number of ways, particularly with regard to their formal integrity. For example, in several poems in the latter section of the book, the poet examines the world from a variety of female perspectives, including those of some biblical figures, Lot's daughters and Salome among them. These poems, written in a variety of sonnet forms, allow us to hear these voices and see these women as we have not before. The opening lines of "What the Table-dancer Earned" give us a taste of this: "John was madder than a hornet, Mother / Said, and stuck his nose too deeply where / It didn't belong. Simply put, he bugged her." Jenkinson puts cliches and contemporary language in the mouth of the mythic Salome (as well as in that of her mother, from whom she takes her cue) deftly conveying to us a sense of the unimaginative sort of girl she likely was. The beauty and allure of her celebrated dance is nowhere apparent in the poem as the poet strips away the illusion that seduced Herod and killed John the Baptist. This poem, and the others like it, is an irreverent and witty re-imagining of figures so seemingly far from our experience that we often do not see their likeness to us. The poems remove them from the storied and distant past and place them, by means of vernacular, into the world of Rebekah Orders Lasagna and into our own; their flaws and virtues are of a piece with those of other characters in the volume, of the people in the poet's family, and of ourselves as well, all of us members of the community of sinners and saints.

A Slender Grace

If it might be said that Jenkinson's book invites the reader to "taste and see" then it might also be said that Rod Jellema's most recent collection of poems invites the reader to "see and taste." In his eloquent preface to the volume, the poet prepares us for the kind of visionary experience his poems offer, "the pleasure of seeing double" The world, as rendered in Jellema's poems, is both "broken and divinely redeemed," both "ethereal and earthly," both "carnal and eternal," a shifting, dual identity which is bodied forth in the ordinary experiences of human life that he surveys with hungry eye and reports faithfully to the reader.

The speaker of these poems acknowledges his tendency to find God in the oddest places. In "Letter to Lewis Smedes about God's Presence," the poet confesses
 I have to look in cracks and crevices.
 Don't tell me how God's mercy
 Is as wide as the ocean, as deep as the sea.
 I already believe it, but that infinite prospect
 Gets farther away the more we mouth it.

What the speaker wants is not cliches and similes, easy assurances--he wants proof. Given "the inescapable terrors of history," the fact that God has remained aloof from the public and private agonies human beings have suffered in the poet's lifetime (a list that includes Treblinka, Vietnam, September Eleven and, most notably, perhaps, the death of the poet's son), the speaker further admits, "It's hard to celebrate his invisible Presence in the sacrament / while seeing his visible absence from the world." This observation embodies the binocular vision Jellema speaks of in the introduction as we are asked to consider the paradox of a God whose presence is invisible and whose absence is absolutely apparent. Neither of these, of course, is an image we can see. And yet, this poem is an assertion of faith; the speaker doesn't question God's existence, only the ways in which He becomes evident to us, and affirms in the end that it is in the microscopic and the barely visible that the divine most assuredly resides: "mystics and poets record / the slender incursions of splintered light, / echoes, fragments, odd words and phrases / like flashes through darkened hallways." It is these splinters, fragments, and flashes that the speaker gathers and assembles for us in his poems.

The speaker announces this theme early in the Collection with the wonderfully titled poem, "Think Narrow" an imperative that would serve well as an epigraph to the book. These poems dwell lovingly on the small and the momentary, "the way the stem / of a coconut palm / leans long and far away / into pinpoints of light we call stars," "a split second of music / in the thin sing of a finch," "the way a tiny lizard darted just now / into a slit in the terrace wall." Such seemingly slight details of living an embodied life are tiny revelations that lead, at last, to transcendence, "The slender grace of a sudden thought / that takes you past your self."

