A Review of
Pruning Burning Bushes: Poems
Paperback: Wipf and Stock, 2012.
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Reviewed by Jennifer Moland-Kovash.
Long ago a friend told me her technique for deciding whether or not she wanted to read a book. Beyond the cover art and the blurbs, or even the description on the inside flaps of a hardcover, she said, “I open to a random page and read the first full paragraph. If it makes me want to keep reading, when I know nothing about the plot or the characters, I figure there’s a pretty good chance I’ll like the book.”
Over the years this has proven to be good advice for me, and when encountering unknown authors, I often use my friend’s suggestion. With a book of poetry, this middle-of-the-book technique is even more delightful, because with every page turn there is a new storyline, even a different set of characters.
Sarah Wells wasn’t a completely unknown author to me; I heard her speak in April at the Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing. While she read a few of her poems during her presentation, she focused mostly on using poetry in worship. However, what she read of her own work had stuck with me; I was excited to hold her collection Pruning Burning Bushes and read what waited for me inside.
If you happen to open the book nearly in the exact middle, you find the title poem, “Pruning Burning Bushes.” Tucked in this poem are the kind of words that reflect everyday life: horticulturalists, buzzed, crown reduction. I could see the pruner “sighing, sweating, fists on hips, pruners/lost in the grass.” But then the line finishes and the exhausting task of maintaining the shrubs along a front porch opens into so much more: “The landscape breathes.” These words also had me reading out loud in my office, “sustained/so long by suckers sprouted in haste. Here I am.”
I’m a sucker for poetry about food, so my page-turning stops at “Pancakes.” I’m instantly transported to a long-ago table where “Grandpa stacked them seven high/with a dab of butter, all-you-can-eat.” Perhaps there is no line between poet and storyteller, because as the lines flow into one another I move from Grandpa’s table to campfire breakfast to a broken syrup bottle and subsequent trip to the ER to the passing on of impatience – “my daughter stirs the batter/with her wire whisk, Is it ready yet? No,” – until we are settling in at another table: “say grace, and pray for grandparents.” In my work as a pastor, I remind people (and myself) that we do not know always what will trigger our grief or our memories – for some it’s a plate of pancakes.
Sarah Wells has many gifts as a poet, and certainly among them is her ability to write about sensitive, personal subjects – a D & C, for example – with tenderness. Interwoven with the words of a familiar, childhood prayer, her poem “D&C (Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep)” moves the reader through that journey to the end with “the hollow womb/filled with no baby/(to take)/no more.” Perhaps most poignant, though, is the book’s layout and placement of the next poem, “Assailants” on the facing page. The strong, fierce voice in “Assailaints” is a stark contrast to the short, almost dream-like lines of “D&C (Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep).” While the assailants of the poem are the sparrows that block the opening to the bluebird house, the lines “We lost four to dark assailants. I wish the bird/ would fly away and let the nestlings be. Those are my eggs” echo with the known loss of other nestlings.
It’s in reading these two poems back to back that one recognizes what can be lost with a random reading. Poets obviously put a lot of care into the placement of their poems in a collection, and a well-designed book of poetry can contain just as much of a story line and narrative arc as a novel. While choosing a poem to read here and there is a good measure of how the writing stands alone, when they have been so clearly collected and placed, it becomes the duty of the reader to respect that order. But more than respecting the order, there is gift in reading the poems as they have been placed to observe how they relate to one another and inform one another.
This collection meanders through rural life and city life. It digs in the dirt and dances in the dusky, dangerous night of a carnival. It embraces and addresses faith head on, with a perspective that makes the world click just a little bit more into focus with each line. Wells invokes Matthew 10:29 in “Consider the Sparrows” and even after having read the disdain for sparrows in “Assailants” there is a pause reflected in these lines: “A sparrow’s egg on concrete – the yolk/seeping through the fracture – makes me stop/to look from broken shell to fretting maple/branches above, for the mother who chirrups.”
I had especially been hoping to find “Making the Bed” which she read at the Festival, but since I couldn’t recall the title, I needed to wait until it appeared on the page. I was not disappointed, and while hearing her read it allowed me to experience the words in one way, seeing it on paper showed how adept Wells is at making use of the visual in her poetry. Even the spacing between the lines – there is no snug closeness here! – of this poem illustrate how “I think the sheets are missing our twisting – /I heard them bickering this morning.”
Reading this collection of Sarah Wells’ poetry reminds me that our world is full of both the heartache of loss and the opportunity to kneel beside a broken shell in amazement. There is life in these poems – ordinary and extraordinary, found at random and sought with intentionality.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com