A Feature Review of
There is A Future: A Year of Daily Midrash
Reviewed by Aarik Danielsen
Often, my open Bible abides a companion: an open book of poetry. Isaiah or Paul unveil hidden things at one side of the table; Mary Oliver, Franz Wright or Jane Kenyon parse—or simply lift their hands in praise for—revelation at the other.
Adopting this practice, guilt raised its voice and asked its questions. Wasn’t the Bible enough for me? Isn’t the Holy Spirit a sufficient guide? Was this some strange end-around sola scriptura?
The more I paired the two, the quieter these aggrieved voices became. Poetry softened my calloused heart, allowing God’s voice to sink in and soak through. The Bible, in kind, interpreted my beloved poets, giving their words company and context.
I recognize a friend in Amy Bornman. The poet’s debut collection, There is A Future, further unifies these hallowed forms, underlining just how close the truths of theologians and poets live. Bornman’s work springs from a moment when she read both the Bible and poetry in daily, dedicated fashion for the first time.
“The combination of those two sets of daily readings, the poets and the Scriptures, felt like, in chemistry, when you combine two elements and suddenly there’s a dramatic fizzing spilling all over the table,” Bornman writes in the book’s intro (vi).
To contain and channel the reaction, Bornman turned to the time-honored Jewish tradition of midrash, which seeks interpretation through imagination. Midrash asks students of a sacred text to read between and beyond the lines, creatively pondering what only God fully discerns—the unvoiced thoughts and motivations of the Bible’s characters, and the divine wisdom that animates its every phrase.
More than a few modern Christians discovered the term through Wilda Gafney’s recent Womanist Midrash, a book that dares understand the women of the Bible in all their glory and complexity. Amy Bornman travels a simpler, somehow more boundless way, writing over, around and through texts she encountered in a year of daily readings.
She explains what the practice means to her—and gently quiets potential objections—in the book’s introduction: “Midrash, at its heart, is the people of God honoring the text by wondering about it, aiding their minds by imagining what could fill the holes” (xi).
Several poems within the set spell out midrash in elegant, expressive script. “philip’s answer” distinguishes between human thoughts (“thin and silty, with debris and / clouds and bits of destruction laced / throughout”) and the mind of God (“your thoughts, pure and / milky, are such a beautiful dream I can / imagine if I try”). Bornman’s speaker then envisions the miles needed to close the distance.
“it takes all of / my effort, my hopeless concentration, / and i can tell few people go there / to that quiet holy place / where your thoughts live / in them, too, to know that / the fullness of yourself / is within my own being is / almost troublesome to me” (4-5).
“an opening” further unspools these glorious threads: “the bible is so often withholding, / its text keeping in a tight fist the / details i crave, the look on a face, / the witty remark, the private moment, / the smells and colors and lilting tune” (25).
Laboring to see more in the text, Bornman’s narrator takes a first true look at themself—and at God.
“and suddenly I’m in front of every / bathroom mirror, suddenly, i know / this man whose face i’ve never / seen. suddenly, with a pop, / the book bursts open, and i / step through the door, / and i can see” (25).
If all Amy Bornman did was knock the scales from our dulled, unimaginative eyes, There is a Future would prove its worth. But these poems train our mind’s eyes to stare until a text gives up more humane and holy colors. An early highlight, “the wedding at cana” draws the humanity of Jesus and Mary past the gray of our assent, into the light of felt knowledge and identification.
The poet traverses multiple boundaries here, first imagining an exchange between Jesus and his mother (“he catches his / mother’s eye, and he nods. / so mary walks over and they / share a small moment where / they both know a secret at / this wedding near their town”).
Not content to stop at gestures of recognition, Bornman lends possible language to Mary’s memories and desires. Past and present converge in connection and “mary can’t stop laughing to / herself, a little giggle. / all these years she had been waiting for / this party to begin” (10).
Bornman presses forward, past a point where so many stop short: uniting the Old and New Testaments. “flood poem” gathers Noah, the Psalmist and Paul together—not to settle all questions, but to ask better ones:
“o water of life, will you / fill even this? o jesus whose liquid / is love? tell me here as the mountain / is covered, is this the baptism you mean?” (11)
A remarkable string of poems tackles and tempers the inscrutability of Job’s God, making him sound just like Jesus: “there’s no creature I’m more / proud of than you,” the Almighty tells his wounded servant (79).
Bornman leans in to listen as heartbeats thump out the motives behind world-altering sins such as Eve’s bite and Peter’s denial. She cloaks Lot’s wife in compassion and describes Rachel’s love-at-first-sight of Jacob in starrier terms than the most smitten Taylor Swift song could manage. Poems like “passover,” which ushers readers into a Jewish household just before God’s angel of death hovers by, lead us past remove to really reckon with ourselves in the text.
Perhaps the most beautiful means of identification comes in “says the quiet early vineyard worker,” as Bornman finds the exception within Jesus’ potent parable; this laborer lodges no complaint, only thanksgiving for “a reason to stretch my arms and legs” (58).
“is there a better way to / spend a day?” the speaker asks. “i’ll be back / tomorrow, at your gates at dawn.”
Exercising the sanctified imagination leads us to breathe out more fervent, honest prayers. “vessels of wood and clay,” a meditation on 2 Timothy 2, ends with this appeal: “please pick me up and wash me out! / please fill me with warmth, / with something that is a delight, / something that is a routine! / please, o please hold me / in your hands!” (20)
Ask to see the text fully-orbed, fully enfleshed, and you shall receive, Bornman says. The speaker of “I must decrease” asks to become “a stem in the middle of a canyon”; “a secret satellite orbiting the sun”; “a tire on an appalachian hillside”; “the bridesmaid who stands in the back.” She will be whatever God wills as long as it means shrinking “in your universe” and being “a small pulsing piece of the stuff full of you” (12).
Pastors and scholars offer countless metaphors for sin. The one which resounds as 2020 turns to 2021: a failure of imagination. We fail to imagine loving our neighbors as ourselves through a pandemic, so we insist upon our own rights. We cannot imagine this world restored to glory, so we picture an ivory, disembodied existence.
At least within these pages, Amy Bornman never commits this sin. Fixing her eyes on the future the title promises, she receives visions of apocalyptic beauty; she watches swords becoming plowshares in real time, war becoming “a curse word too terrible to say,” fear dissipating in the face of assurance.
“that is a future i dare to imagine with / the thin hope left in me, the gladness / that remains though it has every reason to go,” Bornman writes (84).
When we fail to imagine a world full of holy possibility, the poets look into our weary eyes and point us to God’s words—ancient and present-tense—to see beyond what we already know.