May 31, 2010

Over a good friend's house, I saw this Bob Dylan video. Now I know Bob plays Mr. Chameleon, has done so forever. (I looked at his two volume autobiography a few years back and was not surprised to find that he was totally absent.) In the video I was watching he was doing this Chaplin thing with a straw hat, with Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Douglas. Where was Bob? Again--in the poses, in the poses: all lies, all the truth. But it struck me as weak and loud too.

He refuses to be counted, and he does go on about it. (What was with all those teeth shots?)

I like the guy, always have, and I know he's trying to keep his fame, his notion of being an artist. He has to stay on top. But on some level the guy's weak.

Why not just be what you are?
Having long insisted to my my son that both LOR/Peter Jackson and HARRY POTTER ripped off Westerns shamelessly, I checked on the net for the top 30 and have started watching them. THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, HIGH NOON, and RED RIVER first; I was struck first off by the men. Stewart, Cooper, and Wayne--each had a sense of heroic virtue: of what is required of men. A little WASP-ish probably, but they get the good. I mean, could you imagine Brad ("Who's your daddy?") Pitt playing any of those roles? Or to put the shoe on the other foot, imagine some super model with four inch biceps saying that to the Duke!

Our culture has no sense of what it means to be a man or a woman. Females are now ordinarily physically superior to men in action movies, infinitely brighter on tv commericals; and all sensitive men have become feminists. I saw that in grad school: the pansy patrol. One of the reasons they have men sporting events separate from women's is because men are, generally speaking, broader at the shoulder, more narrow at the hip. They run faster, jump higher.

Hollywood is pretty clearly the land of idiots, followed closely by the arts community in general. Yes, women can kick your butt, but it seldom happens in the sprints. "You said you'd do this?" Yes, I did, so now I will do it.

And who doesn't value women's opinions, sensitivities?

But men have them too. David tells Solomon to play the man. John Wayne got that. Our culture does not.

As far as cliches go, I haven't seen them yet. RED RIVER surprised throughout. Maybe I'll have to go to Roy Rogers and SKY KING re-runs.

May 19, 2010

I want to post this because these issues always come up in Christian (and secular) literature classes.

Hinging Hejinian: When "Openness" is not Enough

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching a Contemporary Christian Poetry class. It was something I felt ready to do as I had just completed co-editing ODD ANGLES OF HEAVEN, but I felt I needed to supplement those poems with some representative essays on the poetics of the Post Modern and contemporary periods. Paul Hoover's POSTMODERN AMERICAN POETRY, A NORTON ANTHOLOGY, which I had just gotten in the mail, seemed like an ideal text. And it proved very useful as it contained not only some golden oldies--Creeley's jazzy poetic, Olson's justly famous "Projective Verse"--but it served up, as well, a good (and expected) menu of some of the newer poetics. State-of-the-art feminists, anti-capitalistic Language poets, and performance po-bizzers all got their turns at bat, each trying to create a new pagan aesthetic, each tying to knock the stuffings out of the, if you will, straw man patriarchal.

But it much of these writers' insights contained a little too much of the screeching foolishness many people have come to associate with Bill Moyers' most recent videos, some of the writing proved very thought-provoking as well, some even eye-opening. I was especially struck with how often these poets as essayists reflected the apparent poetics of many of the Christian poets in our anthology. That is, they could see and expound brilliantly on open-endedness,or, to put it in more overtly Christian terms, on the tenuous dark night of faith experience, on the working out of one's salvation with fear and trembling. But what neither camp could seem to come to grips with was the fact that "openness" is not the whole story, especially for the Christian poet. for us there is more, much more. An that "more," I would like to assert, has everything to do with what has come to be pejoratively called "closure." What I hope to show is that this whole other level of poetry writing, indeed, this whole other level of personal experience offers the other half of a GENUINE wholeness, one that is not available to those who choose to ignore it.

I would like to quickly emphasize here as well that neither of these forms of discourse: "openness" or "closure," negates the other form when it comes to creatively giving utterance go the Christian walk. The "openness" or sense of absence experience which makes up so much of our Christian days does not in any way contradict or make void the fact that it is often possible for us ecstatically and obediently bask, through infused grace, in God's absolute presence. And, at the same time, neither is it true, I hope to show, that the language of the one experience is sufficient to express the other.

It seemed to me as I was working on the anthology--and it still seems so--that today's Christian poets have been, perhaps, overly influenced by the contemporary, largely politically motivated notion that "openness" does, in fact, refute and negate closure. And it also seemed to me that the best place to respond to this error was where its point of espression was strongest. And that led me to Hejinian.

