2014 Book List

Happy New Year! I haven’t blogged in several months because I’ve been so busy with book revisions and teaching, but a few people have asked me to post my book list from 2014, so here it is. Three quick reminders. First, the list is in chronological order of when I read the book, beginning with January through the end of the year. Second, the list is eclectic. There’s plenty of poetry here, but also a lot of Latino/a lit, religious and devotional reading, popular nonfiction novels, children’s books I read aloud to my kids, etc. Also some re-reads. Third, I strongly recommend any book marked with an asterisk.

1 – Gwendolyn Brooks, In the Mecca*
2 – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
3 – A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization
4 – Mary Kinzie, Summers of Vietnam and Other Poems
5 – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
6 – Manuel Muñoz, Zigzagger*
7 – Amiri Baraka, Black Magic: Collected Poems, 1961-1967
8 – John Carlin, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation
9 – Steven L. Peck, The Scholar of Moab*
10 – Amiri Baraka, Dutchman & The Slave
11 – Cormac McCarthy, The Road
12 – Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies*
13 – Rosa Alcalá, Undocumentaries*
14 – Adam Phillips, On Kindness
15 – Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Woman
16 – Rolando Hinojosa, Estampas del Valle y otras obras
17 – Cristina Henríquez, The World in Half
18 – Urayoán Noel, Hi-Density Politics
19 – Alurista, Floricanto en Aztlán
20 – Laurie Ann Guerrero, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying*
21 – Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
22 – Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao*
23 – Rich Villar, Comprehending Forever
24 – Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke
25 – Lorna Dee Cervantes, Sueño
26 – Sonia Sanchez, We a BaddDDD People
27 – Raúl Coronado, A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture
28 – George Saunders, Tenth of December*
29 – Kimberly Johnson, Leviathan with a Hook
30 – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
31 – Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
32 – David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
33 – Octavio Paz, Poesía en Movimiento
34 – Roberto Tejada, Full Foreground
35 – Jim Gaffigan, Dad is Fat
36 – Juan Felipe Herrera, Senegal Taxi*
37 – Tim Z. Hernandez, Mañana Means Heaven*
38 – Isaac Asimov, Foundations
39 – Simon J. Ortiz, From Sand Creek
40 – Karen Green, Bough Down
41 – Randy Ontiveros: In the Spirit of a New People: The Cultural Politics of the Chicano Movement
42 – Mark Turcotte, Exploding Chippewas
43 – Alfredo Véa, La Maravilla
44 – Julie Avril Minich, Accessible Citizenships: Disability, Nation, and the Cultural Politics of Greater Mexico
45 – Rosa Alcalá, The Lust of Unsentimental Waters
46 – Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans
47 – Czeslaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001*
48 – Oscar Zeta Acosta, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo
49 – Abhijit V. Banerjee, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty
50 – Craig Santos Pérez, From Unincorporated Territory [guma’]*
51 – Michael Chabon, The Final Solution
52 – Carmen Gimenez Smith, Milk and Filth*
53 – Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
54 – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
55 – George Eliot, Middlemarch*
56 – Michael Herr, Dispatches
57 – Rane Arroyo, The Buried Sea: New and Selected Poems
58 – Thomas Pynchon, The Bleeding Edge
59 – George Saunders, Pastoralia*
60 – Ian McEwan, Saturday
61 – David Rabe, Streamers
62 – Edwin Torres, Ameriscopia
63 – Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon*
64 – Luci Tapahonso, A Radiant Curve: Poems and Stories
65 – Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace
66 – Teju Cole, Every Day Is for the Thief*
67 – Fanny Howe, Nod
68 – Juan Felipe Herrera, Thunderweavers / Tejedoras de rayos
69 – Per Petterson, I Curse the River of Time
70 – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince*
71 – J.G. Ballard, Crash
72 – Ofelia Zepeda, Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert
73 – Albino Carrillo, In the City of Smoking Mirrors
74 – Per Petterson, To Siberia
75 – David E. Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy
76 – Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City
77 – Kevin Connolly, Revolver
78 – Rigoberto González, Butterfly Boy
79 – Martín Espada, The Trouble Ball
80 – Brian Christian, The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teachers Us About What It Means to Be Alive*
81 – Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members*
82 – Dan Vera, Speaking Wiri Wiri 
83 – Hank Lopez, Afro 6
84 – Joseph Massey, At the Point*
85 – Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology
86 – James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value*
87 – Justin Torres, We the Animals
88 – Joe Wenderoth, If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep
89 – China Miéville, The City & the City
90 – Daniel A. Olivas, The Book of Want
91 – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
92 – Nikki Giovanni, Quilting the Black-Eyed Peas
93 – Marilynne Robinson, Lila*
94 – Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric*
95 – Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
96 – Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
97 – Anne Carson, Red Doc>
98 – Jaime Hernández, The Love Bunglers
99 – Jaime Hernández, Love and Rockets #1
100 – Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
101 – Daniel Alarcón, War by Candlelight: Stories
102 – Neylan McBaine, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact
103 – Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
104 – Jaime Labastida, Plenitud del tiempo
105 – Shannon Hale, The Goose Girl
106 – Guy Deslisle, Jerusalem: Chronicle of the Holy City
107 – Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books
108 – Nora Okja Keller, Comfort Woman
109 – Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters
110 – Dagoberto Gilb, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña
111 – Daniel Borzutzky, The Book of Interfering Bodies
112 – Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
113 – Seamus Heaney, The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone
114 – Joe Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza
115 – The Book of Mormon
116 – Jaime Labastida, Elogios de la luz y de la sombra*
117 – Terryl L. Givens, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith
118 – Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita*