Jellema's focus may well be on the minute, yet the scope of the poet's vision is, by no means, small. The poems range freely in geography and subject matter, taking the reader to various cities in America as well as to distant parts of the world (places where the poet has traveled) and inviting us into the minds of artists other than himself (among them Vincent van Gogh, composer Bix Beiderbecke, and blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson). The book is organized into four distinct thematic sections: Section I, "Incarnality," deals with the complexity of human existence in that we experience the world as both carnal and incarnate beings, both flesh and spirit-made-flesh. The poet devotes his attention in these poems to close examination of physical objects (a bicycle, a pineapple, a rusty ice pick found in the bottom of a drawer) and everyday experiences (listening to the radio, drinking a glass of beer on a summer afternoon) and explores the ways in which they become more than themselves, transport us to unexpected places, and remind us of "the narrow gift of incarnality" that we all possess. In Section II, "Bifocal" the reader encounters a series of meditations wherein we are invited to view the ordinary from an unusual perspective, and often from more than one. Prosaic experience leads to the visionary in "Young Man at the Laundromat Watching the Spinning Dryers," for example, a poem wherein the speaker observes his fellow human beings as they launder their clothes and enters into a kind of communion with them, one that culminates in a final imagined scenario wherein he and one of his comrades share the sacrament of common labor:
 I ease my basket down
 to the river, down to the river, find her there
 in sunlight, out on the rocks, and now we two are silent
 villagers waving a far hello along the river,
 each of us pounding, pounding our underclothes on rocks.

The juxtaposition of this primitive scene, full of timeless, mythic elements (the river, the rocks, the implied village) with the contemporary setting and garments (the laundromat, the underwear) charms the reader, makes us see in an instant the basic needs and common rituals we all share.

It is also in this section of the book that the poet begins to address that great medium of perception, light, and enables us to see even it in surprising ways. In "A Word in the Glare," a poem that is a grim meditation on the single word "Treblinka" and all that it implies, the speaker states, "This is not an age of dark, but of glare." We see entirely too much. In the subsequent poem, "Take a Chance," the poet urges us to "turn it off," referring to the light, and allow ourselves to inhabit darkness, a theme he sounds yet again in another poem, "In the Dark" wherein he recommends "the deep cool and quiet, where insight / catches what a child or a blind prophet sees" over the emptiness of the "halls of light."

This theme, in fact, becomes a motif that prevails in Sections III and IV of the collection as well. In the six poems of Section III, "Assignment Nicaragua," the brilliant light of the Central American sun exposes the agonies of a culture and nation suffering from the ills of poverty and the politics of terror. The poet confesses himself "stunned," "tongue-tied," incapable of adapting his small art to the vastness of this people's losses. In Section IV, "Some Lost Place Called Home," the speaker returns to his home to what was once familiar but acknowledges, as the title of the section implies, "You're from wherever you go." These are poems about not being at home in the world and the subsequent strangeness of appearance the world takes on when viewed from the perspective of one who does not belong. Once again, light can be misleading, an idea the poet expresses poignantly in one of the last poems of the collection, "A Prayer for Darkness in an Age of Glare," a call-and-response prose poem spoken alternately by a leader and his congregants in which the people articulate an unorthodox prayer:
 Lord, turn out the lights. Make it dark in this place,
 in each of us. Take us for a moment out of the glare
 and cover us in "the cloud of our unknowing."
 We who have prayed for centuries that you dispel the dark
 Ask now for this moment that you dispel the light.

This plea reflects a desire that runs throughout these poems: to see the world as it truly is, not as it is misrepresented by the supposed light of science, history, psychology, and even theology, all forms of knowing that the poems explore and, finally, reject as insufficient and often misleading. The best way to understand the transcendent, finally, is through the limits of our "incarnality," our physical encounter with the world, despite the fact that much of what we wish most to see may remain dim to our eyes. These are wise poems that seek to teach us to be patient, to dwell in mystery, "to be unafraid in the dark."


In contrast to Jellema's devotion to the virtues of darkness, Barbara Crooker's aptly titled new book of poems is a paean to light. These are poems that pay due attention to the shimmering surfaces of things as well as the steady illumination that comes from within, the sort of light that transforms scenes from ordinary life into visions that delight both poet and reader. Crooker's poems are painterly in the sense that she makes use of the elements of form, color, light, and shade to create pictures belonging to many genres, among them the still-life and the landscape, the intimate portrait and the collage. These are very visual poems, and yet the scenes they evoke appear three-dimensional and appeal to the other senses as well, rendering the reality the poet perceives palpable, a place we're (mostly) glad to dwell. At times, the magnetic effect produced is not unlike the one the speaker articulates in the poem "Impressionism" wherein she confesses: "I want to step out / of my life into a painting ... until sweet forgetfulness takes me, / and the troubles of this world dissolve into daubs / of paint, a blizzard of color and light."

