“Take My Yoke Upon You”: Poets & (Dis)Belief
Storm Toward Morning, by Malachi Black. Copper Canyon, 96 pp., $16.
Blood Lyrics, by Katie Ford. Graywolf Press, 80 pp., $16.
The Road to Emmaus: Poems, by Spencer Reece. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pp., $24.
Literature, like religion, often needs death to grow.
—Spencer Reece, “Gilgamesh”
As a child, I couldn’t picture a place Christ wasn’t. Even moments I questioned his presence felt less like a failure of faith than lack of imagination. God is everywhere, my classmates and I were taught, take consolation in what can’t be seen. Absence and presence, spiritual longing and loss: such tensions prove critical in recent collections by Katie Ford, Spencer Reece, and Malachi Black. Whether anchored by faith or troubled by it, each poet answers personal and communal crises by engaging the divine. In Blood Lyrics, a searing account of an infant’s precarious health and global conflict, Ford contemplates not only human frailty, but also acts of violence executed in the name of country and/or religion. “The Lord is a man of war” (Exodus15:3) Ford contends before inverting the act of reconciliation, “We must forgive God God’s story.” Whereas the almighty figure Ford renders often proves merciless, in Spencer Reece’s The Road to Emmaus God is the given—a constant source of consolation and companionship during times of trial and loss. “How kind time is, altering space,” writes Reece in “At Thomas Merton’s Grave,” “so nothing stays wrong: and light, / more new light, always arrives.” Rhetorically sophisticated, Malachi Black’s Storm Toward Morning employs paradox and pattern-making to explore the possibility of God. For Black, conviction is often laced with skepticism. “Sun is in the leaves again,” anticipates the poet of a revelatory moment: “I think I see you in the wind / but then I think I see the wind” (“Prime”).
Although Ford, Reece, and Black face particular difficulties that drive them toward or away from the divine, they articulate such predicaments using distinct poetic strategies. Blood Lyrics and The Road to Emmaus privilege free verse. Ford’s inclination toward spare lyrics and untitled fragments, however, runs counter to Reece’s prose poems and lengthy narrative sequences. Black, on the other hand, remains faithful to form: a crown of sonnets echoing a monastic prayer cycle anchors Storm Toward Morning, revealing its author as both meditative and metrically attentive. Taken together, the collections cycle through various components of faith—doubt, affirmation, private anxiety, and reengagement—reflecting piety less than the necessities of communion and compassion. Regardless of their spiritual alliance or estrangement, what Ford, Reece, and Black share is the concentrated expression of interiority. As they variously move between apprehension and belief, what manifests are intimate and richly varied interpretations of that “fine invention” Dickinson calls faith.
Catastrophe and spiritual practice have long been Katie Ford’s primary lyric subjects. Both her debut, Deposition, and sophomore collection, Colosseum, confront disaster and its aftermath, while taking stock of salvation and grace. “Abundance and destitution are two facets of the one face of God,” contends Christian Wiman in his essay “Nimble Believing,” “and to be spiritually alive is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the face of the other.” The destitution and abundance Wiman recognizes as God’s visage appear prominently in Blood Lyrics. When, in the collection’s first section, the sudden threat of death shadows the joy of birth, Ford answers crisis with invocation:
wring out my water and drink
the wrung remains, take all that is nimble
and sun-up of day,
break my window to steal my eyes,
take their cotton, reap their fields;
as for my industry, it is yours.
Ford’s lines are a study in efficiency. Stated simply, the poem doesn’t waste a breath. Because of her mindful compression, dominant sounds reverberate with urgency: the hard k linking drink, take, break; long vowels joining take, remains, day, break, as well as wring, drink, and reap. Throughout the thirteen-line poem, which is driven primarily by imperatives, the speaker pledges to sacrifice anything. She concedes her house, her sources of sustenance, the senses of hearing and sight. In the poem’s final turn, she even expresses a willingness to endure torture should her plea be granted. “I know in wishing not to bluff,” the speaker attests, stressing the seriousness of her entreaty:
so lay me on a threshing floor
and bleed me in the old, slow ways,
but do not take my child.