She is a very eloquent spokesperson for the notion of openendedness, and I would, to a very large extent, agree with what she has to say about that in her essay, "The Rejection of Closure." There she tells us that language encourages and partly answers a healthy longing we all innately have for wholeness, and that any kind of imposed closure, be that from the God the Father machine, or even from the purely sexual interpretations French feminists have put on that longing, is limiting. She tell us, too, that this very inability in language is helpful because it provides a medium of differentiation, and that through it we can come to grips with a world in flux.

Most of this, in its place, seems very good to me. But it's her larger take on the writing experience that I have trouble with. She very strongly states that no other way of seeing, writing is possible. Why, I had to ask myself, does she have to have such an either/or perspective? And how would she know that "closure," or life in God the Father, if such a life were to exist, limits anyone? Those of us who have, to some extent, experienced what we call His love would say that, on the contrary, He frees people, both in the living and in the writing. The limits she has set for us, I would like to argue, are simply not sufficient to contain our experience.

First, a closer look at what she does well. She provides keen insight into how poets attempt to find meaning within the very clay and process of composition itself. And further, she correctly points out that there are no easy or final ontological answers within the borders of that process. This is a crucial notion for us as well, because as Christians, Christian poets, we do the same thing in OUR search for the Truth in the complex situations we write about. It's the very process of composition that allows us a place and mean to myll over life in the darkness of faith in our efforts to make Williams' machine made of words.

And while it is true that a Christian might choose different language to express the same process, St. Paul's phrase "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" is the one that always comes to mind for me; but at his or her core, heart, the Christian poet usually engages in exactly the same enterprise. He, like his more secular counterpart, wrestles with language, with meaning as he attempts to apply the Gospel to his work and life, as he struggles to find Jesus in what he is doing. But Hejinian makes the crucial mistake of thinking that that wrestling makes up the entire poetical process for everyone. It does not, at least for the Christian.

For us there is even more "openness." And that "more" can be found, oddly enough, within her very notion of "closure." Faith is the result and the precursor of presence, and the boundaries it provides, along with the Presence make it possible for poets to lyrically express a truth that is purely given. And while this apparent contradiction might seem confining to the uninitiated, it is in reality anything but. It is, rather, freeing in the extreme. A poet can emanate truth, reveal something of God's own heart. he or she can occasionally live in that overwhelmingly illumined peaceful place of absolute Presence, in complete freedom, and, if lucky, he or she can find a "closed" group of words and symbols to express the joy in that experience. This is a paradox, granted. But Christianity is loaded with them.

Moreover, I would argue that this life of faith, this "closed system" is the ONLY place that can offer us this kind of freedom. It's a good place, a joyful place; it's a place so full of joy, in fact, that it has its own subjectively mimetic lyricism; it's a place where the expression of the interior presence, where a given reality can, at times, give actual form to that Life with a capital "L," at least as close as we can get to It given out still, though saved and being-saved, good natures. (It could be convincingly argued, I think, that the only place where "essence" and language perfectly reflect each other, where they become one in fact, is when the word "Jesus" is used to heal someone--the Eucharist being the material manifestation of that union.)

It's interesting to note that there's a delicate irony in Hejinian's perspective here. one could argue that this reality evades Hejinian and many others, at least in part, because they think too much like they might accuse a Christian of thinking, a curious twist considering the title of her essay. Her thought process, upon close inspection, reveals a "closed" either/or tendency which could well be seen to have its roots in Puritanism, whatever spin latter-day Transcendentalists try to put on it. Writing and the spirituality connected with it, for her, provide only two ways: "closure," the bad thing, the place of the damned, or "openness," the good, the place of the elect. For her, if one is unfortunate enough to fall among the "closed" crowd, well, there is not room for him in her heaven. Let me take you through some of her essaygs to show you what I mean.

She says, early on, that "the world" is "vast and overwhelming," that "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete" (653). And while her us of the "certainty" may suggest some hostility toward a perceived Christianity here, I would argue that she is not far from us in this statement. The recorded lives of the saints are full of similar dark night of faith experiences. It would be short-sighted, unchristian of us finally, I think, to dismiss her observations out of hand, as many knee-jerk conservative Catholics would, because they, on he surface, may seem a rather pagan take on the human condition. There is much truth in what she says. How, after all, do we love in every situation we find ourselves in? And how exactly do we make our lives a prayer anyway? Not easy things to answer given the often tangled days within which we find ourselves. We pray, stumble, imitate the saints, do the best we can. And through grace, God turns our lives into something good.

Not that all this uncertainly need get the better of us, of course, nor is it the whole picture. We have a Church to guide us. God, Emmanuel, is with us, in the Eucharist, in the praise He inhabits. And this is precisely where Hejinian misses the boat. She has no concept of the absolute side of things, of God's nature, His presence. For her, longing and language are pretty much all we get. There is no inner separate transcendent reality which can use language to make itself palpable, that seeks to use it to place people in a communion of love. there is only a heavy-footed rummage through a void as the artist searches ponderously for meaning.

