“America I am unnameable.” Several poems in Shane McCrae’s new book, The Gilded Auction Block, begin with America: the idea, the myth, the collective body. The speakers of his poems are nearly ecstatic with frustration: tired and terrified, they are convinced “America you wouldn’t pardon me.”
Shane McCrae has many
gifts as a poet, but among his most hypnotizing is his ability to create poems
that simultaneously blare and beacon. Since his first book, Mule, in 2011, McCrae has been creating
ambitious work that demands—earns—our attention. I often feel out of time when
I am reading his words; they arrive with a Miltonic fury, and yet they are so
contemporary and critical for our present, strange world.
We spoke about our current
political fever, Hell, and how poems sometimes have to wait for the right
moment to arrive.
The Millions: I don’t know if there’s an ideal way to read a particular book of poetry, but I read The Gilded Auction Block after midnight, at my desk, in what seemed like phosphorescent light. I had the feeling of being consumed by the book—particularly “The Hell Poem”—and each time I turned back to the cover, Ulisse Aldrovandi’s monstrous image unnerved me further. It’s rare to experience a book that hits so hard on the levels of form and function and feeling, which leads me to wonder: How did this book come together for you? How did you go about structuring, ordering, arranging these pieces into their profluent whole?
Shane McCrae: Thank you so much for the kind words about the book. Well, “The Hell Poem” came first. In 2014, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a Dante-esque, Inferno-ish poem, which is a terrible thing to get into one’s head—although there is something to be said for going into the writing of a poem knowing it will be impossible for the end result to be anywhere near as good as its inspiration. So I wrote a few sections of “The Hell Poem,” got stuck, and then abandoned the poem. Not long after that, I wrote In the Language of My Captor. Then Trump was elected. And immediately I felt I had to write something in response to Trump’s election, and wrote “We’ll Go No More a Roving.” Maybe a month or so after that, I wrote “Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump,” and poems along the lines of that poem followed. Eventually, I started thinking about “The Hell Poem” again, and realized there was a place for Trump in it—indeed, I think the reason I had gotten stuck was that the poem was waiting for Trump.
TM: In other interviews, you’ve spoken with illuminating complexity about confessional poetry, noting that “in some very actual ways the confessional mode, strictly speaking, is not possible for non-write writers” because the confessional condition “assumes a fall from grace, but only whites occupy the initial position vis-à-vis grace from which the confessional poet must fall.” Yet you’ve also described a simultaneous pull toward that space of confession in verse, and I think one of the many powerful modes of The Gilded Auction Block is that the book feels kenotic (both metaphorically and theologically)—an emptying on the way toward reception. Was there a kenotic sense for you in writing these poems—and if so, what has been emptied, and what might be received?
SM: Oh, I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve ever done as kenotic, not thoroughly—kenosis is something I think one works toward one’s entire life. But I also think I never manage to really empty myself when writing my autobiographical poems—that’s why I keep returning to certain figures, particularly my grandmother. I don’t ever—not that I can recall at the moment—feel satisfied by the writing of my more autobiographical poems. I can manage to get my non-autobiographical poems to seem finished to me, but my autobiographical poems always seem not quite right. They are the poems I consistently abandon.
TM: Your previous book, In the Language of My Captor, begins with the poem “His God,” which includes the lines “his / God is a stranger // from no country he has seen.” The Gilded Auction Block begins with “The President Visits the Storm,” which includes a clever allusion to Mary’s Assumption and an ominous nod toward the Book of Revelation—both skillful touches that feel like transfigurations. I enter both books thinking about forms disembodied, and looking for the places of souls. Considering this book is peppered with quotations and permutations of Donald Trump, how have these past years had you thinking about bodies?
SM: Well now I simply do not have a good answer for this—not yet. Let’s see. The reason I initially felt like I didn’t, and wouldn’t, have a good answer for this question was that I don’t really sit around thinking about bodies—I don’t often think about the things it seems smart people think about. But I do think about the bodies of poems sometimes, and I have lately become intrigued by what seem to me to be the contradictory dominant impulses behind the forms of the poems of younger poets writing today—an impulse to expand, and an impulse to compress. Often one will see poems that open up a lot of space inside themselves by expanding across and down the page. But one also sees a lot of prose poems, which, even though they are written from margin to margin, seem very compressed to me—they’re very dense. And I think each of these impulses has to do with the ear rather than the eye. Each, I think, responds to a desire to make the music in poems more apparent than it would otherwise be—or, at least, to make the poet’s attitude toward music more apparent. The spread-out poem isn’t so certain readers will notice its music; the prose poem is more trustful. But I think the popularity of the prose poem is a holdover from life before Trump. Who feels confident their body will be recognized and acknowledged for what it is nowadays?
TM: We’re both editors for Image Journal, a magazine that publishes writing “informed by or grappling with religious faith.” One of your own poems for the magazine that appeared a few years ago ends with the lines “Lord forgive my torturers // Who hate my faults as if my faults were theirs.” It makes me think of something you said upon publication of your first book, Mule, quipping “I wrote a bunch of poems about God.” I’m drawn to ambitious writers like yourself and Katie Ford, whose religious and theological grappling has a rich poetic lineage. What draws you toward God—in poetry, and in life? Who are poets of doubt and faith whose work has influenced or interested you?
SM: I believe God is; I have no doubts about the existence of God. And I think it’s God’s very being that draws me toward God. If one believes God is, how can one be otherwise but drawn toward God? That said, I find the mystery(ies) of God overpoweringly attractive—when thinking about God, one inhabits a space in which one can think forever. That’s nice. And with regard to thinking, I suspect I’ve been most profoundly influenced and interested by Jorie Graham and Susan Howe—both of them say deeply true things about how the mind works. As for poems that have more explicitly to do with God, I think I’ve been most influenced and interested by George Herbert.
TM: “And even in my dreams I’m in your dreams” ends one of your poems in this new book—a work, like several others, that includes Trumpian excerpts and exhortations. Your book feels like a lament for our age, or perhaps a catalog of spiritual exhaustion: “America I was driving when I heard you / Had died I swerved into a ditch and wept.” How does it feel to have a book publish now, when the murmurs of a coming election are nearing a crescendo? What might the place of poetry be in a world so full of noise?
SM: I think noise requires poetry, because I think poetry requires a retreat from noise. Although, you know, it’s a book of poetry, and so is unlikely to have a huge reach. I hope nonetheless that The Gilded Auction Block might make some positive contribution to the discourses about Trump and about America. When FSG took the book, there was some feeling that it needed to be published as quickly as possible—both because it was maybe timely, and because, at the time, it was thought that Trump’s presidency might be brief. I feel as if every moment of every day I am actively wishing Trump weren’t president; since he is president, I hope my book, in its small way, can work against him.
TM: I’ve already mentioned “The Hell Poem,” the masterful, long poem that anchors The Gilded Auction Block, but wanted to speak about it more. I’ve read other poets who are transformational with language—giving us new ways to see—but you also have a transfigurative sense, of creating, like Dante and Milton, a surreal world in a poem that still feels grounded in earthly suffering. I’m even reminded of Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony; I feel out-of-this-world, and yet reminded of my form: “At that a darkness like the darkness / Before the world was overtook me.” What route led you toward this Hell poem? What caused this poetic descent?
