If God did not exist, it would be necessary for poets to invent him. The Whole Harmonium, Paul Mariani’s recent biography of Wallace Stevens, renews the debate over Stevens’s alleged late-life conversion to Catholicism. Stevens had been raised Presbyterian. His adult life was not characterized by unbelief, but rather a search for a poetic sublime. He thought God was a “benign illusion,” and wrote “Men feel that the imagination is the next greatest power to faith: the reigning price.”
His stomach cancer having spread to his liver, Stevens told the hospital priest, Father Arthur Hanley, it was time to get “into the fold.” Mariani narrates: “[Stevens] had been leaning toward a resolution of the aesthetic and religious for decades now. In any event it was at this point that Hanley baptized him in the presence of Sister Philomela, one of the nurse sisters on the floor. The following day Hanley brought Stevens communion.”
Helen Vendler disputes the efficacy of the conversion, quipping that his “putative baptism will become credible only if it can be shown that it was registered, as canon law demands, in the record of a parish.” I am drawn both to her skepticism and Mariani’s research. The debate hinges on a murky but important point: how do we discern a writer’s religious beliefs? When does the private belief inform the public art?
When it comes to political views of writers, we prod and we conjecture with pleasure. When it comes to religious beliefs, many critics throw up their hands — particularly in our current century. Yet Stevens, and so many other poets, need God. I do not say this to evangelize. Poets seek God because they seek truth through language. They are artificers in search of one who came before them.
The Poet’s Quest for God, a new anthology from Eyewear Publishing, is subtitled 21st Century Poems of Faith, Doubt, and Wonder. 450 pages of poems for less than two decades of our current century. This is an important and much-needed collection. God is not dead for poets.
This is certainly a book that documents the quest for the divine, rather than the certainty of existence. The book is largely free of dogma, but there is devotion here. The volume is edited by Catholic priest Father Oliver Brennan and Todd Swift, the founder of Eyewear. Fr. Brennan writes that
One of the characteristics of contemporary culture, generally described as post-modern, is the human search for the spiritual. Many spiritual writers say that desire is our fundamental disease and is always stronger than satisfaction. This desire lies at the centre of our lives, deep in the recesses of the soul. The unquenchable fire residing in all of us manifests itself at key points in the human life-cycle. Spirituality is ultimately what we do about this desire.
In the book’s preface, Brennan and Swift explain “We cannot prove that God exists in a scientific, logical sense but few things that really matter can be proven that way. You cannot prove that somebody loves you using science. But you can know in your heart and mind that love exists and is real. The invisible can be just as real as the visible — a shared core belief of most religions and much poetry.”
The Poet’s Quest for God is a treasure of perspectives, and includes both poets known for their interest in the divine and those who typically write of secular subjects. The poets are arranged chronologically within the book, but they can be grouped along the themes of the subtitle: poems of faith, poems of doubt, and poems of wonder.
“Was God overwhelmed / when Her milk first came in // roused by our thin cries / for compassion?” Rachel Barenblat’s “El Shaddai (Nursing Poem),” from Waiting to Unfold, begins with a question, such an appropriate move for a poem of faith. Half of the sentences of the entire text are questions — gentle inquiries, not interrogations. It’s a poem that suggests we might personify the divine, and yet “blank-faced” angels like us who offer “constant praise // without understanding Her joy / or the depth of Her fear.” In Fady Joudah’s “Proposal,” God might be a “little bird who takes / To staying close to the earth, / The destiny of little wings / To exaggerate the wind / And peck the ground.” It’s a poem full of exquisite images, including “I think / God reels the earth in when the sky rains / Like fish on a wire.”
Jericho Brown’s “Prayer of the Backhanded” recalls the charged poems of his collection The New Testament. Brown’s poem is a pained prayer, a lament for a father’s physical force, “a hand that took / No thought of its target / Like hail from a blind sky.” This is the poem of a child resigned to fear: “Father, I bear the bridge / Of what might have been / A broken nose. I lift to you / What was a busted lip.” Faith does not necessarily bring comfort. In “Rites,” a poem from Woman of the Cloth, April Bulmer imagines a metamorphosis. The narrator is a “beacon for spirits / and frail ghosts,” and wonders what it would be like “to be a Sister, / to bear the cross, / the weight of His burden.” The poem evolves into a fractured scene, a recognition of separation: “I am a pagan / dreaming of the body of Christ: / taking the bread in my beak, / singing the rite.” Like so many poems in The Poet’s Quest for God, Bulmer’s verse transcends denomination or creed. This is an anthology of poets looking for God, but not necessarily Her churches.