"Language generates its own characteristics in the human psychological and spiritual condition" (654), she says. Hejinian clearly is something of a language behaviorist here. Language, the clay, is the only means we get to shape our realities, and one would assume, with those shapes, to "know" anything. That is, what it gives us is the only tools we'll ever wrestle with to find out what it means to be alive. And here, as I feel I must repeatedly emphasize, she's not far from the truth.

"This psychology is generated by the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express, by our overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of
the world and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it, and, for the poet, the even greater inadequacy of the language that appears to describe, discuss, or disclose it." (654)

This is well said and certainly accounts for the struggles of any writer who labors through the hard critical work, the discursiveness, the first person spirituality, self-absorbed or otherwise, associated with the craft. But again, these things do not make up the sum of the process. There is an area of pure lyricism available to poets as well, an area in which writing can be animated by, and reflect the surety of the Holy Spirit. And while Hijinian later in her essay does come to an intuited sense of this truer other-centered spirituality, she doesn't really know to contextualize it and leaps to the easiest, most comfortable port in her storm:
As Francis Ponge puts it, 'Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.' Instead it seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world; off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward. (654)

Drawn though she is toward the real Center of things, she veers off, insists on mistaking the created thing, language, for the One who ultimately deserves credit for giving it form. She does, thankfully, if only for a moment here, move the focus from herself as shaper of the only valuable and provisional meaning possible in her world. And she's right, too, in insisting that language does offer a valuable working place, a place where we can find some tentative solutions to temporal )and therefore temporary) problems. But what she missed is that language can give us so much more than just that. Words, besides offering their own beauty, offer us the closest non-sacramental correspondence possible to who God is. And in the language that praise gives to us, we are free to bask in the cherubs of an attendant joy; we are free to be God's little trumpeters, His holy noise!

To put it baldly, there is no such pervasive good fruit to be found in Hejinian's kind of language materialism. Creatures simply can not offer it. Instead, she's too often only left with club-footed phrases, words like "overwhelming," "uncertainty," "inadequacy," "off-balance," "heavy at the mouth," and "are pulled forward."

And while it's true that we as Christians can experience all that too, it's absolutely vital to note that is not all we get. The very fact that we, not to mention language, are not the center of our lives is ultimately a cause for celebration among us, not heavy-mouthed despair. We need and are grateful--gartitude is the mother of joy--for God's response: revelation, direction. and that's what makes us wax lyrical. Gratitude moves in us and the right words can be there, at least for that portion of the process. this is the half that Hejinian misses.

Again, I don't want to give the impression that language is all roses for the Christian poet. It is not. There is much tearing that goes on--and language bites back. But it would be an even greater crime to leave the giver of the gifts available unacknowledged. With Him comes a grateful spirit, and with that, praise, unreflective poetic movement; God Himself can dance on bright waters. And it is in those moments when words, purely given (almost purely taken), can appear, because it is in that place, if only for those moments, that can finally feel Integrity, Wholeness. We are able to respond with our whole beings, as free and nearly complete men and women; we are able to almost perfectly express that. That given state doesn't last, of course. heaven can not be totally here, or yet. But it is, as some saints have said, all the way there as well.

There is no corresponding joy in Hijinian. She has nothing to be that grateful for. There is only the language, for her, a suit with nothing in it but a fine weave of cloth. Granted, that's a fine thing. But for the Christian, that's only one of its properties. Language is the timbrel and harp, and in the hands of a Christian it can reflect that "still point," that fleeting moment of ecstatic repose that is a promise as well as a partial fulfillment. Hejininia misses that.

"Language itself is never in a state of rest" (654), she claims. And she's right, at least a good deal of the time. Language has a fluid quality that makes it marvelously tactile. It can help us work through the stuff of our daily lives. It can help us come to tentative meaning, closer to Meaning, yes, and we should be thankful for that. And because we are not medievalists or Puritans, we can appreciate its more-then-symbolic properties as we would any gift. It is a thing to be enjoyed. there is the pure joy of childhood here, as there is in any gift, a joy Hejinian can never really fully appreciate, I would argue, because she can never stop along the side of the road, because she keeps mistaking language for God. "The 'rage to know,'" to use her words, "is one expression of restlessness produced by language" (655).

She's so hard after meaning on her own terms, in fact, that she misses the fun. And though she has an intuited sense that the Knowable might be had in a more spiritual realm, she doesn't quite know how to get there. The extent to which this is so can be found in her description of how the very real sense of absence inherent in the discursive or self-ish use of language pushes us toward meaning. "The knowledge towards which we seem to be driven by language, or which language seems to promise, is inherently sacred as well as secular, redemptive as well as satisfying" (655). I would have used "reflects" rather than "seems to promise," but she's not far from the kingdom. She actually values the redemption at some deeper level.