SM: Folly. Folly got me going, and folly kept me going. The poem came out of nowhere, and in retrospect I think if I had planned it out a little I could have saved myself a lot of work. After I got stuck writing “The Hell Poem” (as I mentioned above), I decided that I had gotten stuck because I didn’t want to write anybody into Hell. And the obvious—to me, at least—solution was to write a poem set in Purgatory instead. So I wrote a considerably longer poem set in Purgatory which I now think was a near-total failure. I say “near-total,” because I did manage to salvage a bit of it and plug that into “The Hell Poem.” But it wasn’t until I had written 60 pages of that Purgatory poem that I realized it was a failure. That failure aside, however, once I was a few sections deep in “The Hell Poem,” I asked Christine Sajecki, with whom I had worked previously, if she would be willing to make some paintings for it, and I still can’t believe she said yes. The paintings she made are wonderful. At bottom, I think I’ve always wanted to say something worthwhile about the world and the people in it, and the ascendance of Trump, because he is a caricature and makes all around him caricature, made the effort to say something a little easier. But, really, I’m still trying.
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in November.
Saudade by Traci Brimhall
Gorgeous and searing, Brimhall’s poems are rooted in the marriage of myth, mysticism, and mystery. Collected with the breadth and power of a novel, but delivered in discrete scenes and dreams, Saudade is one of the best books I’ve read this year. In “The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara,” a litany of transformations come from the touch of a shrunken hand. A barren woman gives birth. Crops flourish. The narrator knows the hand’s secrets, and is silent at first: “The town / had waited so long for a miracle, and it was finally // here, enriching the poor, emboldening the meek, / carving acrostic mysteries into the trees.” Salvation soon turns sour, though, and death comes to the town, leading to a public ritual of cleansing that ends with “Startled pigeons roosting on the church / roof took flight when they heard the clapping.” In God-soaked Brazil, Brimhall’s characters can’t help but dance with darkness: “A sinner needs her sin, and mine is beloved.” There’s a causality, a profluence to these poems created by her lyricism, and her swift pivots. When we return to Puraquequara, a camera crew films a telenovela based on the miracles, and the narrator speaks: “An extra in my own story and envious of the ingenue’s unmuddied / shoes and air-conditioned hotel room, I say, Ajudar, ajudar, // and cry on cue.” Dreams bleach reality: “the mayor hangs himself and bequeaths / his second-best bed to his horse, I write romantic obituaries / and send his wife signed photographs of myself.” Disturbing, and masterfully done, Saudade will take you somewhere else, a place you know is true: “I hate to spoil it, / but the end of every biography is death.”
Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang
Speaking of her previous collection, The Boss, Chang said she wanted her poems “to propel themselves through language”—an equally accurate description of Barbie Chang, her latest book. Chang entrances with wordplay, but the dance never feels hollow: this is performance with poetic soul. There are two strands to her book that sustain each other: a woman both desiring and rejecting the urge to become part of a suburban community, and the woman’s life with her parents. Barbie sees “beautiful thin mothers at school / form a perfect circle // the Circle will school her if she lets / them they have // something to say doves come out of / their mouths that // explode splinters in the sky.” In Chang’s talented turns, mere phrases become fantasy. She’s mastered the art of recursive language, and Barbie Chang—woman, idea, performance—feels incantational as the book progresses. The Circle returns often: villainous, perfect in their plasticity. They are drunk at a school auction, “tossing coins in baskets.” The whole scene a mess, but Barbie “owed it to // her children to make friends to blend / into the dead end.” Background becomes foreground, as Barbie’s father is sick, and Chang’s eschewed punctuation begins to feel like halted breaths. Don’t miss the exquisitely crafted litany of linked poems in the middle of the book, evidence how quickly and precisely Chang can turn from comic to comforting to transcendent: “how in one / moment your hands collide as in clapping / how in some other moment they will rise / over my encased body touch in prayer.”
I Wore My Blackest Hair by Carlina Duan
Duan’s talents are many, but she’s an especially powerful poet of scene. The collection begins with her title poem, searing in action: “Father’s chopsticks crashed. He threw them.” Angered, “Father could not believe he had raised such a daughter.” He “coughed a mouthful of rice”; he was “extraordinary and old and Chinese.” Elsewhere, the narrator’s mother “does not own a / Laundromat or / a take-out restaurant.” She “is not / from your country, / and I am not / ashamed. // I slip my hands through her wise hair, // and keep.” Duan moves between affirmations of self and the inevitable struggle of difference; “my tongue // my hardest muscle // forced to swallow / a muddy alphabet.” Duan sketches these strained emotions with care and courage. This is a book of prejudice and expectations, and how they hurt in various ways. In “When All You Want,” the young narrator is at the piano. Above her, “Mrs. Liu with her / handsome mouth.” Mom watches “anxiously from the window.” A boy plays a violin in the next room. Duan turns back to Mrs. Liu, and the candies in her mouth: “clack, suck, clack, / again—here go all the noises you love.” I Wore Blackest Hair is a storm of senses, a chronicle of strained identity and a stance of power: “don’t mistake / me for a soft woman, / a shy mouth— / I can lash like the / hot, hot rain.”
Riddles, Etc. by Geoffrey Hilsabeck
There’s a magic at work in these often tight, but never cinctured, poems. In “Remaking the Music Box,” the narrator has advice for us: “First unhurt the accidents. / Plant yourself in what remains.” After all, “No sadness just disaster / no meanness just thrift.” These poems often drift back to youth, when the narrator, “light and white as a candle,” still felt “my childhood pooling like wax at my feet.” Appropriate to the title, the collection contains 17 riddles, their answers revealed on the final page, but well-worth the poetic game of waiting. It’s a playful interlude that gives Hilsabeck’s collection an endearing bit of freedom: we can find the answers to our questions, or we might accept that in poetry, as says W.H. Auden, “you do not call a spade a spade.” Sometime it is enough pleasure to let our poets leave trails of language without firm destinations.
Thousands by Lightsey Darst
Imagine discovering someone’s notebook, the pages covered margin-to-margin with desire, anxiety, and fear, all wound together through association. Thousands is a raw collection, where each poem bleeds into the next, as if we are reading one long threnody. The effect, admittedly, is sometimes dizzying, and readers will want to devote time to this book, but the work is returned with gifts. Darst offers thanks to Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks here, but blazes her own trail with poem-stories that begin in Minneapolis, Minn., in 2011 and end in Durham, N.C., after 2014. The tension of a timeline opens so many themes: “How do I make this world yield what I need to get from it?” “How do you deal with the casual atrocity of the world?” Darst’s poems are running monologues of wonder and worry; in one way, they are a document of a poet’s struggle to give suffering context. “Do you keep a journal / why / why not // Keep one now / keep me in it”: Darst’s intimacy here is masterful: whether it is love, lust, pregnancy, or words: “The poem I can’t write persists.”