The poem’s final turn manifests a devastating and surprising revelation. However, it’s only in the last line that the speaker reveals self-sacrifice as a means of bargaining for her daughter’s life. By deliberately concealing the poem’s dramatic occasion, Ford amplifies its pathos. She also makes deft use of monosyllabic words, which further emphasize the speaker’s desperation. “[A]nd bleed me in the old, slow ways,” the speaker orders, reducing the phrase’s speed via syntax and long vowels. Although it could be argued otherwise, I hear the final line as almost perfectly stressed, each word carrying nearly equal weight which further heightens the mother’s anguish: “but do not take my child.” In combination, the stresses housed in the last two lines sonically enact and rhetorically amplify the “slow” experience of human suffering—both historically, on the “threshing floor,” as well as in the present crisis.
The above poem is titled “A Spell,” suggesting both a burst of time and the colloquial term for illness. Most significant, however, is the notion of “spell” as magical incantation. Rather than appeal to a heavenly God in times of trial, Ford reaches out to a secular power. Even though the speakers in Blood Lyrics express spiritual isolation (“I did not see a god, / and the god I did not see was not / the god I was told / to see or call ...” from “Sighting”), Biblical allusions and excerpts remain prevalent throughout the collection. “You cannot serve God and wealth,” affirms the speaker in “Of a Child Early Born,” echoing the Book of Matthew. In the same poem, Ford exploits economic terms and material objects to characterize the newborn who
... weighs seven hundred dimes,
paperclips, teaspoons of sugar,
this child of grams
for which the good nurse
laid out her studies
as a coin purse
into which our tiny wealth clinked,
our daughter spilling almost
to the floor.
In the above lines, Ford hedges salvation on professional experience and the work of medicine. It’s the “good nurse” and “her studies” she cites as the infant’s potential savior, not God’s intervention. This theme recurs later in “Blood Lyric.” Taken together, the anaphora, tonal humility, and intimate dialogue Ford uses to construct the poem resemble prayer. “Blood Lyric,” however, occupies a kind of purgatory: “Heaven cannot touch me;” confesses the speaker, “neither can the earth.” What’s clear to the speaker are time’s brevity and suffering’s recurrence. “By the end of these words, strength / might be gone, new pain come, old pains returned,” Ford acknowledges. Yet, despite pain’s likely relapse, she cries for mercy:
Long live such confidence as I have these five minutes now.
Long live the primate’s human eyes inside of the cage.
Long live the surgeon steady enough
to examine the bloody heart beating in his hands
before the minutes are up
and it must be put back
Long live, long live, long live the lines urge, unspooling time, a caged primate whose “human eyes” witness the scene, and perhaps most significantly, the trained scientist who holds the power and wisdom to restore health to the fragile heart.
The second part of Blood Lyrics, titled “Our Long War,” features poems like “The Throats of Guantánamo,” “Far Desert Region,” and “The Day-Shift Sleeps.” In these conflict-driven lyrics, it’s man—not God—who continues to hold taut between his fingers the delicate thread of life and death. Whereas the early poems in Blood Lyrics turn inward, focusing on a family’s private pain, Ford widens the book’s lens in the latter half turning outward to global suffering. Although the poet continues to interrogate God, who witnesses death by drones, disease, torture, etc., and fails to intercede, Ford also implicates herself as a citizen whose country plays a central role in international conflict. In “Foreign Song” she tries to imagine far-off regions where “death bells” ring constantly “over sleeping cribs and dry wells.” That one letter separates bell and well from hell is telling; the world, as Ford depicts it, turns on relentless torment. “If we are at war with a holy book in our hands,” she writes, “let it shrivel to slag; its teachings / cannot survive the drone / and will not gleam while villagers drink the ditch” (“Our Long War”). Here, even the “holy book” is mutable; its messages not divinely inspired, but filled with lessons that inspire hostility and bloodshed. Most dangerous, however, is the political ambivalence Ford locates in the domestic: “In winter we ornament fountains with Christmas lights,” she describes and then goes on, “we make meals / pay a tax / and dream nothing / hard enough to wake us” (“Our Long War”).
