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In Spencer Reece’s poem “Ayer,” from his new collection, Acts, the priest-poet talks about his bishop, who “had spent the day visiting churches/ and a gypsy that was begging for the host.”

The worth and work of religious poetry are summed up right there, in seven words about a gypsy craving, begging for the Eucharist. They are a catechism unto themselves, saying more about Christ’s needful place in the human universe than perhaps any doctrinal statement about God ever could.

For America’s spring poetry roundup, we have selected several collections that bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ-–whether they name him directly or indirectly, by plumbing the depths of his creation.


Philip Metres’s Fugitive/Refuge traces his family’s journey as refugees from Lebanon to Mexico to the United States in the form of a qasida, an Arabic poem in three parts. Though it takes a centuries-old form, Fugitive/Refuge is intensely contemporary, painting the immigrant experience with vivid emotional color. With palpable melancholy, Metres recalls reconnecting with his mother over Zoom: “In a poem, I once wrote// If the sky were a voice, it would/ be yours. The years rub it to a fluted rasp,/ raspier over the audio// of compressed memory.”

As he writes about these stilted connections, Metres rejects the immigrant dream as channeled through Americana like Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus.” (In Metres’s retelling of that poem in “The New New Colossus,” he writes about the “Mother of Exiles,” a migrant woman crying out: “Storied landlords, open your doors/ to us, the roofless.”) But Metres does not portray an immigrant nightmare either. Even as he laments what was left behind, he writes with reverence about the new life being forged on this unstable terrain: “O crucible of continents shifting table of continents/ O cumulative quake O unfolding quote O hip bowl/ you tilt as you spill into hope.”

Delaney Coyne

Written during the shifting tides of the early 1980s in the Soviet Union, the Russian poet Olga Sedakova’s Old Songs (translated by Martha M. F. Kelly), finds shelter in her expansive inner world to navigate questions about life, death, memory, faith and eternity. She engages the paradoxes inherent in all these things and writes about them with the precision of a practiced craftsman. Sedakova warns against self-obsessive ruminations about death and legacy. Her Orthodox faith enables her to contemplate death with assured curiosity: “Better instead to wonder aloud:/ what gleams white there on the green hill?” She does not regard faith as a balm to quell one’s morbid neuroses, though; it is a fragile thing that must be protected. “I know that the soul is an infant/ an infant until its final hour,// that it believes absolutely everything,/ and it sleeps in a den of thieves,” she writes.

Sedakova places her hope in what lies beyond, but she does not reject the world. She embraces all things good, from glass beads to her beloved, even if they will all one day be washed away: “Ocean will never fall into river,/ and river will never return to its source, and there’s not one soul that time has spared—/ and yet I love you as if/ all of that was and will be.”

Delaney Coyne

Make a fence, said the rabbis, around the Torah. And this world/ is lousy with them,” Jessica Jacobs laments in her new collection, unalone, a poetic journey through the Book of Genesis. Jacobs (whose book has a strikingly similar cover to that of Philip Metres’s Fugitive/Refuge) takes a different approach from the rabbis: “Let every fence in my mind have a gate./ With an easy latch and well oiled hinges.” Her thoughts on Scripture, Jewish life and tradition, her experience as a queer woman, and the beauty and brokenness of this world effortlessly flow together, bleeding and blending like watercolors.

Jacobs charts a chronological path through Genesis, dialoguing with other writers and the text itself. She does not treat the characters in Genesis as towering figures but as human beings. From there she draws a lineage of humanity: a winding thread connecting Isaac’s complex relationship with Abraham to the lingering questions the writer herself cannot ask her mother. To Jacobs, Genesis is a living, breathing thing. That contemporary connection is not only personal but political: The text’s floods and famines are not so far from today’s climate crisis. She sketches the poem “That We May Live and Not Die” as a kind of outline, and she concludes with a few recommendations: “a. Remember/ i. These stories are old ones./ (a) And they repeat.”

Delaney Coyne

The title of Scott Cairns’s newest collection of poems, Lacunae, means “unfilled spaces” or “gaps.” The gaps Cairns vividly illustrates in this collection consist of those moments when we feel a hole in the space where God usually is—both for better and for worse.

