A Feature Review of
My Soul Feels Lean: Poems of Loss and Restoration
Paperback: Ave Maria Press, 2013
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Jenn Moland-Kovash
Not long after receiving Joyce Rupp’s most recent offering, My Soul Feels Lean: Poems of Loss and Restoration, I closed the book emphatically and wailed, “What was I thinking?!”
I can answer better what I wasn’t thinking when I requested to review My Soul Feels Lean. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that our congregation has buried several faithful members since January. I wasn’t thinking that the people I serve – the first ones to first call me pastor – will soon bid me Godspeed and Farewell as I head to a three-month sabbatical. I wasn’t thinking that I’d open the book and have to wipe away tears, instantly, as I read: “Death sweeps in boldly,/calling itself Parkinson,/ovarian cancer, leukemia.” I wasn’t thinking that as I read aloud to my writing group, my voice would catch and I would be unable to continue beyond: “walking away from years of work,/not even sure why/except that a strong voice inside.”
Clearly, Rupp’s words sliced through whatever veneer I’d affixed to my emotions and showed me exactly what I was feeling – even if I hadn’t been thinking. Sometimes, the world hurts. Our lives hold loss and death and pain. We seek restoration and healing. We look for places where “The green stayed./The snow melted./The buds kept their strength.” The gift of poetry, and in particular the gift of Rupp’s words, comes in the ability to name those tender things for the reader.
I’ve long respected Joyce Rupp for gorgeous meditative language that feels accessible and these poems do not disappoint. She doesn’t write only about death; we know that loss comes in many forms. Sometimes loss comes from friendships that have ended or the change of seasons. Other times it happens because “some days I feel like/I say all the wrong things/at the wrong time.” These poems bring form to those feelings, even as we wonder along with her, “Will I ever be done with this grief?”
It’s clear that Rupp immerses herself outdoors, and she sees loss and restoration mirrored in the world around her. “One lone goose” brings a message from the west. The noise of the heart is a blue jay’s squawk. The old cottonwood trees that have shed their bark bring to mind the deep-rooted bodies in the nursing home. Inside a pine grove calm is found when “I lay my body down in the softness/of the pine needles at its center.” And the realization that “I am at peace/happy and content” is described as an “intangible/comfort, sweet as/springtime freesia.”
Now I should clarify that not every poem in this collection reduced me to tears. It is a collection of loss and restoration, after all. Once I settled in with the book (admittedly the tissues close at hand), I found such grace and healing in the second half. Tender poetry of advice urged me “keep returning/to the center/surround your heart/with love.” And at times restoration comes as a surprise, what the words of “Bittersweet” describe as “A jubilant discovery of beauty/on an uncertain road.”
Over and over I marveled that Rupp, especially in writing about restoration, was able to hold in tension the reality of pain that comes with loss and the assurance of hope. These aren’t glib words or pat answers to pain, instead we ponder “am I a prisoner of winter/or a recipient of transparent beauty?” We find, as in “Resurrection,” the truth that “everyday, somewhere,/a new creation.” And we discover that sometimes that resurrection comes not from where we might expect it, but instead in “an unknown Iowa pasture.”
As a pastor, I’m always on the lookout for collections that stir our language around grief and loss. Two of my favorites are “The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing,” and “beloved on the earth: 150 poems of grief and gratitude.” Certainly Rupp’s poetry would fit well in these collections. But I found myself valuing the consistency of one voice throughout, having one voice lead me from loss to restoration, hearing one tone ring out both the “need for dormancy” and the call in “Easter Joy” to “Stir deadened grief,/startle sad eyes/into hopeful ones.”
Somewhere in the midst of the times I took to sit with this book – standing in the entryway of my home, immediately after opening the mailer; on a warm spring day over lunch outside; in the quiet of my office; around a table with dear friends – I found a sense of peace. These poems by Joyce Rupp speak truth. Sometimes the truth of loss can be difficult to face, and it gets buried or ignored. But there is a ministry of healing in these poems, surprising revelations that led me to jot, “Yes!” in the margin when I read: “The crust on my preoccupied heart/fell off/quite unexpectedly/while driving on a mostly empty interstate.” Yes, indeed.