Hungry Avidity Here: a ★★★★★ book review

What makes poetry good? Is it the poem’s voice or the music of the words? Is it the use of metaphor, the poet’s intuition, or her keen observation of the world? I don’t always know what makes poetry good but I know a good poem when I read it. Regina Walton’s The Yearning Life is a wonderful collection. Her subjects range from childhood and motherhood to art, nature, Sunday worship, scripture, friendship and medieval mystics. She captures both holy longing and delight.

the-yearning-lifeWalton is an Episcopal priest whose poetry has appeared in Poetry East, Asheville Poetry Review, Spiritus and Anglican Theological Review and other journals. She is also the first winner of the Phyllis Tickle Prize in Poetry for this collection.   Her poems are organized under four headings: Spirit and Marrow, ShowingsVisitations and Seven O’s: Antiphons. the latter section has the seven “Great O Antiphons” (short verses before the Magnificat chanted in the monastic office through Advent). They are produced here in Latin, and translation with one of Walton’s poems accompanying each antiphon.

Sometimes religious poetry seem unearthly, tending toward the super-spiritual with more ethereality than reality.  Such poems might be luminous, but they forget the path of roots and stone. However, the  physical and spiritual embrace throughout Walton’s poetry, “So thickly knotted,/The Holy twins—/Real and ghost,/Untold apart” (from Spirit and Marrow, 17). Consider the interplay between physicality and spirituality in  Walton’s Psalm 131:

My grandma put her breasts in a drawer
And that was that—
The prosthetics, anyway, meant to fill her bra,
The originals claimed by cancer in my childhood

For all her children, her breasts had never suckled—
The doctors put her under before each birth,
Then told her
Nursing was for savages.

Ann, after the Virgin’s mother,
she prayed out loud and often to her own.

On the feast of Annunciation,
Five years gone, she visited me
And in the no-place dream space,
Our bosom-embrace renewed, I felt them—

Hesed, womb-love that moved over the abyss,
That mothered the churning darkness into life—
Her wholeness shocked me awake. (49)

I love the way Walton’s imagery draws together the psalm alluded to with her grandmother’s body and experience, Annunciation, covenant and resurrection.

There is also a spiritual hunger underlying Walton’s work. This is captured by her title poem, The Yearning Life,  which envisions Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec reflecting on that space between lives active and contemplative. Walton describes Ruusbroec’s yearning, “Each holy favor, eagerly awaited, consumed,/Only melts into more craving./And satiety is the missing dish” (32).

These poems range from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the prayerful to the playful. I’m still chuckling at Walton’s Enoch’s Wife, “I wish I never said/ If you love God so much,/why don’t you go/and live with him instead” (59). Other poems give snap shots of conversations, theological and biblical musings, and observations of the world. I enjoyed reading these poems out loud to just to hear Walton’s words play on my tongue. This collection is well deserving of the accolades it received. I will be on the look out for more from Regina Walton. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

See the World Anew: a book review

I have been saved more than once by a good poem. N0t  because of its arresting metaphors or clever syntax. I enjoy imagery and love the music of words well used. The poems which have saved me are the ones that invited me to a whole new way of seeing the world. Our own senses give us a myopic view of reality. (Good) poetry transforms our perception.

the-paraclete-poetry-anthologyParaclete Press has introduced me to some great poems in the past several years. The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems brings together a selections from the poets Paraclete  has published from 2005-2016. John Sweeney (Paraclete Press’s former Editor-in-Chief and Publisher) writes the forward and Mark Burrows (editor) writes an introduction which describes the power poetry has to educate our souls.

Book-ending this collection are, to my mind, the highest profile poets which Paraclete Press has published: Scott Cairns and Rainer Marie Rilke. There are five poems from Cairn’s Slow Pilgrim: Collected Poems (2015) and six of his new poems. Cairns is an Orthodox Christian and which imforms his theological and aesthetic sensibilities. Rilke’s selection comes from Prayers of a Young Poet—the collection of sixty-eight poems—translated by  Burrows. Rilke wrote in the voice of an Orthodox monk, though his poetry is not characterized by the same confidence Cairns has. His poems ache and search for encounter with the living Thou.  Burrows  provides fresh translation of several other Rilke poems.

Between these two greats are other notable poets. There is the late Phyllis Tickle, the godmother of progressive evangelicalism. Her Hungry Spring & Ordinary Songs  (2015) is another great emergence to those of us more familiar with here theological works. There are poems here from Paul Mariani, poems by Anna Kamienska (whose poem “On a Thresh Hold of a Poem” provides the introduction to this anthology), Fr. John-Julian, Said, Bonnie Thurston, Greg Miller, William Woolfit, Rami Shapiro, Thomas Lynch, and Paul Quenon. This is a solid collection. About half the poets are new to me. Those I knew, like Cairns, Rilke, and to a lesser extent, John-Julian, Said, and Rami I’ve read and re-read.