The speaker creates such an inviting world in the poem "Vegetable Love," a piece that begins as a celebratory catalogue of garden delights and concludes as a prayer of praise. In the opening lines, the speaker urges us, "Feel a tomato, heft its weight in your palm, / think of buttocks, breasts, this plump pulp." These fruits and vegetables, "earth's voluptuaries," are tactile, fleshy, hot and cold, sweet and crisp, objects one can hold in the hand and taste on the tongue. The language is textured as well, dense with alliteration, assonance and consonance, thick with internal rhyme: "And all the lettuces: bibb, flame, oak leaf, butter- / crunch, black-seeded Simpson, chicory, cos." The poem, like most others in the collection, seeks to embody in words a world of matter and light, of flesh imbued with spirit, and constitute an incarnational vision in which even the most humble objects become holy. It is no surprise to us at the end of the poem that the speaker urges the reader, "praise what comes from the dirt."

Indeed, there is a strong aesthetic and spiritual sensibility at work in these poems. Crooker repeatedly looks to the art of van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Manet, and Cezanne, all masters of their craft, of expressing the inexpressible, and, we come to find, of practicing the art of suffering. In a number of these poems, the speaker explores parallels between her own experience and that of these artists whose work and lives she has studied and admired. Writing, like painting, is a means of apprehending the beauty of the natural world, capturing it, and conveying it to a viewer or listener. It is also a means of making one's mark. In "Sunflowers," the speaker thinks of van Gogh's wheat fields, musing on his longings and his sorrows and on her own: "When we're gone, what will be left of our small / songs and minor joys? Still, when I drive by a wheat field ... something in me rises, makes me look / for a scrap of paper, a pencil nub,/ even as the hot wind lifts, / blows the dust we are, carries it away." This human urge to create art, to make something out of our experience, even though our life here is short and our attempts to make it stop and stay futile, is as irresistible as it is inexplicable and is, finally, a cause for joy. The painters Crooker admires as they persist in their craft through sickness, disability, and old age, model for her, and for all artists, a passion for their art that outstrips the ability to create it. She embodies this ideal memorably in a single scene appearing in the poem, "The Hour of Peonies": "At the end, confined to a wheelchair, / paintbrushes strapped to his arthritic hands, / Renoir said, 'the limidity of the flesh, one wants to caress it.'"

Crooker approaches this set of themes in a variety of ways. In a very different sort of poem, "The Unfinished Work in Blue and Gold" the poet creates another analogy between her work and that of a painter as she searches for the right words to describe a landscape just as an artist searches for the right color:
 The sky, blue as the robes of Titian's Madonna,
 this gold, the leaves of the Osage Orange,
 it could come from Monet's haystacks,
 but that's not quite right either--

 Maybe the gold is a solo by Charlie Parker,
 notes turned liquid in the autumn sun,
 maybe the blue is the implacable sky
 where Van Gogh's church at Auvers
 floats off the earth.

What takes the reader by surprise in the poem is the disarming self-consciousness of the speaker--her acknowledgement that she hasn't gotten it "quite right" and it's likely she won't--and the sudden appearance of Charlie Parker, an artist of a very different stamp from herself or the painters she looks to for guidance. It is, in fact, this element of the unexpected detail, the veering off from the well-traveled road that characterizes Crooker's work. She juxtaposes words, objects, images, and experiences we would not ordinarily associate with one another, thus enabling the reader to see fresh relationships among things in this world.

There is often an element of play in this juxtaposition, as in the poem "Nearing Menopause, I Run Into Elvis at Shoprite" wherein the speaker imagines an encounter with The King himself at the grocery store as his voice sounds through the cheap PA system, over the shelves of toilet paper rolls, "above the chains of flesh and time." The message he brings the aging speaker is simple and encouraging, "Anyway you do is fine" A similar ear and eye for the absurd is at work in "Stand Up, Stand Up," a version of a found poem in which the speaker strings together bits and snatches of songs, local commercials, and station identifications she hears on the radio while driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains one Sunday morning.