Whether criticizing deeds done in the name of God or country, Ford wrestles with the tensions between human vulnerability, faith, and indiscriminate harm, and invites readers to examine acts of mercy and privation. In doing so, Blood Lyrics also considers how those made in God’s image reflect such duplicity. Charges Ford in one fragment, whose brackets do little to create a wider context for the torture it describes:
[Here is the board, here the water.
Baptism is as bad as they say:
you must renounce the devil
you never met.]
Is the sanctioned act of inflicting pain enough to wake the divine or man from apathy? Spiritual starvation? Personal crisis? “I try to believe in us,” contends Ford, the inclusive pronoun resonating both as nation and mankind (“Foreign Song”). I try to believe, of course, is the refrain that rattles Blood Lyrics. Reading it, one tries to believe in compassion, prayer, grace, faith, redemption. To believe there are remedies for sorrow. To believe in some version of God or transcendence. Ultimately, Ford’s talents show when belief breaks down, when the poet allows for the paradoxical relationship between presence and absence, joy and terror, doubt and faith, goodness and indecency. “I once believed in heavenly clarity—,” attests the speaker in “Choir,” “do you know how good it feels to sing / of certainty …”? The stanza goes on to transform the human heart into a “wild apricot” swollen toward ripeness—not the forbidden fruit, exactly, but one whose sweetness comes with grave consequence:
Inside the mouth, certainty
is a fruit breaking apart.
That is how good it feels:
we would have despised anyone
to keep our song.
The choir in Spencer Reece’s sophomore collection doesn’t sing of faith-based exclusivity, but rather its antithesis: even when he isn’t perceived, Christ walks The Road to Emmaus beside not only the faithful, but also the marginalized and grief-stricken. Like Blood Lyrics, Reece’s collection opens in the neonatal ICU where infants “breathed, / blue, spider-delicate in nests of tubes. / A Sunday of themselves.” What follows, however, isn’t an indictment of the God who would allow such suffering, but a book of primarily narrative-driven poems in which devotion—divine, romantic, familial—“becomes the most reasonable emotion” (“12:20 in New York”). Both Ford and Reece earned graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School. In 2011, Reece became an Episcopalian priest, a vocation that comes into play throughout the collection. In “Among Schoolchildren,” a seminary student stationed in a Central American orphanage considers the wisdom imparted by his Protestant professors. “Was it true, what they said,” wonders Reece in a room whose darkness resonates both literally and psychologically, “that a priest is a house lit up?” Elsewhere, a speaker prepares for a trip, his “suitcases packed,” “clerical collars placed” in a trunk “like bandages.” Although in “The Upper Room,” the poet waits for a future he can’t yet see—“an activity that preoccupies many religious lives”—Reece perceives his own image with clarity:
The Benedictine cross around my neck,
given by a friend, was light,
a silver, tarnished, chipped Christ, on shiny onyx,
a man I now relied on—
paradoxically bound and free—
a childless, bachelor Jew, slightly feminine.
I’ve written elsewhere about the significance of The Road to Emmaus within the context of the gay devotional lyric: notably, that Reece’s poems not only feature Isaac and Abraham, the fifth commandment, first Corinthians, and so on, but also the covenant of same-sex marriage made public in the pages of The New York Times, a Coming Out Group whose new members open like Bibles, a seminarian who recognizes the sexual tension of incarcerated “men packed in on top of each other” (“A Few Tender Minutes”). Unlike other poets who subvert conservative faith-based attitudes about same-sex desire or imagine an adversarial relationship between sexuality and the divine, Reece depicts an exchange of love between man and God that is unconditional. “I speak to my bishop about my call and the sacraments,” says the speaker in “The Prodigal Son.” “[W]e discuss absolutions, blessings, consecrations— / our work of the soul. The soul has no sex ...”