Helium by Rudy Francisco
“When you choose to be a poet // You become a place that people walk through / and then leave when they are ready.” The arrowed exhales of Francisco’s spoken word poems translate well to this debut. Lines flow with the rhythm of conversation, winding toward clever conclusions. True poems like “Mess” abound: “On the day you couldn’t hold yourself together anymore / You called for me.” Then, “I found you, looking like a damaged wine glass. / I hugged your shatter,” but “When it was over, you looked at the stains on the carpet / And blamed me for making a mess.” Maybe we can get people to chant the refrains from poems like “Chameleon”: “And we often forget that sexism is a family heirloom // that we’ve been passing down for generations / As men, it is important that we start asking ourselves // What will the boys learn from us?”
Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung
“Whatever one witnessed in battle became a silence carried within.” This anthology begins with a haunting foreword by Yusef Komunyakaa, a consideration of race, Southern identity, and family tradition—one that destined him for military service. A Vietnam veteran himself, Komunyakaa explains that soldiers carry home “echoes of our war…we carry with us the pathos, and our loved ones often inherit the caustic baggage.” Subtitled Poetry & Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees, the anthology captures grief and guilt in turns, and its mixture of poetry and prose channels the range of emotions and expressions. In “The Lost Pilot,” a prefatory poem that sets the tone for the book, James Tate elegizes his father: “your face did not rot / like the others—it grew dark, / and hard like ebony.” This is a book about fathers, and rightly so, as Laren McClung notes: “the father is always a source of myth, but the father who has seen war, who has performed the complex work of violence, heroism, or survival, is in many ways inaccessible, a mystery to us.” Inheriting the War mines that mysterious space, how we pursue the soul of those we love who are torn by war, and how those wounds weather our own hands and hearts. We should consider the metaphors and myths, but there is more to encounter here: as poet Brian Ma considers, as a re-outfitted military plane carries him to his parents’ home of Vietnam: “as usual the boundaries are hard to discern. / The guilt is like a fog; in the fog there are people.”
Earthling by James Longenbach
“One of life’s greatest pleasures, / If I’m allowed the phrase, / Is packing a suitcase. // It’s not like building a fire, / When you want to leave space for air.” Longenbach’s poems occupy a strange yet perceptive place between the real and the unreal. I hesitate to call his verse surreal, because I associate that word with distortion; Longenbach gives his readers a route to follow, and its turns are precise. Poems like “The Dishwasher” drift on a wave of melancholy. A soft song on a Chevette’s radio becomes a hymn to search: “I wanted to hear it again. / I drove to the supermarket, then drove home.” We move to find where we’ve been, like when that character hears his mother’s voice, asking him a question that goes unanswered: “What kind of coffee do you like?” Poets will appreciate works like “Preface to an Unwritten Book,” in which the narrator knows he is supposed to be writing, “But you should realize I’d much rather spend my time / Reading or, since it’s the end / Of summer, sitting. / Our truest impulses are so immature.” There’s a quietude to Longenbach’s lines that is calming, and then there are long poems like “Climate of Reason” that shock me awake and breathless, inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony: “In the middle of the desert / You might be anyone, / Except you’re never in the middle, / You’re at the edge.”
Lent is an annual search, which might explain the popularity of this post. I continue to hear from writers — Christians and non-Christians alike — who are curious about the meaning and significance of Lent. The season is all about the appeal of story; the dramatic power of the Passion narrative. We’ve decided to re-publish this post with updated dates in hopes that it can be a literary companion for the next few weeks — and that it might demonstrate the diversity and range of ways that writers have imagined the season.
“Lent,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.
While Advent is a time of giving, Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and reconciliation, all revealed through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Holy Week is a solemn sequence of days leading to the grace of Easter. It is a different form of joy than Christmas; Easter joy is cathartic and transformational. Lent, then, is a time of complex and contrasting emotions. Highs and lows. A time to be shaken and surprised.
Jamie Quatro, whose collection I Want To Show You More arrived like a literary revelation, says that reading is like “the mystery of the Lord’s Supper…a form of communion: author, text, and reader rapt in an intimate yet paradoxically isolated collusion of spirits.” Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season. (Sundays have never been part of the Lenten calendar). Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. Some works are written by believers, while others are crafted by writers who choose the literary word over any Word. This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.
Day 1: Wednesday March 1
Reading: “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot
Lent begins with dust and darkness. Black-crossed foreheads are the rare time when true ritual bleeds into public view. As Lent is a time of change, it is appropriate to start with Eliot’s famous conversion text. Eliot said “skepticism is the preface to conversion;” The Wasteland and “The Hollow Men,” however desolate, capture the impersonal sense of art Eliot would associate with his new faith. “Ash Wednesday” is the start of a labor. When he writes “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,” he knows belief is not easy.
Day 2: Thursday March 2
Reading: Townie by Andre Dubus III
In Luke 9:22-25, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be a struggle. Self-denial must be followed by a willingness to suffer “daily.” The disciples act on the hope of salvation, much like children following a father. In Townie, Andre Dubus III writes of his father, a man he both loved and hated. Dubus père dies in the final chapters of the memoir, and Andre and his brother Jeb build their father’s coffin, “a simple pine box.” It was a promise, the final chapter of reconciliation to heal a broken family.
Day 3: Friday March 3
Reading: “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This Friday is the first real test of fasting for most (Ash Wednesday services make for strength in numbers). William G. Storey writes that fasting “help[s] the body share in the sufferings of Jesus and of the poor.” Hopkins, a 19th-century British Jesuit who has influenced as many secular poets as he has religious ones, dramatizes the ascetic life in his verse. His poems press against the borders of his forms; he wrings multiple meanings out of his language. “The Habit of Perfection” is an acceptance of denial: “Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, / Desire not to be rinsed with wine: / The can must be so sweet, the crust / So fresh that come in fasts divine!” What others think sour, Hopkins turns sweet.
Day 4: Saturday March 4
Reading: “Why I’m Still a Catholic” by Nicole Soojung Callahan
If I could suggest one single essay that dramatizes the difficulty of faith, the struggle of this season, it would be Callahan’s heartfelt essay. She sometimes feels like a “bad Catholic” in the same way as her adoptive parents, who were “lapsed old-school Cleveland Catholics brought back into the fold by a firecracker of a nun in Seattle.” Callahan notes that as “a child, my faith was almost the only thing in my life that made me feel that I was part of something larger —– the only thing that constructed a kind of bridge between my own little island and the larger continents on which other families and clans and communities seemed to reside. Letting it go would mean jettisoning a huge part of who I am, severing that long-cherished connection to a kind of universal family.” Like so many, Callahan is sometimes frustrated with the institution of the Church, and yet this Catholic identity formed by her youth — “annual May crownings, years of lectoring and serving at Mass, First Communion and Confirmation parties, and that dusty bottle of holy water on our bookshelf that my mother never allowed to run dry. I had a catalog of prayers I knew by heart; ancient hymns paired with terrible folk-Mass songs written in the 1970s; the familiar rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons” — is something she will always be grateful for, and that she has passed on to her own children. The final section of her essay is lyric, poetic, and worthy of being read aloud: as fine a credo of measured faith as I can imagine.
Day 5: Monday March 6
Reading: “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas
The feast day of Saint Polycarp, who, according to John J. Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints, “was ordered burned to death at the stake…[but] when the flames failed to consume him, he was speared to death.” Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the oldest, and helps usher the peculiar Catholic genre of saint tales. Polycarp’s fantastical narrative is matched by “The Tree,” a story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although a “holy maker” who became “tipsy on salvation’s bottle” as a child, Thomas was no fan of Catholicism (his friend William York Tindall said Thomas was “essentially Protestant without being Christian”). “The Tree” is no devotional tale. Surreal and imagistic, it is the story of an inquisitive but easily misguided boy who crucifies a transient to a tree on a hill in Wales.