Another poem that employs juxtaposition is one of Crooker's darker pieces, "The Gyre." Though the collection, as a whole, is celebratory and practices the discipline of gratitude, it is, like life, seeded with sorrow and loss. Several of these poems focus on the challenge of raising and living with an autistic son and one, perhaps the most poignant of all, ("Books Reviewed in The New York Times, Sunday, June 9, 2002") speaks suddenly and unexpectedly of the loss of the speaker's first child. "The Gyre" is a meditation on repetition and obsession. The speaker hears the repetitive cry of the owl, a sound which sets in motion a series of associations in her mind:
 Unable to sleep, I thought of Monet
 at eighty, painting waterlilies, pond, and sky
 over 250 times. He wrote, "These landscapes of water
 and reflections have become an obsession for me."

 And my compulsive son asks questions without answers
 ad infinitum in an endless loop: "What time is 12 o'clock
 midnight? When is it Saturday? Where is Hurricane
 Floyd? Will you marry me all the time?"

The small word "and" here is the key to the poem, the inevitability with which the speaker moves from a nineteenth-century French painter's relentless search for aesthetic perfection to her autistic son's relentless attempts to make sense of a reality that, finally, cannot be made sense of. The themes of repetition for its own sake and of unanswerable questions return in the third and final verse paragraph as the speaker answers the owl's insistent cry of "who who who?" with her own interrogative "why why why?" The night scene is presided over by "the full moon, / that great blank disk in the sky" which appears in both the beginning and ending of the poem, persistent in its own repetitive action as it "keeps on shining." The implied connections among all of these disparate voices--owl, poet, painter, and child--are surprising and moving. Even though each of these figures feels him or herself to be isolated and alone, the poem conjoins them in a kind of fellowship--it may be a fellowship of loneliness, but it is fellowship nonetheless. Thus, even a poem conceived of as a lament offers some small consolation.

The radiant world that Crooker's poems paint and celebrate, explore, and ponder is one that is meaningful as well as beautiful. They demonstrate in their attention to the things of this world that the latter have much to teach us. The lessons of Radiance are many and serve to remind us of the sacredness of creation and our obligation to act as good stewards toward the earth and toward one another: "Everything glorious is around us," "Love whatever you can," "Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy/fallen world; it's all we have, and it's never enough."

Little Low Heaven

Whereas Barbara Crooker's poems offer the reader abundant consolation, the poems of Anthony Butts's collection explore the dark, shadowed world of spiritual desolation. Butts takes his title from the poem, "Spring" by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet who knew well these two poles of spiritual experience. As the title would indicate, the poem is one of Hopkins's celebratory pieces, yet it is indicative that Butts chooses this particular image from that poem, an oxymoron that contains both the idea of heaven (a concept expansive and ultimate in its scope) and the smallness and insufficiency implied by the diminutives "little" and "low" Indeed, the speaker describes his particular gift as poet in "Spellbound" as one which involves an attraction to language that is double-edged, "my every word / birthing twin connotations." Ambiguity of thought, feeling, and expression is evident in every poem in the collection; it is even represented on the book's cover. The photograph features the torso of a man as seen from the back, his arms extended as in a crucifixion or, perhaps, in an attitude of embrace; the figure appears to be covered in cloth and seems to be either rising up out of water or sinking into it, thus suggesting a drowning and a surfacing, a death and a resurrection, at one and the same time. The water sparkles as it reflects light from (we presume) the sun, giving off a strange radiance and suggesting yet another theologically charged image, that of baptism. It seems appropriate, then, given its paradoxical title and this cryptic, death-and-life image on the cover, that we open Anthony Butts's book with mixed feelings, a sense of both awe and trepidation at the prospect of what might lie inside.

It is, therefore, reassuring that the first words in the book are ones of encouragement. Butts chooses as his epigraph the words of St. Paul from Rom. 13:12: "The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light" Indeed, by the end of the collection we see the speaker of these poems emerge from his spiritual desolation and walk in the direction of light, but first the reader must travel with him through the shadow-world of dark deeds. The precise nature of those deeds remains obscure, is hinted at rather than explicated, but a number of the poems explore the grim terrain of childhood sexual abuse, abandonment by the speaker's parents, and the inevitable loneliness, isolation, and alienation that result from such terrible events. These are haunted, and haunting, poems, yet their cumulative effect is not to sadden the reader but, instead, to astonish us with their testament to the human capacity for endurance, the great gift of language, and the healing power of art.