This are not just a collection of poems. Theses are religious poems (mostly Christian). They turn transcendence and muse about divinity. Many of these poems pray, some describe and exegete. Others of these moan, sing and contemplate. On the whole a solid and varied collection. Each poem tells truth slant and opens up new vantage points for experiencing God and the world.  I give this anthology five stars and recommend this collection for anyone needing more poetry in their life (which is everyone).

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Prayer: Confession I

Bringing Confession Home

My life is displayed when You drop by:

our shoes piled haphazard at the door, kids’ toys

and clothes on the floor, the paper unread but

spread across the coffee table, the shelves teem with debris,

and countertops covered with dishes—my sink overflows.

 

We are past pretense, You and I;

You know who I am, not what I pretend.

My detritus divulges an inner chaos—

a cluttered heart, a spirit stifled by stuff.

Gather these fragments and see

all I love and I long to be.

 

Create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit in me.

So when You come to my door and knock

I may welcome You in without shame.

 


 

*Dirty dish picture from Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Dirty_dishes.jpg

 

Poems from a Zen Rabbi: a book review

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is no ordinary poet. A student of Zen Buddhism and Hasidim, he was challenged to become a ‘Zen rabbi’ in 1973. He got ordained as a Reformed rabbi (1981) and served a congregation for twenty years. Today, he writes, leads retreats, and co-directs One River Wisdom School. Much of the poetry in Accidental Grace: Poetry, Prayers and Psalms was birthed for liturgical use in the congregation of Beth Or (in Miami)but is accessible to people across religious traditions.

accidental-grace-poetry-prayers-and-psalms-5
Accidental Grace: Poetry Prayers and Psalms by Rami M. Shapiro

As I thumbed through this book, my first question was “What the heck is a Zen rabbi?” This is a curious blending of religious traditions, to say the least! Shapiro writes:

At first I thought a Zen rabbi was a rabbi who wrapped a tallit/prayer shawl around the Buddha: making Buddhism kosher by finding ways to read Buddhism into Jewish text and tradition. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t quite right. As it turns out, a Zen Rabbi is a rabbi who isn’t all that concerned with being a rabbi or a Jew. A Zen rabbi is a rabbi who, if she met Buddha on the road, wouldn’t kill him, but would take him out for bagels and lox. A Zen rabbi is a rabbi who thinks that God is reality manifesting as everything, the way an ocean manifests waves.  (p. x,  from the introduction).

Shapiro blends traditions, sounding Jewish one moment, the next like an Eastern mystic.   His source material remains the Hebrew scriptures and extant writings (‘everything has a hook in traditional Jewish texts,’ xi); yet he deconstructs much of this, sending it through his ‘Zen shredder.’ He rages against text and tradition but speaks reverently of the ineffable God who cannot be named.

Shapiro’s poems (proper) are bordered by his treatment of two types of texts from the Ketuvim(the writings in the Jewish Tanakh). He begins with the Psalms, offering poetic paraphrases and meditation on twenty psalms. The word “God” doesn’t always appear in these Psalms and there is no version of the tetragrammaton (YHWH). Shapiro  most often refers to God  as “You,” with occasional titles like, “Holy One of Being” and “Ground of all ground”(Ps. 90,  p.14). References to “Israel” and “Zion” are excised from most of his rephrasings. The exception, is Psalm 137, which describes the Jewish experience of their exile in Babylon. Here Shapiro says with the Psalmist, “I sat down by the rivers of Babylon. . .”and “If, I forget you, O Jerusalem. . .”(22). But he modifies the psalm’s baby-killing conclusion to read, “Please, God, silence the vengefulness within me/that justifies battering the babies of my enemies/on the rocks of their city until their bodies dissolve in pools of blood and fat”(23). He pays homage to the psalms, but also critiques, and rewrites them to reflect his own understanding of the God described in the text.

In the final section of this book, Shapiro presents a parabolic and dramatic retelling of the book of Job. His first act describes the wager between God and Satan and the havoc this wreaks on Job. The second act presents Job’s argument with his three friends about the cause of his suffering. Act three appears in two scenes: scene one has God appear in a sandstorm; scene two describe an aftermath conversation between Job, Satan and God. Shapiro touches on the ambiguities and absurdities in the Job narrative, offering a humorous, if irreverent conclusion.