Faith, then, often arrives in blurred images, as in “The Carpenter Ant” by Terrance Hayes. The narrator’s aunt is unwell, she takes a hammer to her walls that “she claimed / were bugged with a tiny red-eyed device / planted by the State or Satan’s agents.” He likens her to a carpenter ant, and himself “would love to devour the house I live in / until it is a permanent part of me.” He remains haunted by her perplexing refrain: “I don’t know why God keeps blessing me.” Likewise, Christian Wiman’s “Prayer” arrives in lean, piercing lines. Despite the narrator’s pain, his neverness, he hopes an anxious mind might find in prayer “a trace / of peace.”
How can we expect more than a trace of peace from faith? The second category of works in The Poet’s Quest for God are verses of doubt. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pelican,” Shaindel Beers writes of the violent allegory of the pelican for Christ. It is a story that wounds the poem’s narrator, who was “taught that we could never love Christ / too much.” Instead, the narrator chose “the mountains, the rivers. / They open their hearts to us every day / no matter how we wound them.” Diana Fitzgerald Bryden’s “An Atheist’s Prayer,” from her book Learning Russian, similarly looks for solace elsewhere, with very timely words. “Here in the city, glazed yellow, / pushed down in its bowl by the stinging heat, / I’ve been trying to translate my fear.” It’s an imperfect search, but her atheism is a form of poetic faith. The same spirit of inquiry guides the narrator of Edwin Smet’s “Elongated,” who has “nothing to define the contents / of what seems to be me, let alone / a system which created it all.” Haven’t most faithful experience that despair as well? The doubtful poems in The Poet’s Quest for God are equally appealing to believers. We are all in various forms of the search.
That search is perhaps best exemplified in the lyric poems on the theme of wonder in the anthology. Each line of David Baker’s “Mercy” is like a whispered prayer to the unknown. “Small flames afloat in blue duskfall, beneath trees / anonymous and hooded.” The people in this poem are as still as the trees; “No one is singing, and no one leaves.” They are “bowed but watching.” Later in the book Timothy Donnelly’s “Monastic,” from Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, is an interior complement to Baker’s natural peace. “The ruined cathedral wept into my flesh / because I held nothing within me with warmth / enough to deflect it.” It’s a poem meant to be read into the wind, whose lines eschew punctuation and gain natural pause as they lead toward its conclusion.
A nice contrast to Baker and Donnelly’s shared style is Traci Brimhall’s “Hysteria: A Requiem,” from her masterful collection Our Lady of the Ruins. A mixture of lineated and prose-poetic lines, Brimhall’s poem is not simply post-apocalyptic; it is otherworldly. It is one of the few long poems in the collection, and earns that right: “Through cracks in the boarded windows, I see broken rocking horses in the streets. I hear nothing. Nothing. Not even the wind. I want to go through the houses and search for the living, but I am bound to the known. A sore rises on my scalp. I tell no one. The test of faith is not death, but fear.”
In “The Gospel Truth” from his collection Wishbone, Don Share wonders “Where is he, meanwhile, who will save us, / wound in his side?” All poets might have is “a forlorn inclination,” and perhaps the “one who knows is off on another / job, collecting taxes, impervious / to the indignity of having been reborn.” The Poet’s Quest for God reminds us — with equal parts grace and force — that poets are still searching for God.
I read like sort of like a spider. I make a web of my reading. I read numerous books from different genres for entirely different reasons all at the same time. Something for the morning before my kids crawl into bed. Something to read to my kids, something else to read that helps me understand my kids. Something for the train. Something else for waiting on the bus. Something for a breather between grading papers. The papers I’m grading. Something else to inspire my own writing. Something that a friend recommended. Something a friend wrote. There are always a few books that I wrap up and really sink into. I’ve been reading Manning Marable’s Malcolm X all year long. I love it. It feels incredibly indulgent. Which is a very strange thing to say about a biography of Malcolm X. But this biography is not directly connected to my own work, or my teaching, or my parenting or wifing…so reading it feels almost transgressive, which maybe is how an biography of Malcolm X should feel after all. To make me feel better about reading that biography, I also started Stokely by Peniel Joseph. Also good. In fiction I re-read Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid. Both were for a class I was teaching and, as happens, my reading of those brilliant books was deepened by the discussion my students and I had.
But when it comes to discovering new books, this year went to poetry for me. Hustle by David Tomas Martinez and Seam by Tarfia Faizullah were among my favorites. They sort of came out of nowhere and then blew like the wind. But the two books that I’ve read and re-read this year are: The New Testament by Jericho Brown and Citizen by Claudia Rankine. The New Testament and Citizen will change your mind, your heart, the way you build your life, and the way you live in community. Reading the The New Testament is like, well, reading The New Testament. Reading Citizen is reading the work of a great prophet– not necessarily the kind that predicts the future, but the kind that reveals the truth of our present reality. Both books are brilliant.
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