But what really surprised me in all of this was how she manages to refute the real redemption through her discussion of language. She does so by playing the Puritan, the stereotypical Calvinist! Like the American Transcendentalists who came before her, whose zealous banner she continues to raise, she can't shake who she is reacting against. She's as much a Puritan as Whitman:

"The NOMINA SIN NUMINA position (i.e., that there is an essential identity between name and thing, that the real nature of a thing is immanent and present in its name, that nouns are numinous) suggests that it is possible to find a language which will meet its object with perfect identity. If this were the case, we could, in speaking or writing, achieve the at-oneness with the universe, at least in its particulars, that is the condition of paradise, or complete and perfect knowing--or of perfect mental health." (655)

This is classic either/or thinking, the kind we would excoriate our Freshman Composition students for engaging in. but here she embraces it with both arms. Either one is "saved," completely and forever from the dunghill of the her nature, or such a thing is not possible. (Here, as with so much of the criticism regarding Christianity in American literature, this stereotypical Calvinist notion is taken as the defining Christian position!) Amazing! We are fallen, yes, but we still sin. But that does not mean we are not well-intentioned now, nor does it mean we were without some good--the natural law, in itself an expression of a salvageable nature--before. We, as St. Paul says, will continue to work out our salvation with "fear and trembling" for the rest of our lives because in the attempt to apply Christ's saving work in our lives we still fall so often. this does not mean we need to scupulously examine our every movement as a Puritan might. No. Rather what we do need to be aware of it our need for a continuing grace, mercy. And as St. Paul says, we walk by faith and not by sight. We can't depend on our sense to ascertain anything. What we can do, rather, is be confident because of who God is, because of how He is. Really, would you give your child a stone if he asked for a fish? All this is cause for even more praise. Poets can come as close to that perfection as grace and talent and openness will allow them as it changes their lives, and to the degree that they ask a love Father for that perfection. But that doesn't mean that every word will reflect a continually experienced personal paradise. Nor does it mean that writers will lose their stories in the process either. Rather, each individual and pitched personal story serves to magnify the Lord in every person's telling. We can rejoice because God continues to show us such mercy, all the while giving us abundant life in the process.

All this is nowhere in Hijinian. She, rather, having thus short-circuited her own direct search for meaning with the either/or fallacy, leaves herself no option but to seek her naming, structures, where she can not so perfectly find them. Her context remains spiritual, yes: Benjamin Lee "Whorf goes on," she says, "to express what seems to be stirrings of a religious motivation: 'what I have called patterns are basic in a really cosmic sense.' There is a a 'PREMONITION IN LANGUAGE of the unknown vaster world'" (656), but she has given up on sign posts--fallen creature that she is--and predictably, soon begins to wander all over the road.

Instead of realizing that the center is a redemptive God, the One who gives all things meaning as well as identity, she, as I have said, focuses on the created thing itself, its potential: language and what the process involved in using it can never, by her own admission, adequately reveal.

What she doesn't seem to realize is that finding what matter in life, in language, is not a matter of choosing some self-serving sense of "openness" over an equally skewed notion of closure. It comes only through the ruthless pursuit of truth. We can love the Absolute, live in that love, in, at time, that praise, and we an enjoy the gift of language, purely, in ways that are ecstatic. But we have to apply what Love teaches us in our lives as well; and we have to do so often in "fear and trembling." Both aspects are part of the Christian experience. Hejinian, chooses rather, for her part, to be true to only what she can generate, sense.

She speaks about the potentially curative language theories of French feminists, yokes them with the spiritual "rage to know," which for her is "In many respects a libidinous drive," one which "seeks also a redemptive value from language" (656). In short, she tries to help initiate a newer Pelagianisitic Solipsism, a more comfy revelation. She quotes Elaine Marks.

"The project for these French feminist writers is to direct their attention to 'language and the unconscious, not as separate entities, but language as a passageway, and the only one, to the unconscious, to that which has been repressed and which would, if allowed to rise, disrupt the established symbolic order, which Jacques Lacan has dubbed the law of the Father.' "(qtd. in Hejinian 656)

Each to his or her own evangelization, gospel, no question. But it's important to map the distinctions. These folks would judge the Gospel by psychological or political theories, not the other way around. This is a fundamental flaw and is based on a misunderstanding regarding the human condition. They, like other Enlightenment folk, believe they can perfect themselves without the aid of revelation. And beyond even that, were one to look on a purely physical sense level, there is another, more direct consideration: which offers the better fruit?

Hejinian pulls back from making the rage to know quite so blatantly sexual as the French writers in question seem to, but it's clear whose ax she's grinding and in which direction she intends to aim it. No surprises there.