While Reece characterizes the soul as sexless, desire drives many of the people in The Road to Emmaus. In “Gilgamesh,” Reece draws on the Assyrian myth whose remnants he sources to the book of Genesis. Updating the ancient tale and reinstating a critical plot point excised from the Old Testament—the homosexual love story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu—the poet uses the myth to frame and narrate a five-year relationship between two men who meet at a gay community center. Written in seventeen parts, “Gilgamesh” unfolds as a series of fragments alternating between third and first person. “We lived on a lake with Muscovy ducks,” begins Reece, “Weekly, they reproduced whole neighborhoods. / I saw them thrust with the thrust of youth.” Mirroring the protagonist couple, the mating birds fight and preen, pair off, and then eventually separate again. Trusting their animal instincts, the ducks are “certain of their truth.” However natural, such impulses aren’t without anxiety. “Smooth and polite above the waist, / beneath the lake / their lower extremities displayed private panic,” describes Reece, “and that fear we recognized / of being caught.” The fear of “being caught,” of course, anticipates the Coming Out Group whose members are just comfortable enough to self-identify on a “first name” basis. This anxiety is further emphasized later in the narrative when a friend chides Reece for unmasking his lover in verse: “You can’t use his real name [...],’” he warns, “It’s cruel. He’s not out. He’s not dead.’”
Opacity, lack of cohesion, waning tension—such are the risks of casting a poem of significant length in fragments. For “Gilgamesh,” however, fragmentation allows readers to easily navigate significant shifts in time, as well as to leap from disparate places, including the lovers’ apartment in Juno Beach, Florida, for example, to a nursing home outside Boston. Rather than create a void that effaces emotion, the form spotlights intense feeling. Section thirteen, for instance, marks the beginning of the couple’s demise as the older lover’s eye roams elsewhere and the speaker prepares to move out. “I began to pack up my books,” reflects Reece; “you adored me still and I loved you still. / Strange.” The word “strange,” which stands alone on one line, is signature Reece; that is, the poet punctuates loss with an understated gesture part self-reflection part resignation. The impact is powerful. Grief-stricken and in need, the speaker begins “to write this poem” as a means of reentering into dialogue with his ex-partner. Concedes Reece, “A poem, I thought, is not a fiction.” Nonetheless, he concludes the section with a series of inquiries:
Where does biography end?
Where does poetry start?
How to construct the architecture of the heart?
“Kindness, kindness matters,” my mother said.
Although abstraction pervades the rhetorical questions above, their diction runs counter to the more descriptive and action-driven language employed elsewhere in the thirteenth section of “Gilgamesh.” Reece further emphasizes this tonal modification via the closed rhyme binding start and heart. He then offsets the flatness of the first two lines—note the shift from fact to imagination (biography, poetry), fatality to possibility (end, start)—with the image of the heart’s architecture, thereby turning from logos to pathos. Rather than exit the stanza on a note that universalizes sentiment and risks cliché, Reece closes with a declarative phrase that lyricizes an autobiographical moment: Kindness, kindness matters, my mother said. The sentence, a richly intimate exchange between parent and child, is both musical (“Where does poetry start?”) and experientially drawn (“Where does biography end?”). What’s more, it bridges the poem’s complex depiction of both romantic and familial relationships. Within the context of its individual section and “Gilgamesh” at large, the pronouncement is simultaneously tender and wrenching—one of Reece’s great poetic strengths.
Like much of The Road to Emmaus, a wide cast of characters populates “Gilgamesh”: among others, Spencer and his lover, Joseph; ailing Aunt Annie and her Nigerian nurses; the couple’s therapist; a friend who suffers a miscarriage; a woman whose face is mangled by a chimpanzee. It’s grief and suffering that connects the poem’s figures to each other, as well as to others chronicled throughout the collection. To my mind, however, the book’s central crisis isn’t just the loss of loved ones, although that’s certainly important, but also the privation of place and Reece’s ongoing sense of displacement. “But I went in search of the transcendent in those days,” remembers the speaker in “The Upper Room,” “which required leaving a particular world for another. / It is never easy to abandon a world.” Although poems in the collection travel many places—Monaco, San Pedro Sula, New Haven, New York, etc.—evidence of God’s presence is constant: “clouds are white optimistic churches” (“The Prodigal Son”); the “guards fingered their pistols like Bibles” (“Among Schoolchildren”). Still, as Reece roams from place to place, one can’t help but think of Elizabeth Bishop’s lost cities, realms, and continents. “By that time in my life,” says Reece, “I recognized the room was temporary— / from the start, I accepted the dwelling’s transitory nature” (“The Upper Room”).
