Nothing Forgettable Here: The Human Meaning of Irreantum‘s Recent Poetry
In their introduction to the poetry section of A Believing People (found online here), Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert comment that “much [early] Mormon poetry,” like “most of the popular poetry written during that era [the nineteenth century],” is “derivative and didactic” and thus “regrettably forgettable.” Indeed, they continue, because such poetry is “[s]tiff, clichÃ©-ridden, and sing-song in its verse, much of it [really] offers little to the modern reader.”
Not so with the poems collected in Irreantum‘s past two issues, 9.1 (Spring 2007) and 9.2/10.1 (Fall 2007/Spring 2008). Rather, this recent gathering of Mormon poetry breaks loose from poesy’s “traditional shackles” in an effort to weave the varieties of personal experience and lyrical voice around a more individualized aesthetic. Of course, this tendency is nothing new: poets have been experimenting with free verse (and beyond) for decades–at least since the rise of modernity–and many Mormon poets have followed suit. (If you want a sampling of Mormon poets writing in mostly non-traditional forms, take a gander at this somewhat outdated listing of names from Harvest‘s table of contents).
Such general movement away from the strictures of traditional forms has allowed contemporary Mormon poets to focus increasingly, in the words of Cracroft and Lambert, “upon the human meaning of Latter-day Saint history.” To me, such a varied and personal focus allows Mormon poets (as Mormon writers of other genres) to develop a deeply individual aesthetic witness of the story of the Restoration as played out in the flaming mundanities of the poet’s life, a testament called for years ago in President Kimball’s compelling vision for Mormon arts and letters.
Irreantum‘s recent gathering of poetry represents some of the ways this poetic witness is being borne by just a sampling of contemporary Mormon poets. What follows is my review of Irreantum‘s poetry year (section II is a slightly revised version of this response to William’s review of Irreantum 9.1).
II. Irreantum 9.1
Irreantum 9.1 was my first experience with Javen Tanner. (As a side note, Tanner’s first and only [thus far] collection of poetry, Curses For Your Sake, is an excellent, deeply human panorama of lyric narratives embedded in the Mormon human experience.) He has since become one of my favorite poets because of the way he uses language to engage his subject and his readers in the visceral experience of reading poetry and because he speaks so clearly the language of his human experience. I’ve always been moved by John’s account of the moving of the water and Tanner’s “Bethesda” deepened my appreciation for that moment when a disease-ridden body wrestles with itself to find healing and peace in the fountains of life and in the midst of painful disappointments. The poignant realities of such moments serve as the crux of the poem and, for that matter, of life in a fallen world. As his speaker testifies:
[W]e don’t deny
there is security in suffering,
always knowing what and where,
waiting for the troubling of the water. (lines 27-30)
The corporeality of Tanner’s verse also comes through in “My Mother Says I’m Buried in the Wasatch Mountains” as the speaker explores, in vivid imagery that points to the Atonement, death and the renewal of life in the relationship between a mother and her miscarried child.
Relationships seem to be a common theme in all of this issue’s poetry. Stacy Moisant’s “You Taught Me White” is a brief exploration of life and language, of the power of a name, and “Your Hands” follows the speaker’s body as a lover’s hands trace its curves into the erotic “truth [we] create with [our] fingertips” (10). Susan Elizabeth Howe’s “Coming to Birth” strikes a similar chord, delving into the ache spirits experience as they wait to be joined with bodies of flesh and blood, to cross the “watery” threshold of “the birth canal” (21-2) into the proving processes and relationships of embodiment.
Carolyn Howard Johnson’s “Prevailing Winds” is a poignant illustration of the way nuclear winds can ravage a person–their body and their blood. And then there’s Lance Larsen who never fails to delight with his explorations of the parent-child relationship and the human connection with the natural world. Jim Papworth expresses a similar sentiment in “Death: Aspen” as the speaker wrestles with the memory of a lover? a wife? that is brought to him in the objects he engages in the natural world.
III. Irreantum 9.2/10.1
This witness of the potential intimacy of human connection with other humans and with the material and non-material worlds and the effects flowing from this connection–or the lack thereof–is common to much poetry. The Mormon poetry I’ve been discussing here is no different. In fact, Mormon poetry may have greater potential than other contemporary poetic traditions to explore and express the depths of this connection.
I’ve hedged myself by saying “may have greater potential” because, even though I believe our atonement-centered theology allows Mormon artists to view human connection and potential in eternally expansive and redemptive ways, I can’t substantiate a broader claim, even to the smallest degree, without appealing to more than two issues of Irreantum and gaining more resources (including time and money) than are yet at my disposal.
Having qualified myself, then, I feel like I can move on with my discussion of Irreantum 9.2/10.1.
Hart Wegner explores the depths of generational connection and (personal and literary) heritage in “Leaving” and the difficulties (and dangers) of connecting Earth to heaven in “Towers.” “Leaving,” an elegy of sorts and the most touching of these two poems, moves us through the poet’s confrontation with the memory of his mother, one exposed by “a slender [volume] of Goethe” (6) that contains “a verse or two / for each day of the year” (8-9). As the book calls forth the image of his mother, “stab[ing] her finger” (14) into her open Bible in an effort to “find [her] fortune for the day” (10-11), the poet finds his mother’s passport, “still valid” (20), an ironic memento of her passage into another world.
