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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Praying with poetry

Regardless of your religious background, you’ve most likely heard of the famous trio: Poets, Prophets, and Saints, but after Wipf & Stock (Resource Publications) sent me a review copy of Digging for God: Praying with Poetry by Anne M. Higgins, I’d like to revise that big 3 to Poets, Prophets, and Pray-ers – the latter of whom can be almost anyone, saintly or not.

Line drawings by Maureen Beitman illustrate the four sections: Eden, Solomon, Gethsemane, and Revelation – each of which has the format of a poem followed by suggestions for prayer or meditation. For example, the opening “Tribute Poem” begins with “Praise for late sleeping day,/ waking up without alarm.” Then, as you turn the page, you’re asked to “Name five events, situations, or experiences that you appreciate” with special emphasis on “the ordinary and undramatic ones” and “write a poem of praise to God for them.” Since the rest of the page is blank, you immediately have a place to respond.

Most likely, though, you came here for some kind of discussion about poetry, so let’s talk about the poems in this book. A quick glimpse might supply such adjectives as “light and lovely” or “nice!” – especially since the lines actually look light and the layout nice. But consider the first few lines in the “Second Antiphon in the Style of Hildegard.”

O You who squeeze the wind
until she howls,
who wring the rain until
she gushes

Marvelous metaphors! Yes? So, what do you think comes next? Since this is a Daughter of Charity writing, would you expect this?

O You who squeeze the wind
until she howls,
who wring the rain until
she gushes,
send electric waves
rushing through the cord
to jolt the vacuum cleaner
to roaring life.
I pray your power
moving in the homeliest of things.

The poem goes on to list a few, and then the next page invites you to “List five objects in your everyday life that you would call ‘the homeliest things.’/ What gift does each of them have for you?”

Although I had no intentions of interacting right then as I’m busy trying to give you an objective review, I suddenly got subjective with my list:

• Footstool to up-put and rest my achy feet
• Cheese slicer to keep from having too much of a good thing
• Child’s step-stool to stretch and reach beyond the moment
• Fresh sheets that smell only of fresh air
• A lamp to read this and spotlight the stack of poetry books and Bibles close beside me, waiting for reading and review

Many of the poems by Anne Higgins deftly catalog what she sees. For instance, in “Wintering on St. Mary’s Mountain,” we join the poet in viewing a winter-browned mountain where “Owls and woodpeckers/ skim the gravestones –/ buttons on her broad brown coat.”

The poems do not rely on sightedness only, though, but call us to “Go Out to the Woods and Feel the Tree Bark,” joining the poet in experiencing a “Tree whose name I do not know,/ wearing your cable knit sweater,/ gnarled, snarling.”

In the section, “Solomon,” we experience sounds, too, or lack thereof, in “The Roofless Church, New Harmony, Indiana,” with “Silence, brown as earth,/ we describe/ by making walls around it/ and describing / the walls” as an artist might draw negative space, rather than the object. And, in “Gethsemane,” we become “The Rich Young Man,” who walks away from Jesus, saying “…to the disciple at the doorway,/ ‘Excuse me -/ I really must go’.”

The next section, “Golgotha,” opens with the title poem where the “I” of the poem wonders “How come the weeds are still green/ when the grass is brown with drought?” Conversely, the last poem in the last section, “Revelation,” gives us a “Gardner’s Magnificat” where “My heart shudders in God’s loamy breath,/ and I stand silent before my flourishing garden,/ for God has called his love for me/ through the sound of the Wood Thrush,/ through sunlight and shadow on Iris and Peony./ God shines in the leathery purple Ajuga leaves,/ startles me with feathery Astilbe/ I thought long lost to me.”

Whether the invasive Ajuga covers the ground or the Astilbe plant flowers like bright-colored feathers, nothing in this little book seems lost or wasted on readers apt to wonder, ponder, and dig.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poetry book reviewer and poet-author of a book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books and Living in the Nature Poem published in print by Hiraeth Press and released this month as an e-book on Kindle

Digging for God: Praying with Poetry, paperback

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