It becomes a matter ultimately, I think, of do you want the truth or do you want yourself, do you want God or do you falsely want to be Him. It's something we all have to fight with in one way or another, whatever side of this fence we happen to be sitting on. You can see this struggle in Hejinian when she makes an attempt to line up with "avant-garde" writers. (I don't know about your experience, but no one I know could ever get away with actually using that expression seriously: "the avant-garde." Cream pies have always been in order.) Hejinian, however, has no such qualms; she tells us in the most serious tones that

"What is striking to me . . . was that the kinds of language that many of these writers advocate seems very close to, if not identical with, what I think of as characteristic of many contemporary avant-garde texts--including an interest in syntactic disjunctions and realignments, in montage and pastiche as structural devices, in the fragmentation and explosion of subject, etc., as well as an antagonism to closed structures." (657)

This concern with limits, being on the edge of things brings mind some comment I heard by a fellow named Miller on PBS concerning the difference between Mozart and Salieri. The gist of his comments went something like this. Salieri was always concerned with being original, and because of that, he never was. Mozart, on the other hand, never gave it a thought. It also brings Pound to mind--his comments about innovators and imitators.

All this, again, in not to dismiss Jejinain. (We all have to wrestle with out egos.) When it comes to language and the ordinary, she has much to say:

"In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one perceived there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable), words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world--to close the gap between ourselves and things, and we suffer from doubt and anxiety as to our capacity to do so because of the limits of language itself." (658)

She's on the money here. (I think of Eliot's complaint in THE FOUR QUARTETS.) Whatever our poetic high points, our moments of infused contemplative experience with the God who made heaven and earth, who is absolutely holy, who is the same "yesterday, today, and forever," knuckleheads that we are, we still have to work out our day-to-day salvations in the present moment, with all the uncertainly that entails. As poets we still have to marshall our critical abilities, make tough choices, go with faith to where th process leads us.

It would be a mistake to fall into the stereotypical Calvinist trap ourselves. What is missing in our experience as we wait and work for heaven, after all, allows us work and the good room to do it in. And as we do so, we will "discover," in her words, "structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things" (658) in a way that those who don't believe in an absolute Lord never, in my opinion, really can. That, along with the personal gratitude that comes from it, is our gift to give. I can only hope that all of the marvelous Christian poets I have been fortunate enough to work with, can add something of this Absolute sense of god in their, in many cases, breath-taking ruminations on the "fear and trembling" level. Many already have. I think Denise Levertov, Luci Shaw, Richard Wilbur, perhaps some Kelly Cherry--I'm sure there are many others. After all, if we don't speak the Gospel, who will?

May 12, 2010

Here's a paper I gave a few summers ago at the West Chester Poetry Festival.

