When poetry meets spirituality
In one way or another, the poetry collections discussed here grapple with, revel in or simply bear witness to that which all great art wrestles with: What is going on, and (explicitly or not) what does God have to do with what is going on? Eleven different collections reviewed by four America editors are a sample of the God-haunted and the God-hunted literary artists who work out their spiritual, intellectual and emotional conundrums through lyrical compositions that both reveal and obscure, offer insight and challenge commonplaces.
Pilgrimages, by Andrew J. Calis
Each of the five parts of this debut book tackles a different sort of pilgrimage, and each becomes more specific and more granular as it goes on. The first section begins with the highest of highs, speaking abstractly of God and the universe, combining scientific terminology with biblical imagery. Subsequent parts tackle the author’s family history and well-worn memories of self, taking the reader everywhere from Jerusalem to Washington, D.C.
Finally, Calis takes us on a journey into his (and perhaps our own) future, death and eventual resurrection. Every story, every anecdote, every line feels uncertain; or, to use Calis’s term, “shattered.” Once you reach the end, you might find yourself echoing his words: “I wander, Lord. But in your wondrous grace,/ and in your goodness, you offer other means/ of traveling toward your light.”
Litany of Flights, by Laura Reece Hogan
An ode to joy and an ode to birds, sugar maples and the chaparral, Litany of Flights soars its way through drought, fire and mercy. In this debut collection, fire is both destroyer and creator, a constant source of personal consumption and renewal. Hogan is a Third Order Carmelite who writes about God in creation, light and shadow. “Even beneath your notice (notice how you do not notice).”
Among other subjects, St. John of the Cross ignites many pages in faithful, burning agony as “the friar of fire,” and St. Thérèse of Lisieux appears before Dorothy Day in a moment of Dorothy’s “tilling.” Springing from the beauty of California, the book excavates the shock of grief and the eternal possibility of relationship and reconciliation.
“I wander, Lord. But in your wondrous grace,/ and in your goodness, you offer other means/ of traveling toward your light.”
Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God, by Shann Ray (illustrations by Trinh Mai)
Shann Ray’s riveting collection is perfectly complemented by the sacramental artwork of Trinh Mai. The two artists’ work and style intertwine naturally as they both address themes of love, violence, grief, divinity and more. Ray draws on his experiences living and working all over the world, in particular those places where he has witnessed war, genocide and abuse.
With each memory revisited in verse, Ray confronts the fact that he knows very little about the God who so captures his curiosity and imagination. He is not discouraged by his lack of understanding, though; throughout this collection, the devotion and determination in his writing only increase. As he continues to be puzzled and shaken by the sheer brokenness he observes, he becomes ever more resolute in his insistence on writing about a kind of love that can be profound, reconciled with the pain that is an essential part of reality.
Andalusian Hours: Poems From the Porch of Flannery O’Connor, by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
When Flannery O’Connor was 25, she was diagnosed with lupus, a disease that similarly afflicted and eventually killed her father. She spent the next 14 years at Andalusia, her family’s dairy farm in Georgia, producing as much writing as she could before the inevitable occurred. She died at Andalusia at the age of 39.
A sense of fatalism, that time is constantly running out and not knowing how much of it you have left, pervades each of the 101 sonnets in this collection. O’Donnell writes in Flannery’s own voice, embodying her and allowing the reader to feel every cherished childhood memory, every bit of her love for Thomas Aquinas and every missed opportunity that might be her last chance to find happiness. The tragedy within O’Donnell’s poems comes from knowing that Flannery herself has an expiration date, that her wondrous personality and vivaciousness will soon end. O’Donnell shows that, amid the sadness and misfortune, there can be great beauty and liveliness at death’s door.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell shows that, amid the sadness and misfortune, there can be great beauty and liveliness at death’s door.
Thérèse: Poems, by Sarah Law
The clear writing style of this poetic biography of the beloved St. Thérèse of Lisieux reflects the “little way” and holy simplicity for which the beloved saint is known. Sarah Law tells the story of the young girl who felt a strong pull to join the Carmelites, who navigated interpersonal challenges and who ultimately spent her last days battling a painful illness that took her life at the age of 24.
After the early pages of verse introduce us in vivid detail to Thérèse’s family members and fellow Carmelites, much of the collection’s latter half describes not only the saint’s physical pain but the prayerful response and theological questions about death and mortality that it evoked. Perhaps most poignant, though, is the post-mortem that Law includes: storytelling about the people, near and far from Thérèse’s simple home and quiet life, who have been inspired by her “little way” since the saint’s death.
