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Monday, January 28, 2019

Joy: 100 poems

If you’re looking for sweet little verses or helium-filled poems, this may not be the book for you. But, if you’d like a collection of literary poems expressing an important life-lifting theme, you’ll be delighted to discover the works of some of the most highly acclaimed poets of the last hundred years or so, including many, many of my favorites.

Edited by award-winning poet Christian Wiman and published by Yale University Press, who kindly sent me a copy to review, Joy: 100 poems is a slender anthology of poetry written, as Emily Dickinson might say, “slant.” Instead of trying to capture the ever-elusive joy straight on, the book presents a collage of joy, eclectically illustrated by snow, sex, nature, children, bodily functions, music, religion, and ways of writing poetry. 

As the poetic introduction “Still Wilderness” declares, “…this entire book is aimed against whatever glitch in us or whim of God has made our most transcendent moments resistant to description.” That particular page also uses these lines by Lisel Mueller to describe joy that’s indescribable:

“It has nothing to do with the passing of time.
It’s not about loss. It’s about
two seemingly parallel lines
suddenly coming together
inside us, in some place
that is still wilderness”

With that last apt phrase as the introduction’s title, Editor Wiman goes on to say:

“Joy is what keeps reality real, since in this world of multiverses and quantum weirdness, where ninety-five percent of matter and energy we know only to name as ‘dark,’ it is obvious that reality extends far beyond what our senses can perceive. So what in the world, or what beyond the world, is calling to us when we are called to joy?”

This is not, as Wiman points out, to be confused with happiness, which is “a disposition or evaluation: we are happy when we experience pleasure, when things go our way, and so on. Joy, by contrast, is an emotion: there is always an element of having been seized,often in, “some loss of self.”

In one poetic example, Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai contrasts the descriptions of pain with the imprecision of joy as these lines, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfield, show:

“The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain –
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learn to speak among the pains.”

At other times, poets speak of unexpected moments of delight, such as happened when Elizabeth Bishop memorialized “The Moose,” who wandered into the middle of the road:

“Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?”

Or, as Derek Walcott explained in “The Elegist”:

“Happiness is for the Declaration of Independence, a political
condition, and also for the ending of movies. Joy, by contrast,
is an illumination, as in Blake and Wordsworth and Rilke,
a benediction, a visitation. In the twentieth century, it required
nothing less than a belief in angels.”

Spanish poet Pablo Medina translated his “A Poem For The Epiphany” into English in these closing lines:

“It snows because light and dark
are making love in a field where old age
has no meaning, where colors blur,
silence covers sound, sleep covers sorrow,
everything is death, everything is joy.”

And, in The Luminous Web, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes:

“There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons
but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars.
When I look up at them there is a small commotion in my bones,
as the ashes of dead stars that house my marrow rise up like metal
filings toward the magnet of their living kin.”

Throughout this collection of poems by poets, whose individual works also happen to fill five bookshelves in my home, the surprises of life and death merge into a single theme, which, after reading this highly recommended anthology, I, too, cannot help but address:


On the road
from Arimathea
to Jerusalem,
Jesus and I
turned cartwheels,
not minding the muck
on our hands or
the pebbles pressing
into our palms.
We felt unfettered,
no one could ever
kill Us again.

by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2019, all rights reserved.

Joy: 100 poems, hardback, edited by Christian Wiman and published by Yale University Press

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