The poems in the middle of the book vary. Some reflect on particular scriptures or liturgical settings. Some talk about spirituality: Sabbath, Torah, the Holocaust, pain, death, joy. Some poems are prayers to God, while others describe the divine in significant and mundane moments of life. There are poems which rage, and poems that praise.

When a Christian publishing house (Paraclete Press) puts out a book of poetry from a ‘Zen Rabbi,’  it is worth taking notice. It is not every day these traditions converge amicably without something of their particularity being sacrificed. I am a convinced Christian and no relativiser of the world’s religious traditions, but I can appreciate insights from other traditions. I found myself appreciative of Shapiro’s playfulness with Scripture and his imaging of the God “beyond imaging.” Many of his poems on the spiritual life are quite moving. I loved his description of the Spirit, and how we don’t just “breathe,” but “are breathed” (Attending, 36).  At some points, his spirituality was too vague for my tastes, but overall, I appreciated this collection. I give this four stars.

Note: I recieved this book from Paraclete press in exchange for my honest review.

 

Notes on Ps. 131 (Poem)

Psalm 131, A Song of Ascent, of David.

 

 

I kick and rage–

proud heart, haughty eyes

I thought I’d

made my mark

already.

 

Insides spinning–

a hope deferred–anxiety

throbbing through my thighs.

 It’s  all too great for me,

I cannot

bear it.

 

Teach me to be-

To know who holds me

upon Her knee, and then

I’d drift contentedly

to peace.

 

I stop kicking and sit, still

proud-hearted-haughty;

yet there is no need to

make a mark

today.

 

You hold me

    there is hope–now,

and when

forever comes,

with You I will rise.

 

©James Matichuk, 2016

Hardware Store Haikus

I feel called to vocational ministry but I have bills to pay and a family to feed. I do this by working at my local hardware store as a salesperson and quasi-supervisor. I drive a forklift, cut keys, fill propane, mix paint. I also am responsible for training employees and merchandising the store. This isn’t ministry it’s just life, but ministry is the stuff of life. Here is a taste of my day-to-day:

I open today
My gaggle drives me to work
stuck behind  the train

“You got a thingy
that will whatchamacallit?”
“Absolutely, yes.”

“Doesn’t fit,” He sighs.
Package says universal.
Not this universe.

Can you cut a key?
Yes, if I have the right blank.
No. She leaves the store.

He asks,”EEEEE-poxy?”
Holding out the ‘E’ too long–
It stuck to his tongue.

“Sixteen Inches,” he says.
I measure eighteen. Displeased,
“Sixteen’s what I need.”

“It’s slow can I go home?”
The cashier asks, I respond:
we have work to do.

“Time for your training!”
She complies with verve and speed
grimacing at me.

Break time: I’m reading
He leans to see the cover.
Far too religious!

“CUSTOMER SERVICE
TO PROPANE WHO WILL RESPOND?!?”
Running, I get gas.

His eyes scan the shelf,
What can I help you find? No
I was just looking.

It’s twenty to eight
I ride the pallet jack back
Almost closing time

Help Me Be: a book review

Dale Fredrickson is a teaching pastor and spoken-word artist at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, CO. Both as pastor and as poet, he is charged with the ministry of word-care (or Word-care).  In his new book of poetry, Help Me Be: Praying in PoemsFredrickson uses his words to ignite our hunger for God amidst difficulty, suffering and brokenness.

Help-Me-Be-Cover-1010x1024The organization of these poems is lifted from Walter Brueggemann’s Message of the Psalms (it’s okay, Brueggemann wrote the forward). There are poems of Orientation (Or, Life is Good), Disorientation (Or, Life is Not Good), and New Orientation (Or, Life is Good Again).  However, I felt like ‘new orientation’ breaks into the poems of ‘disorientation’ a little too much. Fredrickson writes poems to give us a sense of the Divine Presence doesn’t press into the darkness as much as he could.

I enjoyed these poems. It is a short book (48 pages) and Fredrickson offers poetic prayers reminiscent of Brueggemann’s Awed to Heaven (Rooted in Earth), Inscribing the Text  or Prayers for a Privileged People. Fredrickson lacks some of the prophetic edge of Brueggemann but there is a lyrical quality to his poems. Among his poetic influences are Wendell Berry, Shel Silverstein and Mary Oliver.

These poems should be read aloud. Fredrickson is a spoken-word artist and I found I appreciated these poems more when I let the words play on my tongue.

I read these with an eye toward their possible liturgical use.  Many of these poems do not avail themselves to a ‘responsive reading’ as the poetic voice is singular. I still think they would add to a worship service, particularly with the right reader. I would give this about four stars.

Help Me Be is available for purchase through Amazon.

I recieved this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.