In “Absent Gods,” Cairns writes of a void humanity collectively feels regarding a lack of a relationship with God, noting that “...all the living/ are obliged to be in their confused slog/ across such chafing days as these./ Nor, I gather,/ so gods as these give any thought to us.”

With these words, Cairns laments that often, the apathy that higher powers have for us (or can seem to, anyway) is a two-way street: God (or the gods) doesn’t think about us, so why should we think about God?

But Cairns also views the search for God in moments when we think God is absent to be just as beautiful and meaningful as the moments when we know God is right beside us.

In “An Opening, A Glimpse” (a title both similar to and a foil of the title of the collection), Cairns likens God’s presence in our lives to a wide sea; it will always be there, but we often take for granted how wide and expansive a body it is. We can even forget it is there.

Michael O’Brien

A collection of spiritual poetry does not traditionally begin “topless at the office/ like a scandal.” (Do not worry, dear reader, she is “Pumping Milk,” as the title of the preface poem tells us.) But there could be no finer way to begin Heather Lanier’s new book Psalms of Unknowing masterfully broaches both motherhood and misogyny. Lanier is a kind of poetic psalmist, whose lyrical poems traverse conversations with politically charged neighbors, gun violence, the merits of good humor and the spiritual wonderment of a silent retreat.

Lanier’s poems about her daughter in the section titled “And The Child…” add up to a raw portrayal of raising a child with a disability. “Your Eyes, My Daughter, Are Genius Caliber” feels like a childhood blanket fresh out of the dryer, coming to swaddle our hearts and make us whole. But the most important to note in Psalms of Unknowing are the poems that look at violence and oppression, particularly “The War We Barely Knew” and one that begins “Bear Leads Police in Wild Chase,” and ask what bounty we can make out of the very little left behind when tragedy befalls us and grief steals our joys. Motherhood, Christianity and social responsibility are thoughtfully examined and reframed in this collection, leaving the reader to wonder if we can ever find “the kingdom/ said Christ/…at hand.

Christine Lenahan

Diana Woodcock’s collection Holy Sparks draws us into the beating heart of the ecological crisis, investigating the relationship between the Creator and the created. In the prophetic and prayerful voice of the “ecopoet,” Woodcock invites the reader into an ecological exegesis while masterfully crafting succinct, rhythmic lines. Woodcock’s meditations on the natural world, particularly on birds and their habits, serve as metaphors for how we ought to approach the climate crisis, just as birds “approach the world with such/ non-aggression and clear vision.”

There is a subdued cry for ecological justice in her lines, but just because the voice calling for change is quiet, that does not mean it is any less important. In “We Are Not Gods,” Woodcock describes in detail the earth’s current ecological devastation, highlighting “how close/ we are to the edge” and how the impact of our overconsumption and irrevocable decisions to pollute the earth remind us that “Behold,/ we are not gods. What if it’s already/ too late?”

Christine Lenahan

“Poems, ideally, should be like saints’ lives. That is, they should be experiments in magical thinking and include at least two miracles,” writes Sara Nicholson in her collection April. Even though “One must occasionally allow oneself/ Bourgeois imaginings,” Nicholson puts her magical thinking under scrutiny, asking the reader if there are “any good poems/ About saying it./ If you find one let me know.” The antecedent of that “it” is unclear, which intentionally obfuscates any central thematic elements of her collection.

But throughout each poem, these thematic elements reveal themselves to the reader. Much of her collection questions whether or not language is considered “art.” Nicholas describes the complexities of Cézanne’s painting “Léda au Cygne” (“Leda and the Swan”) in her poem “The Archetype.” In “The Goatherd and the Saint,” she watches a woman play Candy Crush on her cellphone in an art museum. In both pieces, Nicholson plays with prosody and the limits of language as it attempts to describe art.