Spring Up Everlasting, by William Woolfitt
The poems in this collection are grounded in rapt observation, with details of scenes from places like Kanawha, W.Va.: a Pontiac Firebird wrapped around a tree, permanently smudged windows, animal bodies that have fallen into a creek. Writing about Afghanistan, William Woolfitt lingers over the specifics of how a Muslim man uses digital watches to keep track of when he will need to pray, how he touches his forehead to the dirt when he faces Mecca, how he listens to the music from a distant mosque to connect him to others of his faith who are far away.
More than anything, one gets the sense that Woolfitt can find God in anything, from a Pentecostal church to the homecoming of a serviceman to the ritualistic work of metalsmiths in Mali. In his writing, the divine is everywhere he looks.
Christian Wiman: “We must create the life creating us, and must allow that life to be.”
Survival Is a Style, by Christian Wiman
The author wears his intravenous drip on his sleeve in this, his seventh collection of poetry, where waking up might some days be misery, some days wonder, all held together by a God “not entirely gone.” Having grown up in an evangelical Christian household in Texas whose ice has long since cracked and melted into an endless sea of spiritual entropy and revelation, Wiman continues to explore a desire for faith that asks unanswerable questions.
The poems of Survival Is a Style stand on the solid ground of sharp verbs and nouns with bone, and the shaky ground of personhood, chronic illness, despair and even prayer that wishes to be free of deity. Despite it all, the ego roves spry, intact, with his two daughters and a great love and unstinted prayer. “We must create the life creating us, and must allow that life to be.” In Wiman’s writing, it is not heresy when he asserts that language itself profanes God.
The Harvest and the Lamp, by Andrew Frisardi
Andrew Frisardi reveals his love of Italy right off the bat; his first poem in The Harvest and the Lamp is about the city of Orvieto, located on a small hilltop north of Rome. He compares it to Avalon, the legendary island of Arthurian origin and goes on to liken a casalinga, an Italian housewife, to the Virgin Mary. He deems the bright skies above Rome to be like “angel’s breath in Dante.”
Much of Frisardi’s poetry is infused with a sense of great fun, though it never spills into the territory of comedy. There is a genuine sense of enthusiasm, a refreshingly honest take on spirituality in his poetry. Frisardi gives a gleeful account of a boy’s first time on a schooner. He is annoyed that even in Italy he cannot escape Donald Trump’s tweets. He confesses that, to make himself feel better after a sudden snowfall in Lent, he ordered mimosas.
James Matthew Wilson: “Will you look on it all, just as you should,/ And, in all that sordid wreckage find the good?”
The Strangeness of the Good, by James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson bores into the details of life to ultimately ask: “Will you look on it all, just as you should,/ And, in that sordid wreckage find the good?” Wilson takes from faith’s fullness. He explores in metered verse fatherhood to young children, a devotion to God that often sinks one into deep desolation and how the past has made the man who now offers these clear-hearted lamentations.
The volume also includes a “Quarantine Notebook,” which chronicles in Wilson’s metered monologue-style verses our stretch of isolation from March through May 2020: Beatitudes read aloud to kids at the kitchen table that turn into a scene out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, orthe fingers that scoop seeds into black new soil that becomes its own prayer born from a stranger’s lips several states away. It is not irony that renders this book’s world-weary-and-glad-for-it tone, but a genuineness that gives a life all its own.
Exploring This Terrain, by Margaret Ingraham
Simply “naming the names” of the creatures and greenery found in these sharply observed poems—along with just a dash of how they appear—does much of the work for Ingraham in her new collection: “silver pierce of your gold heron eye,” a “leg-singing cricket,” the “calculating flight of circling willow ptarmigans,” “the fenny plain of nesting plover.”
Her writing in Exploring This Terrain does not over-glorify created things, nor turn them into trite stand-ins for human beings. It reveres nature simply because it is alive. While she also ventures into topics like the legacy of William Faulkner and the aftermath of 9-11, reading most of Ingraham’s poems is like walking with her in the woods as she stops and calls out: Look! Over there! In one passage, she declaims that a heron and a minute ruby throat, not known for their song or sustenance, are “sweet manna on the wing” and “melody beyond any longing.”
Shrapnel Maps, by Philip Metres
Philip Metres’s passionate work for peace and justice in the Middle East burns through the lines of his poetry in Shrapnel Maps. From family stories to testimony from those on the ground in Israel and Palestine, he writes to find some common meaning in the “place of many names,” as he calls the Middle East. The book weaves poetic storytelling with other media from the locale itself: political posters, travelogues, maps, photographs, illustrations.
Metres describes in vivid detail how an inability to show kindness to someone suffering can have disastrous consequences not just for the individual who suffers but for a collective: a village, a people, a nation. As he walks through a world in pain with a “Free Palestine” bracelet on his wrist, he wonders: Will his neighbors with opposing ideologies see that symbol of allegiance and turn their backs? Will he have the courage to engage with them? Metres’s writing reveals just how vital matters of the heart can be in achieving justice.