A Feature Review of
Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology
Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas, Eds.
Reviewed by J. Brent Bill
I am blessed with floor to ceiling bookshelves in my office. The books are sorted by categories. And they spill over into the loft bookshelves, where they are likewise cataloged. I’m at the stage of life when I know I need to start thinking about downsizing. But one category shall never be downsized. That’s the poetry section.
That’s because, for me, poetry is close to prayer. Though my friend, the Hoosier poet Mary Brown, once joked that poetry is the only form of writing truly done to the glory of God – and it had to be, since it paid so poorly. I think that her joke is deeply true.
I’m not a very good pray-er. I’m one of those free-church non-liturgical types. I have never gotten into praying the hours or reading prepared prayers. And too many of my spontaneous ones sound like vain repetitions to me. So when I want to find words that speak to the longings of my spirit to express my joy or despair or any other deep feeling, I turn to poetry. And though my poetry shelves runneth over, I am always delighted to find another gem. And Christian Poetry in America Since 1940 is one.
I love anthologies because they often memorialize some of my favorites and they introduce me to new works I need to encounter. This collection is no exception. I picked it up and scrolled through to see which long-time poet friends (both in real life or just from reading) of mine were included. I was delighted to see Diane Glancy, Jeanne Murray Walker, Andrew Hudgins, Scott Cairns, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Christian Wiman, and more. I immediately started reading their offerings. Some familiar poems were there, Walker’s “Little Blessing for my Floater” and Cairn’s “Idiot Psalm 2” for example. Then I encountered Hudgin’s “Beatitudes,”
“Blessed is the Eritrean child
flies rooting as his eyes for moisture. Blessed
the remote control with which I flipped on past…”
After I read that, I had to read it again. Slowly. Reverently. Prayerful, my heart breaking at the truth breaking through via Hudgin’s offering. That poem was enough for that day. I put the book down, with both sadness and benediction.
The next time I picked up the book, I ventured into new, for me, territory. I opened the book by chance(?), to “Ash Wednesday, Late Afternoon” by Robert Shaw which begins,
“Dust-motes bustling up – or is it
in, or through – this afternoon’s
lazily sloping chute of light…”
As a photographer who’s always been delighted by dust motes “bustling up” but never quite able to capture them on film, I was immediately drawn in and up and down to the images Shaw presents until the end, “dimly subsiding, mating dust to dust.” Sigh.
Next up, on a cold winter’s night sitting by the fire, was Dana Gioia’s poem of contrasts “Prayer at Winter’s Solstice.” Blessed “are hunger and thirst”? The “hawk devouring the hare”? In her capable hands, they become blessed indeed,
“Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.”
I didn’t hurry through this volume. Though, one can, I guess, if one wants to sample the feast presented quickly. I, though, wanted to savor it. To linger over these finely crafted pieces. To receive them in the silence of my soul, savor them, and let them feed my spirit. There are so many themes and settings to delight in – from farms to city streets to churches and more. So many distinct voices and points of view that, in their own ways, speak truth to my own.
As with all anthologies, I wondered about some choices – why this poet and not that one? Some of my favorites, who fit the criteria for inclusion but missed the cut, were Julie Cadwallader Staub and Paul Willis. While I have their poems on my shelves, I wished others would have been introduced to them via this volume.
I do have a bit of a quibble with the introductory biographies of the poets included in this collection. While some readers will, no doubt, find these pieces helpful, I found them a bit off putting, with their emphasis on the deeper meanings of the writers’ work in context of spiritual poetry. It felt a bit too much of the editors’ impressions and scholarship and therefore reminded me too much of literature classes I’ve taken in which the professor informed me of the correct interpretations (theirs) of the poems instead of allowing room for the joy of discovering meanings within meanings for myself. In that way, I wish the introductions were more like those in Albert Gelpi’s classic The Poet in America: 1650 to the Present – just enough to show knowledge of the poets, but not too much of the scholar.
I also found many of the footnotes off putting – such as the one in John Poch’s “Prayer” that leads me to the bottom of the page to “learn” that “Jackson Pollock was an abstract expressionist painter.” Really? If I didn’t know the reference, shouldn’t I be intellectually curious enough to find out who Pollock was?
Still, despite these complaints, Christian Poetry in America Since 1940 has been on my desk since I received it. I suspect it long will be as it’s a delightful companion to gaze upon, to pick up, and be enthralled, challenged, bemused, and blessed by.
J. Brent Bill
J. Brent Bill is a writer, writing teacher, photographer, and Quaker minister. He lives on Ploughshares Farm in rural Indiana which has been converted from production agriculture to a tall grass prairie and woods filled with native trees. His newest book Amity: Short Stories from the Heartland will be released in 2023. Find him online at: BrentBill.com
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