A mentor of mine once cited Bishop as a dangerous influence and reading some of Reece’s more prosaic narratives I can see why. The concrete images embedded in Bishop’s conversational lyricism are telling: taken together, they resonate emotionally and psychologically in order to suggest what the notoriously reticent poet refuses to declare. Reece’s poems, however, often amass extraneous particulars. Rather than create a cohesive imagistic system or accumulate details to incite an emotional charge, these characterizations often compromise the poems’ pacing and emotional urgency. Throughout The Road to Emmaus, it’s formal compression that best serves the work. This pressure encourages Reece to excise peripheral details and propel the plot. “The Fifth Commandment,” for example, introduces the poet’s aging parents. “Tonight they talk of their last vegetable garden,” the speaker says,
count out their pills in chipped cereal bowls
(you know the ones), check their sugar levels,
bicker over books misplaced, tchotchkes
lost, their tongues like well-used church keys.
Brother, last night half the garden nearly froze.
The dash between their dates is nearly closed.
I first heard Spencer Reece read in 2004 at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Although allotted a half hour or so, he shared just two poems: the first, a sonnet by Shakespeare recited from memory; the second, the beautifully rendered “Cape Cod” from his debut collection The Clerk’s Tale. In terms of style and tone, “The Fifth Commandment” is very much in dialogue with Reece’s early account of a family home loved and lost. “Photographs of people who looked a lot like us / were shoved into garbage bags,” recalls the speaker in “Cape Cod,” “The Massachusetts sky was small and cold. / Our house was sold.” The coldness emphasized in the penultimate line of “Cape Cod” resurfaces at the end of “The Fifth Commandment.” Acknowledges Reece, “[…] last night half the garden nearly froze.” What follows is an end-stopped line of iambic pentameter that anticipates not only his parents’ death, but the grief that will follow: “The dásh betwéen their dátes is néarly clósed.” The tightness of such lines and their coupled rhymes serves Reece well. If some of the poems in The Road to Emmaus fall flat, the collection itself includes work that rises to the level of “Gilgamesh” and “The Thirteenth Commandment,” work that will certainly fill the pages of what I hope will one day be Reece’s New & Selected. After all, as the speaker attests in “Hymn,” “The Gospel of John was right: / the world holds so much life. / There are not enough books to record it all.”
In Storm Toward Morning, Malachi Black’s striking debut, formal emphasis is rooted in the book’s spiritual tensions as repetition enacts the poet’s efforts to transcend personal limitation. “Give me some doubt // on loan,” beseeches the speaker in “Insomnia & So On,” “give me a way to get away / from what I know.” What Black knows—or at least suspects throughout Storm Toward Morning—is that God is ultimately unknowable. Despite the poet’s reservations, however, the collection entertains the possibility of the divine as it navigates three distinct sections. Although Black opens Storm Toward Morning with poems like “Under an Eclipsing Moon” and “Ode to the Sun,” light doesn’t necessarily bring illumination, but bouts of sleeplessness and distress. “You’re already awake,” chides Black in “To the Moon,” “Are you in love / with me? What and whom exactly do you see // when I am weary-eyed but wired, crookedly / looking up to you as you look down on me?” It’s easy to recognize Black’s moon as a substitute for some omnipotent presence. Situated in the celestial, the lunar orb gazes down on the speaker who, in a moment of despair, questions whether he’s loved. The question of God’s affection later resurfaces in “Quarantine,” the crown of sonnets that centers the collection. Addressing the “Lord” directly in the sequence’s opening poem, the speaker maintains that “… like the sea, / one more machine without a memory, / I don’t believe that you made me.” The book’s final part moves closer to death as Black contemplates subjects such as “Our Lady of Sorrows,” an executioner’s act of mercy, and “Fragments from an Afterlife.” While the collection’s structure travels from light to darkness, however, Black’s title moves in the opposite direction. In fact, the phrase Storm Toward Morning resonates in multiple ways that reflect many of the book’s central tensions. Is the poet delivered from tempest’s eye into a new dawn? Or does “storm” act as a verb, thereby transforming the phrase into an imperative? That Black’s title includes the homophone for mourning isn’t coincidental, as it emphasizes the poet’s focus on anguish and exhaustion. As the speaker confesses in “Plainsong,” “I am tired god if you’re not / good enough to kill me let me die.”
