December 1998By Luis R. Gámez
Luis R. Gámez is a professor of English at Western Michigan University.
Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry. Edited by David Impastato. Oxford University Press. 369 pages. $25.
Why is Christian poetry often so bad, when both the noun and adjective in that phrase, alone, are so good? The Christian poet has, perhaps, a doubly complex task.
First, good poetry, which is founded on vivid imagery, must work within the world of our sensual data and the physical experience of living; thats why Federico García Lorca calls the poet a professor of the five bodily senses. But the follower of Christ focuses on a reality that transcends the physical world and the realm of sensation. How can a poet give meaningful utterance to that which is ultimately unutterable by mortal man?
Second, a good poem its length of line conforming to a human breath and its pulsing meter mimicking the hearts beat addresses itself always to the human passions. Robert Frost remarked that a poem begins not with a thought but with a lump in the throat, and we most often judge a poetic performance poor for its errors in portraying human emotion: It may give too little (a sterile, rationalist essay in verse) or too much (sentimental verse, treacly doggerel). The Christian, however, is a seeker after divine nature, after the God in Whom the tumults of human passion and the turbulence of human history resolve in a divinely ineffable stasis.
Is Christianity, then, antithetical to the writing of good poetry? The names Dante, Milton, Spenser, Donne, Hopkins, Herbert, and Eliot alone tell us no. But that, we may reply, was then. What about now?
Assembling here a choir of living voices to bear him witness, editor David Impastato shows us that even in the postmodern world Christianity maintains its special relationship with the word. Christians in worship offer ritual poetry back to the Logos in a dialogue of ecstatic utterance breaking the confines of ordinary meaning. The theological and rhetorical links between word and Word thus privilege language, especially poetry, for Christians. Language is a huge power, ready to give utterance to the paradoxes of Christian living, waiting to be coaxed into subtle music.
Impastatos anthology displays the work of only 15 poets, all writing in English. He avoids the broader samplings usual in anthologies in favor of attention to sustained writerly work. Some of the poets (Richard Wilbur, Annie Dillard, Daniel Berrigan, Denise Levertov, Kathleen Norris, Wendell Berry, Louise Erdrich) will be familiar to readers of current American literature; others of stature internationally will be less known in the U.S. (Australias Les Murray and Englands Geoffrey Hill); still others will be new acquaintances for most readers. All display a mastery of language, all confront the difficult and eschew the clichés of devotional boilerplate. The result is emotional intensity and spiritual refreshment.
The anthology is organized into thematic sections denoting stages along the Christian journey. The poems flesh out Impastatos map of our spiritual landscape, in sections with titles such as The Cross, Death, Love, Injustice, Transformation, Sacrament, The Holy. Impastato is an insightful reader and a considerate guide, especially for newcomers to modern poetry. Each section has a brief introduction placing the poems in spiritual context, and each poem or small group has its own commentary as well. Literary allusions and difficult readings are handled not with pedantic footnotes but with brief additional comments that are graceful, elegant, and helpful without condescension.
The best way to read this book is slowly and meditatively. (St. Ignatiuss guidelines for retreatants in his Spiritual Exercises reading and meditating for an hour upon one text, fully employing imagination and intellect would work for readers of these poems.) Take as an example Daniel Berrigans The Crucifixion. The gist is the poet seeing a weathered crucifix by a country road in Quebec, whereupon he meditates on the fixity of Christs passion in human history. Good applied theology throughout: But Berrigan as a poet is Lorcas professor of the five senses, and the poem becomes vivid and compelling when we savor the sensuality of images such as this:
Let cloudburst break like judgement,
sending workmen homeward
whipping their teams from field,
down the rutted road to barn
still his body took punishment
like a mainsail
bearing the heaving world onward
to the Father.
The paradox of Christs immutability coexisting with his perpetual drawing of reluctant sinners to the Father finds eloquent expression in the metaphor of Christ as sail, the world as ship. The physical world of the Quebec countryside slides to imaginary seascapes in the nongrammatical gap between stanzas, and what happens in that tiny gap is the center of the poets power. The image is to be contemplated, entered into, in a process not to be rushed.
A loving intoxication with human sensual reality, one that paradoxically reaffirms the divine, suffuses this collection. Note the raw, earthy texture in Kathleen Norriss account of sexual temptation:
Youre lookin good
Got a figure like a bombshell.
Like an angel. An angel from outer space.
Some guysd up n say,
Cmon, youre gonna have some. I believe in God.
Id never say that to a girl.
In the accomplished hands of these poets the sounds and textures of the world frequently form poetic doorways to Christ.
The only disappointment for the readers of Upholding Mystery will be the books layout and typography. Poetry collections should have an index by author, one by title, one listing the first lines of the poems, perhaps an index of names and key words but Upholding Mystery has none of those. The publisher is at fault. There is no way to find, say, all the poems of Sister Maura Eicher except by sifting through the 369 pages and 271 poems. The table of contents does not give page numbers or even the full titles of individual poems, and because of the printers occasional sloppiness in setting italics it is not always clear even what an abbreviated title is. But Upholding Mystery is well worth owning and cherishing. Read and ponder its lines slowly, savoring their music. You may find that reading a poem ends as Frost says writing one begins with a lump in the throat.