Nicholson is conscious of herself as a poet. In “The Burden,” she reveals that she does not have the artillery of language that other poets may have. “I don’t know the Latin names of flowers. I know that there are cities wherein stars// Will labor to appear in bursts...” And yet Nicholson seems to mirror saints’ lives in her miraculous use of language in “Utopia”: “I aim to simplify/ my loss, ambition, rage and joy/ Into a single word/ And speak it to you, Love.”

Christine Lenahan

A few verses in his poem “Pentecostes” sum up the tone and tenor of the acclaimed poet Spencer Reece’s Acts. Reece, an Episcopal priest, tucks the exigencies of the body into the reality of modern-day religion into the native humor to be found in church life: “We used to say Holy Ghost but now we don’t, our British organist with hemorrhoids,/ one of the only Anglican things we’ve got,/ sitting on her foam donut/ said the church thought it too Halloween.”

Reece, who was born in Connecticut and raised in Minnesota, focuses this book on a period he spent in Spain as the chaplain to a local bishop. This collection is not an easy read, trafficking as it does in disease, discharge, blood, violence, hemorrhoids and, on top of it all, religion, which can cause its own trauma. The poems glance in and look out, motioning back and forth between church and body and condoms and sex and Lorca and Vega and the residue of life under the dictator Francisco Franco, who hated Protestants.

What is it like, ultimately, to be an Episcopal priest in a Catholic land? “Spaniards whisper as if nothing had less hope/ than to be childless and worship without the Pope.”

Joe Hoover

Fog fills the hollows of the land and the contours of Ryan Wilson’s soul in his masterful new book of poetry, In Ghostlight. This volume is a stunner, blistering quietly through shrouds of fog and mist and longing.

In the opening poem, “The Call,” a boy wakes up to a world dark, foreboding, macabre, and then he gets out of bed “to seek what I could not possess,/ Life howling through the dark hill’s wilderness.”

Wilson journeys back to a hometown he hasn’t visited in two decades and offers us a quiet, lyrical homage to Springsteen territory: “It’s twenty years since I last came back home./ The nearby houses sag, bleared clapboard ruins.”

The book is populated by people exhausted by life, walking in death, a ghostly moonscape. Wilson describes the basic human duties of life as being “like those one-hit wonders still// Crooning in ever-smaller dives of soon-/ To-be-ghost-towns beloved tunes they hate.”

It is something of a relief to find a basic, lovely truth in the poem “Christmas Party”:

“And bless that hallowed world which no names name,/ Where we’re all citizens, and loved the same.”

Joe Hoover

Here are some other new works by poets who rotate in the general America universe—some of whom we have published before—that we thought might be of interest to our readers.

Survivor’s Notebook, by Dan O’Brien

The playwright and poet lays bare the bones of his life, giving us entrance to the reality of his struggles in the space of a few perfectly chosen words. “Like the summer after my brother tried suicide when nothing was resolved or named.”

Chance Encounters, by Sister Sharon Hunter, C.J.

A member of the Congregation of Jesus contemplates the everyday sacred moments of religious life and the childhood that birthed it. “Every large family has a strange child/ in my family that was me.”

Salt of the Earth, by Patrick T. Reardon

Punchy, brawny poems of a Catholic and a former Chicago Tribune reporter. “How pipe the foreign/ How altar the yearn?/ How street the knowledge of death?”

Butterfly Nebula, by Laura Reece Hogan

Sea creatures, moths, stars and Ophelia tangle with the exigencies of the body and the longings of faith.“She would think better of it. She would shed/ the capsizing layers of skirt. She would wedge-cut/ the tresses, say good riddance to tangle.”

Prayershreds, by Bruce Beasley

Psalms from an abundance of religions, a thesaurus, a chatbot and anything else the author can get his hands on. “I am words in a language I don’t speak.”

Meditations at Midnight, by Gary Jansen

Meditations on the passion of Christ and on the wider passions and stories of the author’s abundant life. “Don’t cry for me, you say/ The World keeps God away/ Weep because of that.”

Dear Dante, by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

A conversation in verse with the 14th-century Italian master Dante Alighieri. “Lured by your language, we blindly follow you,/ pray none of the things you write comes true.”

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