Day 6: Tuesday March 7
Reading: “Disgraceland” by Mary Karr
A week into Lent, one’s patience might begin to wear thin with all of this suffering (few human endeavors go awry as quickly as devotion). Mary Karr is the antidote to complacency. In “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr outed herself as a Catholic convert, “not victim but volunteer…after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” “Disgraceland,” from her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, begins with an account of her birth, whirled into this world to “sulk around” while “Christ always stood / to one side with a glass of water.” She ends on a gorgeous note: “You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.”
Day 7: Wednesday March 8
Reading: “The Teaching of Literature” by Flannery O’Connor
Today’s reading from Luke 11:29 sounds rather harsh: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” This sign will be revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which makes this indictment of a crowd feel particularly heavy. While it might be heretical to wait seven days to introduce the work of Flannery O’Connor into a Lenten reader, this is the moment she becomes appropriate. Her fiction will appear later in the reading list, but today is in the spirit of her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” most often collected in Mystery and Manners. O’Connor laments how fiction is taught to students, particularly when fiction is used as mere symbol: “I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.” Pity the generation that sparks O’Connor’s ire.
Day 8: Thursday March 9
Reading: Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
Christ tells his disciples “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Secular criticism of religion offers the refrain that faith — as practiced by those who claim to be religious — often sounds like certainty, and certainty leads to judgment. (Most believers would benefit from conversations and friendships with atheists). Kaya Oakes’s memoir of rediscovery, Radical Reinvention, traces her search from skeptic to measured believer to reinvented believer. Oakes is funny and thoughtful, and shares the wisdom of her spiritual directors, including a Father Mellow, who says “The Church is both sinner and holy. So are all of us.” She is still undergoing her search, but one thing she’s discovered is that “living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can.”
Day 9: Friday March 10
Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows died from tuberculosis at 24. Gabriel’s popularity in America is marginal, based on his supposed patronage of handgun users (an absurdly apocryphal tale where Gabriel shoots a lizard to scare off Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers). A more likely tale is that his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Passion were a correction to the extreme vanity of his youth. Gabriel reflects the titular character of Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a 17-year-old novitiate at a convent in upstate New York. She is first introduced in the novel while standing naked in front of a floor mirror, aware of her beauty, and thinks “Even this I give You.” Hansen’s novel is what would happen if James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime converted. Now a deacon in a Cupertino, California parish, Hansen continues to write powerful fiction.
Day 10: Saturday March 11
Reading: “You Are Not Christ” by Rickey Laurentiis
In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew, Christ tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” He ends his exhortation with a call to be “perfect,” a sharp expectation, an impossible goal. I often think of Laurentiis’s title in relation to that call. It arrives, first, as a phrase of forgiveness, but Laurentiis’s verse is unforgiving: “For the drowning, yes, there is always panic. / Or peace.” Only nine lines, the poem unfolds and exits like a deep breath, and, like much of Laurentiis’s poetry, weds the sensual with the spiritual. Lent is nothing if not the most physical of seasons.
Day 11: Monday March 13
Reading: “Idiot Psalms” by Scott Cairns
March begins with a scene from Capernaum: Jesus drives an “unclean spirit” from a man. Exorcisms are the perfect fodder for Hollywood — black-clad heroes chant Latin while they struggle with demons — but have a less theatrical role in Lent. Unclean is not a permanent condition. The narrator of “Idiot Psalms” “find[s] my face against the floor, and yet again / my plea escapes from unclean lips.” He seeks forgiveness, which is not as dramatic as Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Roman rite, but his desire “to manage at least one late season sinlessly, / to bow before you yet one time without chagrin” is palpable.
Day 12: Tuesday March 14
Reading: “The Didache” by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky’s short piece appears in his book Unbuilt Projects. The title is a reference to an apocryphal, anonymous document of early Jewish-Christians, although Lisicky’s narrative is focused on his relationship with his mother. “The Didache” begins with a question: “What were you like the last time I saw you whole?” The piece follows with more questions and considerations, while noting “It’s funny how we end up where we do.” The language of the final sentences becomes comfortably Biblical: “As the broken bread was scattered on the hillsides, and so was gathered and made one, so may the many of you be gathered and find favor with one another.” The lines are a lyrical refiguring of a Didache hymn, and lead toward the conclusion of Lisicky’s piece: “Take. Eat, says the mother, given up and broken, and pushes the sandwich into the lunch bag, and sends me on my way.” A nice reminder that our present, prosaic world is capable of being legendary and graceful.
Day 13: Wednesday March 15
Reading: The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey
Variations of faith sustain the characters of Bailey’s novel in the face of despair. The novel contains several first-person narratives, beginning with Susan Hazen, who says her parish priest “plants the wafer that leavens hope in my palm.” Susan’s faith is tested, along with that of her husband, Gary David (an act of violence cleaves their family). The book ends with Gary’s narrative section: “The pines have reawakened me to something that as a forester I’ve long known by heart: The work we live to do is work we’ll never see completed. The snow will continue to fall. The geese will come back, just as they will continue to go. I have my faith. The strength of belief. But this is the truth in our story the pines need to relate. This, they whisper, this is the grace that keeps this world. Honor it.”
Day 14: Thursday March 16
Reading: “The Our Father” by Franz Wright
“The Our Father” appears in Wheeling Motel, Wright’s 10th collection of poems. The poem’s relative brevity is inversely related to its power. To title a poem after such an iconic prayer is to locate the work as both ritual and rhythm. The first stanza reads: “I am holding cirrhosis / with one hand and AIDS / with the other, in a circle.” Wright’s poetry is so pared, having the feeling of being wrung through the emotion of being and distilled into the truest possible language. This first stanza establishes the sense of community: this is truly a collective father. As is often true with those suffering from addition or disease, that which causes the pain overwhelms the self. Wright’s lines break from those diseases toward the shape, “a circle,” that leads to comfort and forgiveness (Wright has written about how his own conversion has helped lift his life from addiction). “The Our Father” moves forward from this first stanza to the actual prayer, which is “simple” and “august,” though Wright compares and connects the bareness of the phrasing to the profound nature of Christ’s life: “you briefly took on tortured / human form to teach / us here, below–” The poem’s honesty continues, though, because the final lines speak to an awareness of the ephemera of existence: “What final catastrophe sent / to wean me from this world.”
Day 15: Friday March 17
Reading: “After Cornell” by Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s essay, which appears in his collection This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, reflects on the darkness and silence of the traditional confessional box: “To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions—regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother) — the confessor must shed anatomy’s garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have been allowed to distract.” Bonomo laments the shift to face-to-face confessions, though he has prepared himself for the change, and the previous box felt “akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black.” Bonomo’s words bring me back to the confessions of my past: I made the same shift from darkness to (uncomfortable) light. Now my parish opts for the face-to-sheet-to-face confession in a lighted room, and we are given printed Acts of Contrition, columned in the center on a pink sheet. I agree with Bonomo, that something has been lost, or at least transferred, in this coming to light.