A review of Marjorie Maddox's WEEKNIGHTS AT THE CATHEDRAL

In George Walton Williams' introduction to his 1970 edition of THE COMPLETE POETRY OF RICHARD CRASHAW, he begins with a startling sentence: "Richard Crashaw may be considered the most un-english of all the English poets." And later on in that same paragraph he points out that Eliot, still something of a cultural force at that time, similarly found Crashaw's style "fundamentally foreign to the spirit of English poetry." I bring up these observations for two reasons. Firstly, I think Crashaw's "A Hymn to Sainte Teresa" may well be the most exquisite mystical poem in our language, not a good sign than if it is un-English and, perhaps by extension, un-American; that is, if it is something we cannot of simply choose not to do--write mystical sacramental poetry which actually includes the body. And secondly, I think those sentences and what follows in this review will help me to demonstrate that the largely incestuous American literary Christian party generally speaking simply will not embrace poetry which actually points out that God has a pretty traditional notion of sin, nor that he makes serious demands on His people.
Marjorie Maddox's latest book, WEEKNIGHTS AT THE CATHEDRAL, is in many ways a tonic for this kind of religious block-headedness. She offers up a poetry which moves in the direction of the body, a poetry which stands up for the whole truth of the gospel. As a result, though, as a Catholic now--she has just converted, she will probably never get invited to "Prairie Home Companion," "Fresh Air," or "All Things Considered," nor will her faithful work ever get published by "The Atlantic," "Poetry," Norton, or HarperCollins, she will have the gratitude of many earnest and genuine pilgrims. (WordTech editions, a smaller, bolder press gets the credit here.)
Crashaw's poetry, my primary example, includes the body--in spades; it is profoundly and authentically Catholic in that regard. In fact, it finds its most exalted mystical utterance when speaking from a place where mind and body are, in fact, one. Great overt American Protestant verse, generally speaking, while it can be very good--think of religious poets as diverse as Richard Wilbur and Luci Shaw's--seems to spring from a cultural sensibility which reveals itself more through both an exalted, disembodied intellect and a concern for blessed perserverence-of-the-saints conduct than it does through a contemplation of mysticism wich is centered in the body.
And just to give you two other more extreme example of that sensibility which places a very high value on disembodies intellect and blessed conduct, though neither have to do with poetry directly, allow me to point out David L. Edwards' narrative voice in JOHN DONNE, MAN OF FLESH AND SPIRIT and the main preacher character in GILEAD, Marilyn Robinson's justly-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel (in this latter case versus say Greene's THE POWER AND THE GLORY). Both speakers are as moral as God, or darned close: admirable, people you would like your children to grow up and be like in many ways, and yet, as I read the books, I couldn't imagine actually having a beer with either person. One would have to run out of the bar. Each lives so far above the body, in a place so full of "coulds" and "shoulds" that it might prove exhausting just to try and get a belly laugh out of either.
And if one were to compare those largely admirable sensibilities to someone truly embodied, radically sacramentalized like, say, St. Benedict Labre, he'd have to scratch his head, ask: where would this flea-bitten saint, this Christian loser come down on the conduct scale? Would he pass the "We are blessed" test" I don't think so. And neither would St. Theresa of Avila come to think of it. She was an odd bird as well: an introvert, a contemplative; she longed for martyrdom even as a child, actually marched away to find the Moors. She'd be under McCarthy-like suspicion in literary America, I think: she just didn't behave in a socially acceptable liberal, Christian or secular, way. And yet, as we look at Teresa's life, at these lines in Crashaw's poem about her, we see someone who was much MORE human than most of us are, someone who had been truly set apart, but always within a feeling, important body:
Blest powers forbid, Thy tender life
Should bleed upon a barborous knife;
Or some base hand have power to race
Thy Brest's cabinet, and uncase
A soul kept there so sweet o no'
Wise heaven will never have it so.
Thou are love's victim; and must dy
A death more mystical and high.
Into love's armes thou shalt let fall
A still-surviving funeral.
Crashaw then drives the message physically, painfully home.
O how oft shalt thou complain
Of a sweet and subtle Pain.
Of intolerable joyes;
Of a Death, in which who dyes
Loves his death, and dyes again.
And would fo ever so be slain.
And lives, and dyes; and knows not why
To live, but that he thus may never leave to dy.
How kindly will thy gentle heart
Kiss the sweetly-killing dart!
The saint longed for the excruciating experience, because, as Catherine Doherty has put, pain, rightly understood, is the kiss of Christ. Teresa understood that. Most of us don't. She was an embodied person who would've agreed with Doherty's exhortation that each Christian needs to learn to "fold the wings of his intellect," to experience life holistically, sacramentally. Or, to put that idea into the words the larger scope and goal of St. Theophane the Recluse: "The principal thing is to stand before God, with your mind in your heart, day and night, until the end of your life." (No one of "Fresh Air" or "prairie Home Companion" does this.)
Crashaw achieves this in these great lines. His character lives and breathes where she thinks. there is no "dissociation of sensibility" in the words of Eliot--something he himself could not avoid, brilliant though his work is.
And that brings us to Maddox, a fine Christian poet whose overtly religious work seems to occupy a position part way home. (As I say, she became A Catholic shortly after this book was published.) The poetry in this book is marvelously metaphysical, both as far as technique and sensibility goes. She places a great deal of stock in the embodied spiritual life, too, mostly when she's feeling joy and repentance--though, thankfully she doesn't limit herself to those. And even if she doesn't examine deeply-rooted, embodied sin or a mysticism which includes the body to the degree we might want, still, we should remember that it is not yet her rhetorical project to do so. She writes to bring the light of the Absolute Christ to the literary masses, and has justly had much success in doing so. Her poems are often very funny, too, revealing as they do a profound knowledge of the human condition; they hit squarely home because she knows who and what we are, and she knows who and how God is--what He demands from us.
The conduct part, no surprise, is very much in evidence here as well: she is well-behaved, has a healthy psyche and well-directed will--it would be silly to speak of such thing in a negative light. She may, in fact, be as close as our Contemporary Puritanically-soaked American culture and publishing world (secular or sacred) can get to offering a fully embodied Christian voice, one that recognizes both sides of the Christian experience: on the one hand, justice issues and the moral nuances involved in any healthy relationship, and on the other, the awe-ful holiness of the living God, the black-and-white demands He makes on his people. To her immense credit, she realizes that the real trick in pilgrimage is not to find a place for God within a secular perspective, but rather, to attempt to turn our self-serving perspectives into Christ-centered spiritual ones.