"Little Low Heaven" consists of five movements, each of which gives us glimpses into the speaker's emotional and spiritual state in the course of his journey and contributes bits and pieces of information that ultimately form a loose narrative of his life. All of this is preceded by 'Ars Poetica," a poem that serves as both introduction to the story and keynote to the volume. In terms of its narrative function, the poem establishes setting, providing the reader with a sense of geographical, cultural, and emotional context. These are poems about African-American urban life, many of them set in Detroit, a city that has a mythic identity of its own. The poem provides a comprehensive overview, in the tradition of great poetic chroniclers of urban America, Whitman and Ginsberg among them, that moves from the small to the grand and back again. He begins with the particulars of the "Broad-ribbed leaves of the calathea plant" on someone's window sill, broadens his scope to include "teenage boys leaping for rebounds / on playgrounds, their hourglass sleekness / glistening like the shards of the forty-ounces / littering the court" shifts his gaze to the "girls watching from windows as they care for the children / of older sisters," and situates this human activity in the city of General Motors, dominated by "American engines / turning in a summertime traffic jam, white clouds / from factories as if shift whistles sent them forth:' These poems are firmly grounded in time and place, one that is as alienating to its human inhabitants as it is unbeautiful. The boys and girls are children of displaced "southern / autoworkers still unfamiliar with the Michigan / that has taken them in," their sense of not belonging emphasized by the racism they encounter, "our skin a concept" in the minds of northern whites rather than a fact.

In addition, the poem as keynote serves to establish tone and to sound themes that will echo throughout the volume. In the course of the speaker's survey of the city, it becomes clear that he feels no affection towards this place: he is not at home here--or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. Yet even amid this grim catalogue, the reader is taken aback by two consecutive statements: "Desire never lies beyond what's given. / I have hated the second-hand world." The lines force us to ponder what other world there might be, other then the "second-hand" one, the fallen world we've inherited and must, somehow, make our peace with if we are to live. The word "hated" is strong and suggests the speaker's disordered spiritual state. This is one of the earliest indications in the volume that Butts's vision, unlike those of the preceding poets discussed in this review, and unlike that of his mentor, Hopkins, is not essentially Incarnational. Such a view runs counter to the Christian belief in a providential universe, which holds that the world was created by God and is, therefore, radically good, despite its imperfection introduced through human sin, and that God chose to become Incarnate in frail yet sacred flesh to redeem human beings from our own error. Thus, Christians, and Christian writers in particular, are compelled to "cherish the world," in the words of another Incarnational writer, Flannery O'Connor (90). The speaker in "Ars Poetica" and in subsequent poems, seems to deny the sacredness of the world and of the body as surely as does the larger culture in which he is an unwilling participant. This is a theme that will recur in the collection as the speaker experiences alienation from others and from himself and wrestles with hatred of his own flesh.

These latter themes, in fact, account for much of the dark imagery in the poems. "Things of this world can be broken" is the mantra of the boy at the center of the poem "The Lake of the Spirits" in section I of the book. In section II, the speaker employs photographic imagery in the poem "Silver Nitrate" to describe the distances that separate human beings from one another and the resulting chill and invisibility the speaker suffers: "Passersby seem / ghostly negatives in cold intervals / of intimacy, my skin like black ice ... I am a silhouette on a park bench ... my body / trembling, a nest of wings, or a grainy photo forming." These metaphors--the skin as inanimate surface and the self as an image in a photograph gradually taking shape--recur in the poems, reminding us that the process of self-realization is painful, tentative, and never really complete. In the subsequent poem, "Transmissions" the speaker describes the irony of living incommunicado in the media-crazed age of radio telescopes that send signals to Mars: "No one listens. / I am unable to speak." The distances between ourselves seem greater than that between planets, and words seem inadequate to bridge those gaps.

Just as the speaker's vision seems unremittingly bleak, a gradual shift begins to take place in section III, aptly titled "Vespers" The first of these evensongs, "Rose Window" describes a choir singing in a church. In a striking departure from the earlier, shadowy depictions of people, each of the choir members and his or her attendant voice is differentiated, "A tenor shivers / in the stratospheric notes of sopranos, / light glancing off the wedges of their precise faces;" "none are alike," yet each participates in the whole. In the rarified atmosphere of the church, bodies "disappear" and "evaporate" as music seems to serve as an antidote to carnality. This poem seems hopeful in that it asserts the power of the human voice to express beauty; however, it also manifests the speaker's distrust of the body, suggesting an almost Gnostic vision that attempts to separate our spiritual from our corporeal selves. This is a step along the journey toward the integration that the speaker yearns for, a yearning that is eloquently embodied in the final poem of section III, "Invocation to Mary of Michigan" whose litany is a prayer for the lonely people that populate this world: "Lady of the Snow, it's cold / but they will be alone no longer."