Day 16: Saturday March 18
Reading: “Second Avenue” by Frank O’Hara
Critic Micah Mattix writes that “O’Hara believed that poetry was a ‘testament’ of the self and that love was real. Drawing from his Catholic schooling and James Joyce’s aesthetics, in some poems he expressed the view that the artist was as a sort of Christ-figure who suffers to renew our experience of the world.” Mattix notes that O’Hara’s long poem, “Second Avenue,” although a “sprawling amalgam of absurd images, disconnected phrases and quotation, newspaper clippings, short dramatic scenes, anecdotes, gossip, and literary artistic references,” also reinforces this idea of “the image of the artist as God,” and “reverses…the biblical trope of God as light.” Mattix’s reading has altered my perception of O’Hara’s verse, which I have always thought as being more interested in play than profundities. Lent truly is the season of change, as long as one’s eyes are open.
Day 17: Monday March 20
Reading: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” by Luke Johnson
Johnson’s poem begins with the characters “dead drunk,” “cannonballing across the lawn, gouging / handful divots, each of us still nursing / a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.” Although temporarily wasted, these “sons and brothers and cousins” aren’t wasting away: they are players, certainly, in this simple game of bocce, but there’s a real sense of connection here. The poem ends with the lines “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized / and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” If there were ever a poetic form made for brief devotions meant to stretch throughout a day, it would be the sonnet.
Day 18: Tuesday March 21
Reading: “Their Bodies, Their Selves” by Andrew McNabb
Dray and Sarah Maguire “had lived a clothed life,” but “An accident had changed that.” The center of McNabb’s tight story unfolds in less than an hour, but stretches across the years of this elderly couple’s relationship. One Saturday afternoon, while using the bathroom, Dray falls, smacking his skull on the porcelain. Sarah, “scarred from shingles, melanoma, three ungrateful children and an undiagnosed depression,” fears blood, but instead sees her husband nearly bare (he’d gotten used to taking off his pants when using the bathroom “so he wouldn’t get caught up when he stood”). Sensing her husband’s embarrassment, Sarah undresses herself. Their bodies are in the open; “That is just you, and this is just me.” What starts as a moment of communion becomes a daily act, a presentation of bodies as a means of preservation.
Day 19: Wednesday March 22
Reading: Love & Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Andrews and Griffith met in a graduate school creative writing workshop, and their shared literary interest in God soon became personal searches. Love & Salt is their collected correspondence, as well as letters that remained, unsent, as notes. Their epistles are layered and lyric, documents of friendship that are as intimate as they are inviting. In Griffith’s first letter, she longs to finally get Lent right, to live up to the words of Saint Ephraim’s prayer: “How many times have I promised, / Yet every time I failed to keep my word. / But disregard this according to Thy Grace.” The collection will make you long to find as worthy a correspondent as Andrews and Griffith (each of their letters could serve as daily devotions, bringing to life the statement they share from Vivian Gornick: “The letter, written in absorbed silence, is an act of faith.”).
Day 20: Thursday March 23
Reading: “From a Window” by Christian Wiman
Halfway through Lent, the heart can harden. Reflection leads to regret. Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, is the perfect poet for this time. Wiman’s verse has the uncanny ability to swiftly and believably transition from melancholy to joy. His memoir, My Bright Abyss, documents his unlikely journey back to Christian belief after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Speaking about his return to belief, Wiman says “I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.” “From a Window,” written during an admitted time of despair, says something. “Incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving,” Wiman watches a flock of birds rise from a tree, “as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He presses his face against the window and wonders if the birds were “a single being undefined / or countless beings of one mind,” and admits that their “strange cohesion / [is] beyond the limits of my vision.” He pulls back, his skeptic’s mind reassured that the tree he is watching with a shaken heart is no different now save for the observer, and yet that same independence of existence — the fact that this beautiful, simple moment did not need him to observe it, and that recognition “is where the joy came in.”
Day 21: Friday March 24
Reading: “I Was Never Able to Pray” by Edward Hirsch
Gabriel, Hirsch’s book-length poem about the life and death of his adopted son, contains an unbeliever’s admonition: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” “I Was Never Able to Pray” predates his loss, but presents a similar song. Why would an unbeliever care about God? Designations of believer and atheist, pious and heretic are only useful as generalizations. Hirsch’s critical interests have always dealt with God-wounded writers (including James Joyce and W.B. Yeats), so it is not surprising to see that language extend to his own narrators. In this poem, the speaker wishes to be taken to the shore, where the “moon tolls in the rafters” and he can “hear the wind paging through the trees.” His lines of unbelief arrive on the tongue of faith: “I was never able to pray, / but let me inscribe my name / in the book of waves” as he looks up to the “sky that never ends.”
Day 22: Saturday March 25
Reading: “The Widow of Naim” by Thomas Merton
The non-fiction meditations of Thomas Merton could fill an entire Lenten reading schedule, but his poetic considerations of faith and Scripture are also worthy. Merton studied poetry at Columbia, and was “turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Yet like Hopkins, Merton lamented his more creative self, “this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.” Although less than half of Merton’s verse was specifically religious, he did enjoy recasting Scripture into poetry (in pieces like “The Evening of the Visitation,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Sponge Full of Vinegar,” “The House of Caiaphas,” “Aubade — The Annunciation,” and “Cana”). The Naim sequence only lasts seven verses, and is often lost between the Capernaum centurion and Christ’s reflection on John the Baptist. In Luke’s version, Christ arrives at Naim along with his disciples at the same time a man “who had died was being carried out.” Christ tells the mother of the man, the titular widow, to not weep. He touches the bier, a support for the coffin, and the “bearers stood still.” Christ tells the dead man to arise, and he does. Merton’s poetic recasting begins by moving the initial focus from the arrival of Christ to “the gravediggers and the mourners of the town, who, ‘White as the wall…follow / to the new tomb a widow’s sorrow.’” The mourners meet a crowd of strangers who “smell of harvests…[and] nets,” and who question the mourners: “Why go you down to graves, with eyes like winters / And your cold faces clean as cliffs? / See how we come, our brows are full of sun.” These strangers allude to the “wonder” of the miracle to come. Yet Merton’s twist arrives as an address to the reader that the “widow’s son, after the marvel of his miracle: / He did not rise for long, and sleeps forever.” The man was resuscitated, not resurrected; his gift of life was an ephemeral one. This allows Merton to place the miracle along a continuum, to place the weight of an ancient tale on the shoulder of modern humanity, the crowd.
Day 23: Monday March 27
Reading: “Girls” by Andre Dubus
Dubus contemplates the altar girl at Mass, she being the “only altar girl I have ever seen.” That observation opens to a short reflection about Mary, the “first priest.” He catalogues her potential fears, which begin with her encounter with the angel Gabriel, continue with her need to find shelter to have the child, and then the knowledge “she would lose Him because he was God.” He thinks about how he and this girl at Mass see the “cross as a sign of love,” but for Mary it was “wood and a dying son and grief.” I’ve written a few appreciations of Dubus, but in brief: pair “Girls” with his fiction, particularly “A Father’s Story,” and you have a portrait of a writer, a father, for whom faith is essential.