Fatigue—whether mental, physical, or spiritual—runs rampant throughout the collection. In poem after poem the mind works day and night, unable to relieve itself from obsessive thoughts and anxiety. Echoing the restlessness of Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” for example, an isolated figure roams the wintry streets for hours. “I have shivered over sidewalks,” he admits,
all my life, coughing night
into the hollow of a fist
that I can’t warm,
that I can’t seem to steady right
against cold lips.
Critical in the above lines taken from “For Love of Ice” is the concept of constant instability. The speaker walks routinely “all [his] life,” yet fails to steady himself. This type of contradiction recurs frequently throughout Storm Toward Morning. Over time, Black’s use of paradox suggests not only the influence of metaphysical poet John Donne, but also the incongruity and rhetorical wordplay that turn up in religious parables and teachings. “They have ears, but they hear not; Noses have they, but they smell not,” charges the Book of Psalms in a pronouncement that employs the type of mirrored syntax, repetitive phrasing, and contradiction that Black frequently exploits. “I’ll be anchored by a sinking // of my bones into the air // I carry in my clothes,” sings the speaker in “The Winter Traveler” —“Since I am nothing, I am whole.”
As is the case with Reece, the standout piece in Storm Toward Morning is a sequence of significant length. In the ten interlinked sonnets whose final lines become the opening phrases in poems that follow, Black draws on what he describes as “an assembly of contemporary and historical Catholic, Coptic, and Eastern monastic traditions” and braids these into a prayer cycle known as the canonical hours. While the first two sonnets express apprehension, “Terce” (a mid-morning prayer associated with the Holy Spirit’s descent) turns toward recognition. “But then I think I see the wind,/” writes Black, “as an intention, pressing us / with weather. All the pieces / of the air you’ve put together / somehow know just how to hold / the rain […].” Reading these lines aloud I’m reminded of Sidney’s definition of poetry as a “speaking picture” that both teaches and delights. In fact, “Quarantine” reveals Black as a writer who pushes against limitations even as he creates them, allowing sound, argument, structure, and image to address ontological concerns. Because Black privileges meter and rhyme, it would be easy to describe his work as vocalizations of prayer. What distinguishes them, however, is their investment in matters of self. Rather than a direct message to God, Black’s sonnets are an internal dialogue in which the speaker wrestles with the complexities of human consciousness and experience. “There is no end,” declares Black in the series’ penultimate poem, “what has come will come again / will come again: and then distend: and then / and then: and then again: there is no end // to origin and and: there is again” (“Vigils”).
As is the case with many poets, Black’s strengths double as potential limitations. Form-forward, he sometimes fails to restrain his musical impulses or counter them with some other element of craft. It’s true that Black’s mind is a pleasure to watch work on the page. The poet moves rapidly from idea to idea, and often makes unexpected turns and associative leaps driven by sonic patterns. “Though I am still / a part of any part of every particle // of me,” concedes the speaker in “This Gentle Surgery,”
[…] though I’ll be softly reconstructed
by the white gloves of metonymy,
I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut
that doesn’t heal a bit too much.
In the lines above, slant rhyme binding cut and much prevents the door of the poem from swinging fully shut, even as the declarative statement following “grieve” labors toward absolute closure. The resistance is slight, but effective. Elsewhere, however, sound sometimes overtakes the lines, stealing focus from Black’s imagery and meaning. “As if time quivered in an ear,” writes Black in “Face to Face,”
a nervous tic that I could hear, a meter
pulsing in the vapor of hot voices
in the cold. As if time could be controlled
by silence. As if we could stop the clocks
simply by not talking …
As if, as if, as if sing the poem’s cadences, Black’s meter “a nervous tic” that pulses “in the vapor” of collective voices. As Marianne Moore suggests in “Elephants”—her wonderful meditation on blessings, hymns, as well as the colors “of worship and of mourning”—“it is all ifs,” a point that produces “much unease” (emphasis mine). It isn’t so much that Black’s formal inclination leaves the reader uneasy. His musical aptitude is quite pleasing, except in those moments when structure and meter seem more like a cerebral exercise than a reflection of true feeling. These complaints, however, don’t reflect a lack of admiration for Storm Toward Morning. On the contrary, because the collection is one of the most sophisticated debuts I’ve read for some time, I expect even better work to follow—poems including more tonal variety and, better still, vulnerability, as is the case in the sonnet “Matins.” “Though I am fashioned / in the haggard image of a man / I am an atom of the aperture //” acknowledges Black. “I am as a nerve inside a gland.” Here, Black recognizes himself and man as the smallest component of the fractured whole. Like a nerve, the poet conveys sensation and feeling. “I understand,” he goes on, “Though flakes of fire / overwhelm the fallen snow, though ice / caps melt, though oceans freeze or overflow, / somehow I am steadier, more sure.”
