The Miracle of Life and
The Limits of Mortality
A Review of
The Generosity: Poems
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2020.
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Reviewed by Ben Simpson
A generous person gives liberally and freely. In the giving, the generous person sows the seeds of further generosity while simultaneously evidencing that they are a person who has richly received. Generosity yields generativity, whether that generosity has been extended by God or by fellow human beings. Luci Shaw is evidence. Her poetry gives witness to a generous and encouraging father, and the work of a gracious and generous God.
Luci Shaw, born December 29, 1928, generates beautiful verse in her collection of poems, The Generosity. Shaw has written more than 35 collections of poetry and nonfiction, and is now a Writer in Residence at Regent College in Vancouver. She is a past recipient of the Denise Levertov Award for Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. In her introduction to this collection, Shaw writes, “If generosity is the keynote of these poems, gratitude is the melody their making has brought my way.”
Shaw writes, “Many of the shards of verse in this collection are autobiographical, distilled out of routine experience that somehow rounds a corner and wants its turn on the page, hoping to say something fresh, surprising.” I know many have had jolts of inspiration–a word, phrase, or image–that leaps, captures, and holds us tight, unwilling to let us go, only to see our efforts to make more of these gifts from the muse sputter, stall, and peter out on the page. A glimmer appears, but the vista never follows.
Shaw differs in this regard. The “seed ideas” she begins with take root and flower on the page. She writes, “out of enthusiasm rather than discipline,” and the joy of generativity is evident.
This collection contains many delightful poems, and those I found most moving proved also to be quite timely.
“How?” is a meditation on oddities and weirdness of the pandemic and God’s faithfulness within the season of COVID-19. Shaw writes:
How shall we sing the Lord’s songs
in a strange land? The old rhythms,
the melodies of praise, strangle
in our throats and the words
fall to the ground like leaves in autumn.
The air thickens with suspicion and doubt
and who’s to say, anymore, what
is true enough to last, to prevail?
Those words well capture the spirit of the moment. We have been exiled. We have not been displaced. Rather, we are asked to shelter-in-place. When we do emerge, we face a threat we cannot see, potentially lurking in every body, even those who may appear to be perfectly well. Shaw writes, “Isolation feels like a punishment / for offenses we never performed.”
But is there hope? Of course! Her poem continues:
Let us trust, now, the ground under
our feet–that which has proven steady
for generations. Look up. The heavens
are still there, unclouded, beatific.
We breath, even though masks clothe
our faces. Prayer surrounds us, close
as our skin, weaving for us garments of
trust and solace. Even in our isolation
we are joined in love, never alone.
This theme is further explored in “Virus,” where staying apart is described as “the ultimate act of friendship.” Nevertheless, by the conclusion of this poem, Shaw urges us to be watchful, to look for the light, and to hold out hope.
Other themes emerge as well. Shaw’s poetry captures the beauty of creation and the grace of God. She draws inspiration from biblical imagery and the works of literary greats. Noah, Isaiah, and the words of the Psalms join the music on the page. Several of these shards of inspiration felt to me as though they had been grasped while in prayer or worship. She writes about her family, her husband, and movingly about her father, who was a medical missionary.
She also writes about words, and her wonder at their power. In “Language,” Shaw writes:
Adjectives crawl to me like
strangers in a strange land.
And then the wrong word, the one
chosen by accident, the one
I don’t even particularly
like, turns the poem into
a fresh miracle on the page,
and later someone I haven’t
met, who read the words
I’ve submitted to his journal,
is struck dumb with delight,
asking for more and sending
a small check in the mail that is
just enough for a great
bottle of cabernet.
Serendipity. The honesty of a writer concerning the small joys of being paid. I can remember the thrill of my first check from a publisher. Lastly, Shaw has the forthrightness to admit those meager earnings may be put toward a spirit which can be shared–or perhaps not. It’s all there.
Luci Shaw’s The Generosity is a collection that warms the heart and invigorates the soul. It explores and imparts the gift of language. It is testimony to the miracle of life, as well as the limits of mortality. These poems are deeply human. And because of that, they are assuredly a gift.
Ben Simpson serves as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. Follow him on Twitter (@bsimpson) or subscribe to his blog: www.benjaminasimpson.com.
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Ben! This is a wonderful review–I’ve been waiting with baited breath for this book to release!