Day 24: Tuesday March 28
Reading: “Back in Ireland” by Thomas McGuane
St. Patrick would be proud of McGuane’s prose, as close to an American Joyce as possible (particularly his earlier, more sardonic novels like The Sporting Club). His more recent content has moved out West, capturing the spirit of breeding and raising cutting horses in Montana, but his prose retains its Celtic rhythms. “Back in Ireland” is the memory of a long-ago “meandering trip” to fish in southern Ireland: “I was at that blissful stage in my life when my services were sought by no one. I didn’t know how good I had it.” He is thankful for the guidance of a local angler, the type of person “who could never recall when they began fishing, so undivided was it from the thread of their lives.” McGuane notices that the entire town blessed themselves nearly constantly, “a rakish bit of muscle memory that I found myself imitating.” Church might have been a bit too much of a commitment, but the shadow of devotion “seemed to help before a difficult presentation…[of] the listless slob of a brown trout, curd fattened at the outlet of a small creamery on the Loobagh River.” McGuane’s sentences slather as heavy as fellow lapsed Irish-Catholic Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Day 25: Wednesday March 29
Reading: “Prophecy” by Dana Gioia
Gioia’s poetry, essays, and arts advocacy have long made him an essential writer. His recent, spirited essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” has reignited the debate about the role of writing of faith within secular literary culture. Gioia’s own poems never proselytize. “Prophecy” contains a few direct questions, but is all wonder. What does a child staring out of a window think about? “For what is prophecy but the first inkling / of what we ourselves must call into being?” The prophetic sense can’t be prayed or willed into existence, there is “No voice in thunder.” The necessary “gift is listening / and hearing what is only meant for you.” “O Lord of indirection and ellipses,” the speaker says, “ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction…And grant us only what we fear.”
Day 26: Thursday March 30
Reading: “Life of Sundays” by Rodney Jones
Years ago, Jones visited my first undergraduate poetry workshop, and was given a packet of student work. My poem about fishing was in the bunch. Jones read the poem aloud to the class, and then went on to praise my lines. I don’t think they were worthy of his good words, but he wasn’t there to criticize. I might think that he was merely playing a part, but Jones’s poetry tends to be rather forgiving and observant. “Life of Sundays” is no different. Although the speaker doesn’t go to church anymore, “I want to at times, to hear the diction / And the tone.” What happens at the service “is devotion, which wouldn’t change if I heard / The polished sermon, the upright’s arpeggios of vacant notes.” He wonders: “What else could unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?” Although his belief has passed, he feels “the abundance of calm” from this ritual of Sundays, a day when the “syntax of prayers is so often reversed, / Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead.” “And though I had no prayer,” the speaker says, “I wanted to offer something / Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit.”
Day 27: Friday March 31
Reading: “First Day of Winter” by Breece Pancake
It is difficult to not write about Breece Pancake in elegiac terms. Even one of his closest mentors, the great James Alan McPherson, said “there was a mystery about [him] that I will not claim to have penetrated.” His friend John Casey felt the same way, saying Pancake, who converted in his 20s, “took faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time.” Pancake’s fiction does arrive with an almost overwhelming sense of inevitability, from “The Way It Has To Be” to “Time and Again.” “First Day of Winter” is equally unsparing, although Pancake wrings a drop of hope from these characters. “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at the ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” That tomb is his parents’ farm. His mother’s “mind half gone from blood too thick in her veins,” his father blind. Jake would not take in his parents at his own home. Hollis wrestles with a car that won’t start, its “grinding echoed through the hollows, across the hills.” His knuckles bloodied from the cold, he tells his father about Jake’s rejection, but Jake is the prodigal son. Hollis’s plan is no better: he intends to take his parents to the state nursing home. As often occurs in Pancake’s stories, there seems no way out, particularly not for Hollis, whose jealousy of his brother is clear (he has to watch his mother fawn over a photo of Jake and his family). Hollis snaps and tells his mother of Jake’s rejection, and that breaks his father’s spirit. They leave the room, and Hollis goes outside, where their “land lay brittle, open, and dead.” Back inside, Hollis hears “the cattle lowing to be fed, heard the soft rasp of his father’s crying breath, heard his mother’s humming of a hymn.” Like that, in the span of a sentence, Pancake breaths light, however faint, into this world: “The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.”
Day 28: Saturday April 1
Reading: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Echoing the language he used to describe his writing of Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself.” Flaubert began the novel in 1848 but it was not published until 1874. An early audience of friends said he should burn the book and never speak of it. Flaubert, undeterred, said “It is my whole life’s work.” That work is a novel in the form of a play, a dramatization of St. Anthony’s tempestuous night in the desert. Michel Foucault called Flaubert’s phantasmagoric masterpiece “the book of books.”
Day 29: Monday April 3
Reading: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson
Johnson was once asked how he would “characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work,” and responded in turn: “Ah, now — this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” He owes the question to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a novel the main character of which fails at the action of the title, and then replaces despair with drugs and work as a radio DJ. Leonard English “didn’t kneel in prayer each night out of habit, but fell to his knees on rare occasions and in a darkness of dread, as if he were letting go of a branch. To his mind, God was a rushing river, God was an alligator, God was to be chosen over self-murder and over nothing else.” He prays to sleep with a woman he likes, but he doesn’t “pray anymore for faith, because he’d found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I’ll grow until I’ve found you, and you won’t be there.”
Day 30: Tuesday April 4
Reading: “The Lord’s Day” by J.F. Powers
Although Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D’Urban, critic Denis Donoghue writes “I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story.” Powers was the poet laureate of the Midwestern priesthood. His “priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it…[and yet] no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still are relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.” The daily life of a priest is not a sequence of miraculous highs and ecstatic visions. It is hard, slow work. A priest is a counselor, writer, politician. Powers capture this splendid service like no other writer. “The Lord’s Day” is the best introduction to his work, a slice of clerical domesticity. An unnamed priest has been stung twice by bees attracted to a mulberry tree near the rectory porch. Despite the pleading of a nun, he takes an axe to the tree. His body, “a fat vision in black,” is a contrast to the 12 women of the house, “the apostles” (“It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny.”). Their shared home is not quite the picture of joy. The house is “sagging” and “daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted.” The sisters sit around a table to count the collection from Mass. The parish has bills to pay. One nun says “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Another: “Money, money, money.” Powers smirks his way through his tales (my own experience with nuns is that they are the most hilarious and pious people I have ever met, their Baltimore Catechism shadows long since replaced with light). Not all the sisters find humor in this work; some wish Sundays were days of rest. It is a day of rest for the priest — he is off to a round of golf. The lead sister, “determined to make up for the afternoon, to show them that she knew, perhaps, what she was doing,” creates a ruse to hold-up the priest. She asks him to inspect the stove, which has been smoking. Annoyed, he says the problem is not the stove, but the only remaining mulberry tree, the one he’d spared. “If you want your stove to work properly, it’ll have to come down.” Rather than end the story with grace, Powers leaves the reader with the nun’s curt thanks. Frustrated, she leaves the priest, “only wanting to get upstairs and wash the money off her hands.”