This takes courage. After all, will the more powerful literary world ever accept a vision which in any way indicts it? Probably not. Still, she stays her admirable course: she never neglects the absolute holiness and demands of God--as so many horizontally-obsessed Christian poets seem to do.
The first section of this book is wonderfully direct in revealing what it's up to In fact, her whole project is nicely summed up in the title of the first offering: "How to fit God into a Poem." Here she's at her comic and metaphysical best, doing what she can to take the reality of Jesus and church to a very dim world. Part I begins with this stanza:
Read him
Break him into stanzas.
Give him a pet albatross
and a bon voyage party.
Glue achetypes on his wings with Elmers,
or watch as he soars part the Slough of Despond
in a DC-lO.
The approach is very typical, canny. We get Coleridge, Jung, and Bunyon, all alluded to in a very funny stanza. What secular person could object: the thing is so absurdly apt. Imagine: God, in the present postmodern age! He does not fit--but wait. He's never fit before either. Bunyon wrote his poem in jail, and Coleridge, Christian though he was, could only struggle to formulate a way to get Christ into his life, or was that his life into Christ? The Jung reference serves a slightly different purpose. It demonstrates to the reader that this in no knee-jerk fundamentalist Christian poet. Depth psychology is embraced, as is the contemporary world, including postmodern poetic concerns: "Break him into stanzas." Clearly Maddox's goal her is to move as far away from Stevens' "high-toned Christian woman" as she can, and in doing so, away from what any editor might ruefully expect in the way of cliche Christianity. She turns the expected on its head, and does so with metaphysical humor, regularity. What other poet, after all, would yoke "the Rime of the Ancient Mariner" with a "bon voyage party," Bunyon's "Slough of Despond" with a jet?
Maddox's method is clear: present Jesus in a way that says yes to what we are, stopping the reader in his tracks as she does so by insisting that these Christian poems resist the cliche. Other examples can be found throughout the poem: most people might expect the traditionally religious poet to be conservative, a formalist. But Maddox will have none of that. Speaking of God, she derisively says, "Cram him into iambic pentameter"; and then to show us she is not literary snob: "publish him annually/in the new yorker"! (In the next poem she brings in Richard Simmons! Remember that guy!)
God plays trick or treat, hide-and-go-seek in these poems. He goes fishing, He walks a tightrope. And why wouldn't he? She's clearly having fun, but her mind is always engaged as she's doing so, snackling with noise, like it's charged with static electricity. Near the end of the section, for example, she shifts gears a bit on her reader. She moves from talking about God to talking about angels. and for a very good reason--because any attempt to put in a box must necessarily fail. This shift emphasizes this point because these angels are not theologically correct angels. They are, rather, her very self-consciously produced, slightly oddball poetic creations. They are, to put it another way, quite literally, he imagination, her self on the page. In fact, she comically merges with them, presenting a world of imperfect praise because that is all the language will finally allow her to do. (In smaller letters, she co-creates the world and finds it good!)
And the angels are delighted to find this imperfection. consider one of them wo ends up in the women's section of a department store.
You try on a bra that's too big and charge it.
Shaking hands with girdle-clad mannequins,
you saunter from aisle to aisle,
dressing room to dressing room.
Naked, you stand before mirrors
searching for stretch mark.
You press pale hands against breasts and smile.
Since the angels here are so obviously products of her imagination, they give her part of the stage: the two of them, angel and woman poet, are one created fictional person. And by moving in this way to angels/herself, again, she accomplishes two things: firstly, she has necessarily distanced herself from any claim to absolute theological accuracy and perception, and secondly, she has emphasized the process itself. All this writing is an exercise in searching as well as finding after all.
I once heard an Archbishop say that the angels must envy us because they cannot love a God who is invisible to them. they cannot offer Him that gift. And so though we may be a lower order, Maddox is emphasizing, too, that ours is a good (if fallen) one. Our sad and imperfect bodies are beautiful for the same reason that our lives are. We are imperfect, but we are a created order, just like the angels, though unlike them we have an advantage in that we can migrate toward God! So here Maddox, a mother herself, rejoices in her journey, her own flawed body, the once she begins to thoroughly inhabit, stretch marks and all.
The second section is big fun as well. It is composed of mostly personal poems which then slide into overtly metaphysical ones about the high Protestant sacramental life. In the first poem of the section, entitled "Weeknights at the Cathedral," the name she's given to the whole collection, she gathers us, the body of Christ, into the text. The characters in this particular narrative are a soprano boy who can't sing, a priest who suffers through every minute of that, and a beggar woman in the fourth pew. Which are you? Which is Christ? All of them of course. And this is a note she sounds often in the collection. We are where we start with our charity: "love your neighbors as yourselves." And who is every beggar we ever meet by Christ, a Christ who is also miraculously present in an absolute, palpable way in us, in His Mystical body, in the now. All all of this is delivered with the earnestness of a believer who realizes the extent of her/our need. This isn't Sunday at the cathedral, after all, it's "weeknights."
In the second poems of the section, she delightfully moves against Stein (Gertrude, not Edith) in her praise of a comma, here found in the "Apostle's Creed": "of all that is, seen and not seen." It's a very nice poem. Like Paul, we know that "we walk by faith and not by sight." And we know too that to hurry anywhere is a mistake in the spiritual life; we need to live in God's infused contemplative presence. The first step in any spiritual wealk, after all, is always learning how to stand, and still.
Maddox is still strongly Protestant, too here, in a good way. Her poems reveal the strong will of a healthy person, a sense of decorum too. These poems have good posture. And she's a nice, almost equal mix of the two sensibilities: the intellectual Protestant and the contemplative Catholic.
Throughout the collection, two things remain constant: Maddox is an orthodox Christian, and she knows how to write outside the expected Christian box. She usually does so, as I have noted earlier, employing humor, but not always. there are other edges as well. Look at the two poems about abortion. These are entitled "Dread Is the Language by Which We Disguise Our Deeds" and "The Third Day of Christmas." Both poems are written from contemporary woman's point of view--something of a surprise in itself (Doesn't she ever want to win a Pulitzer?)--and take on society's sick and pressing need to divest itself of its children.
In the first poem "Dread" may be a typo for "Dead"--or it may not. It's no secret that we have to kill language in most instances before we kill innocent people (or savages):
. . . the two dead children alive
again for the ten seconds it takes to read
in newsprint the absence of their breath