In her sonnet, “Postpartum,” Darlene Young expands this generational connection to include the gaps created in the self and between self and other as a result of childbirth. While the language of her line isn’t as refined as I’d like it to be (and, I think, as the sonnet requires)–too many adjectives in some places and too few articles in others–the focus and tension of her verse is instinctive, striking, and, fresh, especially here: the speaker stands in a shower, trying to elude the water’s “fingers” as they “pull[“¦] past / her ears and throat” (3-4) trying to suffocate her with their “snaking” “webs” (5, 4)–a reflection of her struggle with the emotional violence inherent in postpartum depression, a state compelling her to let the “pounding rain / [“¦] wash [away] the echoes of her baby’s cries” (10-11) and to make herself, the wounded mother, disappear.
In “How Long,” Darlene moves from this depiction of a mother’s traumatized psyche at odds with itself, with her body, and with the world into a more self-consciously Mormon narrative. Here the poet “find[s her]self Lehi, encamped in a tent” (1) somewhere in the desert of imagination, trapped in the endlessly looping drama of wilderness travel:
Work and pray and dance.
And here the poet awaits direction from God regarding how to approach the ocean stretched wide before her–more specifically, as she asks in the poem’s final line: “[W]hat shall I do with this lack of motion?” (19). Such “lack” is something that characterizes this poem, a circumlocutious absence of direction intended, I think, to represent the poet’s endless quest to navigate the many waters of language, human existence, and our relationship with the past and with God.
Nani Lii Furse’s “To Anne Katrine, Ancestor (Aarhus, Denmark),” one of the more poignant poems in this issue, presents another aspect of this dialogue between present and past, between a person and their heritage. “To Anne Katrine” is a sort of coming-of-age narrative in which the characters—a mother, her husband, their two little girls, and the poet—interact through the one-way window of memory and through the workings of language. The poet places herself in this vignette, a story likely captured in the subject’s journal or unearthed in the process of someone pursuing the poet’s family’s history, by speaking directly to Anne, walking with her through the sequence of experiences leading to her daughters’ “passage to Zion” (15).
The moment of real connection comes for the poet—and for us, I believe—as the poem concludes: these young sisters sail through “a mist” (24), drawn from their parents’ and the poet’s view by the shading of memory, one girl “solemnly bearing / [the] untasted fruit” (28-30) given them by their parents before boarding the ship that would take them, hopefully, on a journey to a better life, a better world. This fruit, at once a symbol for the knowledge of good and evil and a representation of these girls’ latent sexualities, comes to us in the mind and body of the poet, the vessel that bears this fruit to another generation, both literally (through her genes) and poetically (through her words).
Mark Bennion rounds this issue’s poetry out* with three poems inspired by Book of Mormon stories. “Dear Father, Love, Abish” delves into the emotional back story behind Abish and her family’s hidden lives as believers dwelling in the midst of unbelievers. She, through the poet, asks important questions about the difficulty of remaining connected to God and one’s faith when that faith can’t be publicly acknowledged (due to the threat of death), though at times the “lightning of [this Gospel] vision” (9) burns within like “a pillar / of fire purging the floor” (12-3); and she, through the poet, expresses the deep relief that comes of finally being “untethered” (30) from this culturally imposed silence. (My one complaint about this poem is the hokey title, which imposes a certain degree of immaturity onto Bennion’s language and imagery, so much so that I almost skipped reading this poem for fear that it would read like an unrefined, high school love poem. Luckily, I read on despite my misgivings about the title and was pleasantly surprised.)
“Swollen” takes a different perspective on the events surrounding Lamoni and his wife’s unconscious ascent to God. In this circling lyric, the poet explores the “soul-side of [their] vision” (1), comparing their bodies, among other things, to ripening fields, “vine[s]” (11), the rising “tide” (11) and its containing “rampart” (10), “ransacked fortification / and first-time chariot” (17-8), each illustrations of something possessed by a power beyond the self. As the speaker expresses, “It is this dying I love, this unreeling, / this hurling rapprochement in a synagogue / of blue” (22-4). Such language captures the thrill of conversion as the old life dies and the individual, touched by Christ, rises from the ash to “dip and soar” (34) like the mythical phoenix, ultimately “knowing,” as the poem concludes, “what it means to fly” (35).
In the final poem of his set, “Coronation Plea,” Bennion spins another lyric around connection and personal heritage, exploring the rite of emotional passage that takes place when a righteous son, Limhi, seeks to move away from the legacy left behind by his unrighteous father.
Though I enjoyed some of these poems more than others, this collection represents the high level of aesthetic achievement that defines, I believe, the strength and potential of contemporary Mormon poetry. Each writer seems wholly connected to the literary tradition laid down by our poet-seer forebears (Joseph Smith included), while at the same time, they’re willing to venture beyond the bounds of that tradition to see it through different eyes and to beautify and reinforce the “immaculate linen”** of human interaction with many-colored strains of poetic voice refined by the varieties of Mormon experience.
If such is the case with Mormon poetry as experienced beyond the covers of Irreantum, and I believe it is, I think the poetic field is white, already for another Harvest.
I for one would enjoy the feast such a gathering would provide.
* * * *
*Since it would be far beyond a conflict of interest for me to review the other poet included in this issue, I’m excluding him from my discussion. I talk with him frequently, however (too much, in fact), and he’s okay with sitting this one out.
**From Clinton F. Larson, “Advent,” line 8.