Day 31: Wednesday April 5
Reading: “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen” by Mary Szybist
Szybist’s Marian poems appear in Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Szybist’s epigraph for the collection is from Simone Weil: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Szybist’s entire book is concerned with the Annunciation. As a young Catholic, Szybist “reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.” In “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” the narrator is “washing the pears in cool water,” listening. This might not be the annunciation, but it is an annunciation. That leveling of experience is not meant to devalue the precedent — Szybist might be lapsed, but she is certainly not spiteful — but to rather raise the contemporary moment. The speaker more than simply listens, she is open to sound as “Windows around me everywhere half-open– / My skin alive with the pitch.”
Day 32: Thursday April 6
Reading: “Blessing the Animals” by R.A. Villanueva
Villanueva crafts quite the scene to begin this poem from his debut, Reliquaria: “In a parking lot beside the church, cleared / save for bales of hay and traffic horses,” are goats, llamas, border collies, and terriers. Someone “will garland parakeets with rosaries.” Cats are held like children as the priest crosses himself “beside the flagpole where I learned to pledge allegiance.” The narrator’s daily ritual is to fold the flag into triangles and bring it to the headmaster. Villanueva’s poems contain two planes: the devoted, lyric representations of faith and tradition, and the mischievous human impulse to break free. However responsible the narrator might be, he is still a young man who would dare a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out” at the statue of Jesus in that same parking lot, who would taunt God one moment while kneeling to pray to him the next.
Day 33: Friday April 7
Reading: “Quid Pro Quo” by Paul Mariani
Mariani’s poem is set in an empty university classroom, where a colleague asks the narrator “what I thought now / of God’s ways toward man” after his wife’s miscarriage. The colleague merely expects a downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, the narrator raises his middle finger “up to heaven,” taunting God. Later, the narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it’s no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware, leading to his wonder: “How does one bargain / with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?”
Day 34: Saturday April 8
Reading: “The Road to Emmaus” by Spencer Reece
Reece, an Episcopal priest, has found inspiration in the “spiritual journey” of T.S. Eliot, often feeling “in conversation with him.” Although “The Road to Emmaus” alludes to a resurrection appearance of Christ, Reece’s verse, like so much poetry in the spirit of Lent, brings the ancient world to our seemingly mundane present. His first line, “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew,” sets the atmosphere for a conversation the narrator has with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. “Above her gray head, / a garish postcard of the Emmaus scene…askew in its golden drugstore frame.” Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, while speaking about the disappearance of Christ, are joined by the “resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.” The narrator of the poem has lost a love, and Sister Ann comforts him as he reflects on the past, including an AA meeting in a Lutheran church basement, when they “ate salads out of Tupperware,” but felt “like first-century Christians — /a strident, hidden throng, electrified by a message.” The poem moves in many directions, not least of all Sister Ann’s grace when she tells him “Listening…is a memorable form of love.”
Day 35: Monday April 10
Reading: “Gilding the Lily” by Lisa Ampleman
If we think of Lent as a season of re-naming, of reconsidering who we are and how we are, then Lisa Ampleman’s prose poem, “Gilding the Lily,” is a perfect representation of the season. “To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love.” Ampleman’s poem is like a work of pastoral care; her narrator shows how we may weather grief and suffering by transforming them. Her friend “called nausea erotica. Just the same, we name our storms to lessen them — not a tropical cyclone, but Arabella, with ballet shoes and bun…Not hair loss, but deep conditioning.” The poem’s final line is terminal: “At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.” Our contemporary idea of the religious sense is hampered by the criticism that religion or belief feels like a whitewashing, or worse, an opiate. This is to misunderstand and neuter the power of faith. Poems like “Gilding the Lily” remind us that poems, like prayers, can be small salves. Sometimes they are enough.
Day 36: Tuesday April 11
Reading: “Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star” by Mary Biddinger
Biddinger’s Saint Monica chapbook places St. Augustine’s pious mother in a Midwestern present. Young, modern Monica is imperfect. She fails. She even gives incorrect “details / outside the psychic’s booth at the fair.” Monica, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, is transfixed by film. She has always wanted to be different, but “Who could blame / her, though? They lived in Michigan, / where nothing ever changed.” While working at a local pub, Monica wonders what would happen if she breaks a pint glass while washing it: “Would she have to wait for the flush / of blood, or would the transformation / be instantaneous?” Biddinger’s poetry makes any transfiguration seem possible.
Day 37: Wednesday April 12
“The River” (pdf) by Flannery O’Connor
Although “Greenleaf” (pdf) has been considered her “Lent” story, O’Connor’s entire canon is fodder for the season. “The River” is the story of Harry Ashfield, a boy of “four or five” years, who spends the day with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is the prototypical O’Connor character: stern, judgmental, witty, and closer to God that anybody else she knows. She decides to take the boy to the river, where a preacher has been healing believers. The boy smirks his way through the story, and takes on the name of the preacher — Bevel — before the sitter learns his real name. She feels it is her Christian duty to right the wrongs of his upbringing. O’Connor tells the story filtered through his voice, and his day with Mrs. Connin is illuminating: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert.” Later, Mrs. Connin presents Harry to the preacher for baptism in the river, and also says “He wants you to pray for his mamma. She’s sick.” The preacher asks the boy for explanation, and it is simple: “She hasn’t got up yet…She has a hangover.” O’Connor’s next line — “The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking the water” — captures the atmosphere of her fiction. O’Connor’s Catholic sense was a skeptical sense. Her skepticism can easily be misread as cynicism. The boy is baptized, but, like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “The River” ends on a solemn note. Yet that is not why she is appropriate to Lent. O’Connor belongs to this season because she offers no easy paths toward God. In fact, those who think they know the route — who might even deny it from others in word or deed — are due the severest rebuke.
Day 38: Thursday April 13
Reading: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
If there ever were a writer willing to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” it was Greene. If I ever get too sentimental about faith, reading Greene keeps me in check. He was the first to admit he was no saint (he would probably admit to being the antithesis), but novels like The Power and the Glory capture the tension between belief and sin. Greene’s novel plays it serious, but his essays and letters about his conversion are predictably wry. He once received useful advice from a Father Trollope: “See the danger of going too far. Be very careful. Keep well within your depth.” Greene’s novel about an atheist lieutenant chasing a “whiskey priest” across Mexico is part thriller, part theological treatise, all Lenten document. Take off work on Holy Thursday, get this book, and read it cover to cover.
Day 39: Friday April 14
Reading: “Today is Friday” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway claimed to receive “extreme unction” from a priest while on an Italian battlefield in July 1918. A decade later, he would claim to be a “very dumb Catholic,” and planned to not speak about his Catholic conversion because he knew “the importance of setting an example.” Matthew Nickel, one of the few critics to resurrect Hemingway’s found faith, explains what while Hemingway was not publically “comfortable being known as a Catholic writer,” he was no nominal believer, having “performed the rituals of Catholicism for forty years: attending Mass, eating fish on Fridays, having Masses said for friends and family, donating thousands of dollars to the churches in Key West and Idaho, celebrating saints days, and visiting and revisiting important pilgrimage sites and cathedrals.” The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and “Hills like White Elephants” hit loud and soft religious notes, but “Today is Friday” has always unsettled me in a particularly Lenten fashion. Only hours after Christ is crucified, three Romans soldiers are drinking at a bar with a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. Add Hemingway’s oddly contemporary speech (“Lootenant”), and “Today is Friday” is an odd play. Two soldiers banter about the wine while one feels sick; his pain is “Jesus Christ.” The first soldier says “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The second soldier wonders “What became of his gang?” The first soldier, who “slip[ed] the old spear into him…because it “was the least I could do,” says Christ’s disciples “faded out. Just the women stuck by him.” “Today is Friday” sounds like how Hemingway would have explained the Passion while seated at a bar. The uncomfortably comedic play ends with a sting. The soldiers leave the bar and the third, uneasy soldier speaks truth: “I feel like hell tonight.”