a mistake of transposition
A Down's Syndrome child is mistakenly identified, and her "healthy" twin is aborted first. the correction, happy day, is made, and now everybody can be normal again:
. . . the mis-filed, the not-
chosen, the-accidentally-left--
for, inconveniently worded, dead.
The anger is just, and the pome accurate in its way--since the actual dead have been so for some time, walking around like that, trying to have perfect children.
How can one be too angry here? As the father of a lovely Down's boy, I can't express the extent of cultural sickness completely enough. If you want to know joy, have a Down's child. You can take that sweet and wide chubby hand in yours, cross the street for many, many years if you're lucky.
To Maddox's credit, she's fierce here. And she doesn't stop with the elimination of "imperfect" children. She bemoans the act itself, for any reason:
In Rama there is weeping,
in Charleston, in Bismark,
in Portland, in Trenton,
in Pittsburgh, in New Orleans,
in Santa Rose, in the thin sac that holds us
from heaven. . . .
This is very bold, and welcome--especially gratifying from someone who's so set on reaching the popular culture.
Maddox knows there is only one way to be saved: "the icons waiting" as she says at the end of "The Episcopal Priest Cleans Out His Office." We know the truth and must wait of It, live a life of self-sacrifice which is love. This is what we are all called to do; this is the nature of love, both human and divine.
I must say, again as well, that I really enjoyed Maddox's healthy Protestant sense of self, will in these poems. they brought sister's Wendy's painting videos to mind. At the beginning of the one of the Renaissance, the good nun tells us that the period really begin with Masaccio. And as she looks at his picture of Adam and Eve being turned out of Eden, or rather, turning themselves out, she tells us that here is the Renaissance: "Humanity, as upright, suffering but responsible." That's Maddox. she asserts, has a will to believe. A short poem, "The Existence of," demonstrates as much:
It has nothing to do with moon.
Even a sliver of night punched out
is you looking through
from something not-quite day.
A slow blink. A slice of sleep.
An opening into Eden. A closing.
It lasts as long as the earth
drips from your fingertips,
was once said to be good
by you. What it is
not is the line that divides,
the wrong edge of belief,
the thread of horizon I wake to
when everything is gray.
The poems have a strong Protestant feel, though they are too lively, technically interesting and body-centered to be boring. Look at the striking metaphysical imagery in "Substantiation":
Such swallowing of limbs,
ingestion of veins, begins again in us
his resurrection, the rough
rock of our unworthiness
rolled away
on the red carpet
of tongue.
Or "Concomitance":
Nailed now in our throats,
miracle and man stirred
into morsel and sip,
his Lama Sabachthani's flatten
the bricks of our teeth,
rend in twain our tongues,
commission our lips to leave
bleeding for more.

And of course there is always the humor. Christ eclipses all our sorry expectations. You can get a sense of that just by looking at some of the titles in the third section: "Fiacra, Patron Saint of Cab Drivers," "Patron Saints of Baseball," "Vitus, Patron Saint of Comedians," "Nicholas of Myra, Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers."
This is where we live, in a Nazareth where we find our lives--inside our good and fallen bodies; in the ordinary, yes, but in a world which also offers us enough joy, humor and chances at repentance to make the days "abundant," exquisitely worthwhile. After all, that IS why Dante called this crazed pilgrimage THE COMEDY.