A Review of The Poet’s Quest for God, edited by Fr. Oliver Brennan & Todd Swift — March 18, 2017
by Christopher Nelson
In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, “There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done.” He imagined a future in which poets, through their own natural links to the cosmos, would “be interpreters of … all events and things.” In The Poet’s Quest for God: 21st Century Poems of Faith, Doubt and Wonder (Eyewear Publishing), over three hundred contemporary poets from around the globe navigate the complex and arguably impossible questions of our mysterious relationship to the divine. The project is wholly unique and ambitious, weighing in at 457 pages, and in those pages we find poems that attest both belief and skepticism. A few express atheistic scorn, and others acknowledge that even our unknowing can be a journey toward God, as Ronnie Scharfman writes in “Prayer”: “I have always hoped / that struggling towards You / is You.” And in Sampurna Chattarji’s “Companion Piece”: “Perhaps one day my absolute ignorance will lead me towards you.” The hope that intelligent people can, despite their contemporary sophistication, fulfill the ancient, mythic needs of spiritual connection pervades these pages. It is a book of persistent beauty, and a reader will marvel at how, despite being separated by geographic and cultural barriers, the perplexing and moving ache for transcendence is universal.
While the majority of poets in the book who articulate a religious position are Christian, an implicit theme here is that all religions draw us to the divine: “The root does not care / where her water comes from,” writes Margo Berdeshevsky. And many of the poets here most readily find divinity in the natural, mundane world, like Patricia Clark, who writes, “I believe in perennials … the pollen stuck / on a stamen, the hyssop turning blue as the night.” I sometimes wonder if it is oversimplification or grace that allows poets to see God in everything, as several poets in the anthology do—in the first kiss, the boxing glove, the hurricane, the rose. In his thoughtful introduction, Ewan Fernie proposes a kind of answer: “part of the meaning of that man-god Christ who said ‘I am the way’ is that this—this mortal life—is theology. And it would seem that poetry might help us recover it.” Certainly all of the poems in the book won’t speak to every reader, but numerous will, and a few might even achieve—no, recover—whatever we lost. At the least, the reader will experience, again in Fernie’s words, poetry as “the vehicle of religious discovery.” What a gift.
But let’s not forget that, as the subtitle indicates, these are also poems of doubt. There can be no quest without doubt, can there? In “The Blue Cathedral” David Grubb poses a haunting question: “if God / is the creature that we have created because there has to be a creature; / what then?” And Malachi Black declares, “like the sea, / one more machine without a memory, / I don’t believe that you made me.” Perhaps more important than the statements themselves is the tone, a shadow that flickers on these pages, suggesting that our religions might be merely collections of stories we have agreed to believe, that what the holy books call God might not be God, as the Buddhist parable reminds: the finger pointing at the moon isn’t the moon. Such difficult subjects inevitably lead to metaphor and paradox, which is probably why questers often use poetry to enact that fundamental desire. Antoinette Voûte Roeder writes that God is “Far and near. / Here, not here. / Always, all ways.” In her wonderful ekphrastic poem “Albrecht Dürer: The Martyrdom of the 10,000,” Rebecca Seiferle compares the “piteous gaze” of the artist, who is included among a hellish field of massacre, to that of God, the distant observer, who is “so far past what language can say of this,” the barbarities we inflict on each other, and has left us existentially alone with our manmade nightmare. How can we not have doubt when we have evil in the world?—the age-old conundrum about a supposedly good, loving God. “We … burn / all the books so history begins with us,” Traci Brimhall writes in “Hysteria: A Requiem.” In the beginning was the word of God—no, in the beginning was us!; the despots of history remind that there are competing stories. “We loved a god we didn’t believe in,” Brimhall continues, the shadows flicking all over the page, “and believed in a god we didn’t love, / but neither let our children live.” Paul Hoover similarly sobers us with “spring will cut the throat of fall, / and winter will be our Eden.”
A delight of the anthology is its tonal range. Despite the seriousness of the subject, there is humor here too, as in Todd Boss’s “A Blessing,” which includes these lines:
And I protest:
if all men must
steer clear of lust,
how come He
carved Eve such
a curvy bust?
Meditative, lyrical, narrative, fragmented and whole, traditional forms and free verse—the stylistic range in the anthology will appeal to the writer and the contemplative. Perhaps the anthology is a little long; perhaps a thematic organization rather than alphabetical would make more sense, but these minor criticisms are easily forgotten in the strong pull and wake of the poems, which include such contemporary classics as Ilya Kaminsky’s “Author’s Prayer” and Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song.” When reading it, one marvels at what you will find on the next page. I loved Michael Egan’s tender and philosophical advice to a child and C. Dale Young’s crushing “Fourteen,” in which a boy attempting to understand his sexuality conflates the material father with the spiritual. It took the editors four years to collect and assemble the anthology, and it is clearly an effort of love. I imagine that making such a book is like keeping an altar, how the attention required becomes a ritual. I am reminded that the purpose of an altar isn’t to worship God but to diminish our attention to ego concerns, thereby making of ourselves a place God might visit. See if you find Her among these words.