Day 40: Saturday April 15
“Christ’s Elbows” by Brian Doyle
Novelist, essayist, and poet Doyle is the literary antidote to cynicism. I’ve never seen a writer so good be so positive, and do so without lapsing into sentimentality. Doyle’s Mink River is a gem of a novel, but his shorter pieces make for effective reflection. His essay “Joyas Voladores” is a personal favorite, and “What do poems do?” shows how Doyle turns every narrative moment into an opportunity for revelation and epiphany. The narrator visits a kindergarten, where children ask ridiculous questions before arriving at the eternal query of the poem’s title. Doyle delivers, starting with the observation that poems “swirl / Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind.” The next 10 lines are the best appreciation I’ve ever seen of the power of poetry. Doyle’s poem should be required reading for all teachers. “Christ’s Elbows,” an essay from his collection Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, is the perfect end to a season of change. Doyle asks us to think about the physicality of Christ, a man who died at his physical peak. He admits that scriptural “accounts of [Christ’s] body in action are few and far between,” so Doyle wants us to act on faith, imagining a young man serving as a carpenter’s apprentice or running in fields. Doyle wonders: “Did his hand swallow the hand of the girl he raised from the dead?” Christ, an itinerant preacher, likely had a form much like a marathon runner. Doyle considers the one moment — other than as he hung on the cross — when Christ’s physicality was in full view: “when he lets himself go and flings over the first moneychanger’s table in the temple at Jerusalem.” Like a good priest, Doyle pauses his discussion, and says “think of the man for a second, not the eternal Son of Light.” Think of a man charged and ready. A man who, after the drama of the moment, “would resume the life and work that rivet us to this day.” A life and work that “upends our world, over and over.” The glory and the grace of tomorrow will come soon enough, but for now, Doyle suggests, “Perhaps the chaos of our plans is the shadow of his smile.”
Image Credit: Flickr/echiner1
“The two worst sins of bad taste in fiction are pornography and sentimentality,” Flannery O’Connor wrote. “One is too much sex and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point but no more.”
Just enough of either to prove your point. O’Connor’s dictum applies perfectly to three writers creating great fiction set in the world of the Christian evangelical south: Jamie Quatro, April Ayers Lawson, and Michael Bible. Their stories are steeped in sex and spirits. They are willing to make imperfect characters do terrible things. They are better than most writers dramatizing God at the moment.
I spoke with Quatro back in 2013, soon after her debut collection, I Want To Show You More, was published. She claimed unity with O’Connor in thinking “the role of the artist, even — no, especially — the Christian artist, is to present the world as it is, in all its complexity and ugliness. Sometimes, to make sin appear as such.” She sent me back to O’Connor herself, quoting that an artistic must find “distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem [is] to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.”
For Quatro, that violence is not through wounds and blood, but in the “coexistence of the erotic and spiritual, the sexual and sacred…It’s why lovers often talk in such exalted terms, say things like they want to eat one another, to be one another. An artist must probe into these moments. She cannot look away.” I find the same spiritual sense in Lawson, whose sleek yet complex debut, Virgin and Other Stories, arrives later this year — though I think the Christian pulse is a bit more subdued. More shadow than statue.
I would place Michael Bible’s novel Sophia somewhere on the spectrum between Quatro and Lawson. Sophia arrives in fast, crisp sentences: first-person narrated, increasingly surreal vignettes that follow the misadventures of Reverend Alvis Maloney. He might have been a Flannery O’Connor character if there had been someone to pray for him every minute of his life. He’s sour and obscene and obsessed with saints.
In short, he’s worthy of a book, and Bible lets him loose. There are other characters in this novel, friends and lovers and enemies like Eli, Tuesday, Boom, Finger, Darling and Mayor Dick Dickerson, who owns a pawn shop and slaps bad employees with his antique cane — but this is Maloney’s show. He’s the self-admitted “lazy priest of this town’s worst church, nearly defrocked for lascivious behavior with female parishioners.” He’s the kind of pastor who finishes his prayers with “Amen?”, profoundly unsure about God but profusely hoping to figure it out.
“I want to die for the King of Kings,” he says, “but can’t quite get it right.” His examples are a litany of saints, described in prose-poetic legend, whose deaths are each more eccentric and violent than the former. His friend Eli asks him why he needs to read so many stories, and Maloney says “I’m trying to find a way to die with honor.” Or, more accurately, as he later says: “I want so bad to be a saint but I’m a coward and barely Christian.”
I might hate Maloney in the hands of another writer — I might find his jaunty obscenities tiresome — but Bible is a real talent. I’ll listen to a writer who offers paragraphs like this:
Behind the abandoned hospital on a peach tree hangs one rotten peach. Two black wizards approach dumpsters behind the church, black hoods and staffs. They are cosplay people maybe worshiping a comic book. They cast spells on each other, high five, chest bump. They pretend the peach is forbidden fruit. They wear jester’s shoes and speak Elizabethan. They try to light the Sunday sports section on fire with their eyes.
Sophia is a whirlwind. Maloney often doesn’t know what to do with himself, but he’s a character in constant awe, who prays almost as much as he has sex, who says “Lord, you give us tornadoes and purple sunrises. We praise your beautifully illogical ways. You performed great miracles long ago and nothing since. Why such confusion? We love you, wonderful idiotic Lord.”
Maloney loses more than a few lovers in Sophia but moves on, following Eli on the professional chess circuit, traveling across the country and back but staying grounded by his odd fantasies. The Holy Ghost is a woman that he flirts with nightly — and often hopes for more. Imagine Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony set behind a Waffle House.
When one character quips that Maloney should go to church, he responds “I am church.” I found his response less solipsistic than honest. If the body is a temple, it must occasionally get dirty, and Maloney gets filthy. At many points in the novel it is unclear whether he is experiencing a waking nightmare — including when Mayor Dickerson gains a penchant for kidnapping and brandishing a gun.
Bible makes a nice transition from plot-by-osmosis to some good old-fashioned chase scenes, but the real star of Sophia is Maloney’s jaw. Maloney never quite takes himself seriously — it is really difficult to find God holy if you don’t also find existence a bit hilarious — though Sophia does end on a note of grace. Flannery would be proud.
I invoke O’Connor here for obvious reasons, but also because she is a convenient contrast. O’Connor was a Catholic writing about evangelicals; Quatro, Lawson, and Bible are looking at the evangelical world from within. As good as “Parker’s Back” might be — I’m willing to say that it is a perfect story — it pivots from a Catholic theological position. These three new writers of the Christian evangelical south are operating more from a place of inhabitation than analysis — although they document similar messes. Sophia lives in a world where a pastor concludes “Too much beauty makes me sick.” Amen.