Featured Reviews

Jeanne Murray Walker – Leaping from the Burning Train [Feature Review]

Jeanne Murray Walker To Inhabit Two Worlds

 
 
A Feature Review of

Leaping from the Burning Train: A Poet’s Journey of Faith
Jeanne Murray Walker

Paperback: Slant Books, 2023
Buy Now: [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Erin Feldman

Jeanne Murray Walker’s book Leaping from the Burning Train: A Poet’s Journey of Faith brims with tension. Each chapter features a sense of motion, perhaps even the forward-and-back, side-to-side chugging of a train. (That said, the burning train in the opening chapter remains somewhat of a mystery; its connection to the rest of the book seems tenuous. What should the reader glean from the chapter except the idea that stories can bridge the divide between fundamentalism and liberalism? Other chapters revisit the two “sides,” but the consideration appears to be of less importance than the author’s relationship with language, faith, and her mother.) Life and death, certainty and doubt, change and stasis, devotion and religion. Back and forth, back and forth. Again. Again.

That sensation of movement requires declining the more normal mode of the memoir, which typically orders events chronologically or examines moments from a single time period. Walker’s book refuses such a telling of her life. It sprawls backward and forward, suspending itself somewhere in the present. From this vista, Walker speaks.

To join her in this vocalization, it helps to visualize Walker opening her mother’s prized cedar chest and steel boxes, an action she takes in the final chapter. She gazes at her mother’s prized mementos and realizes: “Once they [the objects of a lifetime] slipped from her attention, all her alluring things grew lifeless. It turns out that her love was what electrified them” (210). She cannot speak to her mother’s items, as they remain mysteries to her. She learned many stories from her mother, but not the ones that would convey significance to “the sweaters [that] were pilled and the long, white leather gloves [that] had stiffened with age” (211). Even her mother’s eighty-year-old china doll “looks like any other antique doll” (211) when set on her daughter’s shelf.

Even so, Walker resists shutting the cedar chest. She keeps it open, despite its inability to “work as a retrieval system to remember her by” (211), and figuratively opens her own. What would she leave in it for others to find, if she could? The chapters answer the question. From her cedar chest she pulls objects, images, and concepts. Those in turn give rise to stories, which she says, “[get people involved] in the messy, complicated aspects of being human … with sickness, death, and their regular need for assistance” (17). Stories then lead to rumination, if not occasionally examination, confession, and repentance.

As an example, lemons. Lemons for a luxurious lemon torte. Walker goes to a produce market to purchase them, only for her and another woman to simultaneously extend their hands toward the final, isolated bag. Walker hesitates. Both women exchange polite pleasantries and “no, you take them’s” so many times that it becomes unbearably awkward. Walker eventually takes the lemons. She makes her torte, and she assumes it’s delicious. But she “can’t eat any of the lemon torte because I’m realizing what I could have done that might have made me happier than dessert. I should have picked the lemons up and put them in her hands” (183).

Then, this object: a plastic, glow-in-the-dark cross. It generates tension from the moment it appears “in a small box on one of the sales tables in the camp canteen” (20). Walker remembers longing to own it: “I want this cross the way a person wants health” (20). But she has been taught religious images and objects are wrong, idolatrous (20, 28). To purchase this cross would be a rebellion, a questioning of her community’s tenets and values. And yet, she can’t get the cross out of her mind. She visits it on a nearly daily basis. (She also visits the produce market as an adult, for what turns out to be remarkably similar reasons. She gains a sense of the sacred in the presence of this cross and in the environment of a market devoted to food and fellowship (28, 183).) She ultimately purchases it—and hides it, basking in its little glow. “I watched it slowly pay out radiance into the darkness. As the day around it failed and night came, the cross grew steadily more articulate, its edges sharpening against the dark. It seemed like a star that had fallen to earth, something a person could navigate by” (33).

As for images—the dearest one reveals her older brother, blonde hair gleaming as he hunches over his ham radio (60), trying to speak with anyone outside the Walker’s insulated family, church, and town of Lincoln, Nebraska. Through him Walker learns the necessity for travel as well as its limitations, “My brother grasped the difference between novelty and travel. Travel involves getting into someone else’s point of view and it requires empathy. … On that night [in Peru], I learned what it means to let go, to relinquish control. Bart and his wife allowed their boundaries to be reshaped, as travelers must” (59, 72).

Generosity and empathy are concepts, of course, and they and concepts like them arrive throughout the book. “Images are necessary for thought” (115), Walker muses at one point. Some concepts, however, arise as ongoing subjects for reflection. For example, Walker frequently interrogates faith and the nature of it. Is it absolute certainty, as her parents and fundamentalist upbringing would argue? Is it a forced and reinforced blindness of the kind Walker’s priest asks of her (175–178)? Or is it something more capacious and bending, something able to sustain not only her but also other people?

Walker argues for the third option, and it infuses all her actions, from being a mother to being a professor. Both demand a willingness to embrace the tension of living in a body, with other bodies. Both require loving the questions and details more than possessing the right answers. When Walker’s daughter cries in outrage as Walker attempts to finish her dissertation, she sets aside the writing. She takes her daughter for a walk and regains scope and perspective, the ability to balance between competing desires and priorities (137–138). As for Walker’s students, she tries to prepare them for life by teaching them how to read a poem. Students resist. They want answers for the test; they want to know they are reading “right.” But reading isn’t like that, and neither is life. “My students need poetry,” Walker says, “because it can keep them in touch with what is deep inside them. … It can connect them to some essential questions about why we are alive and what it means to be human” (155–156)

And scattered throughout the book, like the tissue paper wrapping Walker’s mother’s sweaters and other mementos, seasons. Trees bow beneath the weight of sleet and snow; trees scritch their branches in a summer wind; trees turn to fire in the autumn. Vegetables and fruit, too. Food for the body, and books—another kind of food—for the soul. Perhaps most importantly, her mother’s beloved perennials, “the flowers that wither in the fall and come back to life in spring” (212).

While Murray’s book may not fit the standard definition of a memoir, it showcases a poet’s mind at work. Images and sounds fill her mind, and they overflow onto the pages. Poetry teaches her and shapes her in the knowledge that the ethereal and the corporeal inhabit the same frame,

“There is something deeper than either memory or imagination, and that is faith. … Most mornings I wake up believing that we are perennials not annuals—a feeling that itself is a gift. Surely what dies will spring back to life. I suspect it was my mother who taught me that faith—good and true flower judge that she was” (215).

Erin Feldman

Erin Feldman is a content writer for The Austin Stone Institute, at The Austin Stone Community Church. Her recent projects include liturgies in Words for Spring and Foundations of Faith: Cultivating the Christian Life Through Study and Practice. Find her online at: www.writerightwords.com

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