If we’re to believe the speakers’ testaments in Storm Toward Morning, chances are the above sense of steadiness and self-assurance won’t last. Even as Black claims that he “understands” the fact of his making (“I am fashioned / in the haggard image of man”), a recognition that suggests stability, all that surrounds him is in flux. Fire ravages snow. “Ice / caps melt.” Like the world’s waters, the heart and mind—those muscle flexed in contemplation of metaphysical matters—either turn static (“oceans freeze”) or overwhelm (“overflow”) the body in which they’re housed. It’s this frenetic tension, and recognition of those contradictions that both fill and surround us, that make Black’s poems a pleasure to read. Although Black readily admits there are things he “can’t quite grasp,” self-possession in the midst of the unknowable becomes an alternative act of faith. “I see a hand, still mine,” claims the speaker in “Against the Glass,” “outstretched / in an attempt to catch the stars that drop // as hailstones in the grass. I see them pass; / these sleepless fingers slip from solid into gas.”
For several years we’ve witnessed a surge in the devotional lyric. Shortly after Tupelo Press released A God in the House, a thoughtful collection of conversations about spirituality and poetic craft, Yale University published Before the Door of God, an anthology of verse in dialogue with the divine that spans more than three thousand years. While the Milton Center and its journal, Image, have been a steady presence for several decades, the newly launched literary press Orison Books aims to be “broad, inclusive, and open to perspectives spanning the spectrum of spiritual and religious thought, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation.” Also worth mentioning are recent collections by believers, agnostics, and even self-identified atheists, such as Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Alicia Ostriker’s The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, Carrie Fountain’s Instant Winner, Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood, Danez Smith’s [insert] boy, Mark Wunderlich’s The Earth Avails, and Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine. Whether driven toward or away from God, these poets, among others, explicitly identify the link between selfhood and something higher. All of this begs the question: does the poetic rendering of God reflect some larger cultural moment, an increase of faith at the millennium? Or, is it simply the counterpart to contemporary poetry’s other recent trend: namely, the more secular dystopian and apocalyptic verse chronicling the end of days? Perhaps, at times, it’s even both—“lord of breathless hope, lord of hopeless breath,” invokes Dan Albergotti in his collection Millennial Teeth, “O lord of every deafened ear, / I know you’ll never hear / in vacant air / this prayer” (“Invocation”).
Whether their prayers are heard or go unanswered, the voices that cry out from these collections by Ford, Reece, and Black serve as memorable testaments to that which is mysterious and sacred. Facing the difficult facts of human experience—an infant’s life hanging in jeopardy, the world at war, personal loss and grief, mental anguish—each of the authors renders some version of redemption. What matters to these poets is less supplication to a higher power, but rather the ability to make space in poetry for the paradoxical experiences of joy and terror, and to acknowledge our all-too-human contradictions. Ultimately, it’s the sense of spiritual awareness in the face of confusion that binds Blood Lyrics, The Road to Emmaus, and Storm toward Morning; the idea that faith exists when challenges arise and you fight to believe in anything at all. Listening attentively to testimonies by Ford, Reece, and Black, it becomes clear that belief in the self or in God is the yoke we bear in times of abundance and loss. As Ford reminds us in “Song after Sadness,” “Don’t say it’s the beautiful / I praise. I praise the human, / gutted and rising.”
Shara Lessley, a contributing editor, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues). Her poems and essays appear widely. She was recently awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the NEA.