"Vespers" serves to prepare the speaker for the spiritual purgation that follows in section IV, "Dry Seed." These are confessional poems that constitute a meditation on the body mediated by the speaker's own dark story. Images of horrific illness ("My mouth is swollen with false viruses"), physical agony, and drowning obliquely convey a tale of abuse as the poems delineate the body as a container of disease, a seat of sin, and a prison to be escaped. However, as we approach the final poem of this section, "Skin;' a remarkable transfiguration occurs. In a gesture of defiance and hope, the speaker reclaims his own body, finds it to be a source of healing, a seat of strength, and a means of escape. Whereas previously, a dark, unnamed figure "carved his name on my skin" the speaker now refuses to be claimed and defined by another and becomes free:
 And I will flitter now, as I couldn't before;
 lives are born and born again.
 I have been a rapid angel since falling
 to earth; this paper, this skin, is mine.

These lines are charged with the ambiguity evident in the book's title, the image on its cover, and in the poems themselves as the speaker rises through his fall in microcosmic reenactment of Felix Culpa and comes to love the skin previously despised. This recalls images of skin that occur throughout the volume as a surface for others to write upon (or canvas for them to draw upon) and, in fact, revises and redeems them. It further equates his skin with the page upon which he inscribes his poems through whose agency he has become free.

The poems that conclude the collection in section V bear out this vision of spiritual integration and renewal occasioned by the speaker's figurative rebirth. The dark observations of the opening poems are answered with assertions of hope--"we must have faith in what's not given"--and the book concludes with a final image of new life and possibility:
 From inside our bodies a gangplank lowers
 onto the shore of a new continent
 that will come to own us no more
 than the last nor haunt us any less.
 Yet with every incarnation:
 the alien within us relinquished.

These lines harken back to the vision presented in the volumes keynote poem, as well as in subsequent poems, and remind us that we cannot ever be "owned" by any place or person, that each life we live as the self develops and matures is a new "incarnation" as we embody the soul we become. What is "alien," strange, foreign, and other-worldly, gradually gives way to a complex sense of belonging to the world we inhabit and must, finally, claim. The journey from darkness to light by which the speaker arrives at this new place is ancient and thoroughly Christian. The narrative constitutes a contemporary spiritual autobiography, tracing a pattern we find in St. Augustine, Dante, and John of the Cross, to name a few celebrated examples. Though there are few explicit references to Christ--indeed, as compared with these writers and with Hopkins, who is a shadow presence in the book, one might conclude that Christ is conspicuous in his absence--no informed reader would doubt that "Little Low Heaven" presents a Christian vision, albeit one that is embattled and, finally, hard won.


This brings us back, full circle, to the question with which this review began, a trajectory that suggests what a foolhardy venture it may be to attempt to define and apply a term as broad and elastic as "Christian Poetry." Perhaps, then, in closing, it is best to set aside the question of what characterizes these poems as Christian and briefly acknowledge what they achieve as individual works of art, particularly in the context of our present place and time. In the midst of a world that can often appear ungenerous and life-denying, one that the late John Paul II has described as dominated by "a culture of death" these poems do what poetry does at its best: they celebrate life in all of its particularity, in its many incarnations, and provide assurance, despite bouts of doubt and disaster, that the world is good and that it means intensely. Further, each of these poets does this beautifully and well. This is art that delights as it instructs and, thus, accomplishes what may appear to some to be a very non-Christian end: that is, to bring pleasure to the reader. For this, and more, readers of all stamps and schools, denominations and dispositions, who seek out these books will likely be grateful.

Fordham University


Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964.

O'Connor, Flannery. "Letter to A" The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
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Title Annotation:Little Low Heaven; Radiance; A Slender Grace; Rebekah Orders Lasagna; Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation
Author:O'Donnell, Angela
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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