Feliz cumple, Nicanor Parra

Today is Chilean poet Nicanor Parra’s 100th birthday. He is among the most important Latin American poets of the 20th century, up there with César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Octavio Paz, and Pablo Neruda. His book Poemas y antipoemas (1954) is as revolutionary today as it was when it was first published fifty years ago.


Nicanor Parra

By serendipity, I share a birthday with Parra, which I could not be more excited about. Here’s one of my favorite of his “anti-poems”:

Solo de piano

Ya que la vida del hombre no es sino una acción a distancia,
Un poco de espuma que brilla en el interior de un vaso;
Ya que los árboles no son sino muebles que se agitan:
No son sino sillas y mesas en movimiento perpetuo;
Ya que nosotros mismos no somos más que seres
(Como el dios mismo no es otra cosa que dios)
Ya que no hablamos para ser escuchados
Sino para que los demás hablen
Y el eco es anterior a las voces que lo producen;
Ya que ni siquiera tenemos el consuelo de un caos
En el jardín que bosteza y que llena de aire,
Un rompecabezas que es preciso resolver antes de morir
Para poder resucitar después tranquilamente
Cuando se ha usado en exceso de la mujer;
Ya que también existe un cielo en el infierno,
Dejad que yo también haga algunas cosas:

Yo quiero hacer un ruido con los pies
Y quiero que mi alma encuentre su cuerpo.

Para los que no lean español, here’s an English translation by the American modernist poet William Carlos Williams:

Piano Solo

Since man’s life is nothing but a bit of action at a distance,
A bit of foam shining inside a glass;
Since trees are nothing but moving trees;
Nothing but chairs and tables in perpetual motion;
Since we ourselves are nothing but beings
(As the godhead itself is nothing but God);
Now that we do not speak solely to be heard
But so that others may speak
And the echo precede the voice that produces it;
Since we do not even have the consolation of a chaos
In the garden that yawns and fills with air,
A puzzle that we must solve before our death
So that we may nonchalantly resuscitate later on
When we have led woman to excess;
Since there is also a heaven in hell,
Permit me to propose a few things:

I wish to make a noise with my feet
I want my soul to find its proper body.

What Parra proposed to do with his “anti-poems” was to create a mode of poetry that did not have as its ultimate purpose the transparent communication of truth and beauty. He conceived of poems like “Solo de piano” as puzzles for readers to wrestle with, though without a guarantee of producing an ultimate meaning, and the anti-poems often lead intentionally away from beauty, though I think “Solo de piano” is beautiful in its own way.

For me, the first puzzle the poem presents is its title, since the body of the poem does not apparently have anything to do with playing the piano. I think there are two possible connections to make here. The first comes with the first line of the poem, “Since man’s life is nothing but a bit of action at a distance.” This describes to me the sometimes sublime, sometimes bizarrely alienating experience of playing the piano. (I studied classical piano for 10 years and still play.) Playing the piano, I sometimes feel swallowed up in the music, lost to myself. Other times, I feel like the music is entirely separate from me. I can actually stare at my hands moving across the keyboard and feel as if they were not part of my body, as if they belonged to someone else. I think, what a miracle that fingers can do that! Not, what a miracle that my fingers can do that.

(Bonus sidebar: it’s also how I feel watching this youtube video of Martha Argerich performing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody.)


The title is also a pun, as piano refers both to an instrument and to a musical dynamic, the Italian word for soft or quiet. So this is also a poem that is a performance of silence in some ways, a single human’s cry into the void. Note that these two different meanings of Solo de piano” resonate through the poem’s final two lines. “I wish to make a noise with my feet,” says the poet, who up to now has been reduced to silence. And, “I want my soul to find its proper body,” an expression of his sense of self-alienation.

Williams’s translation is passable, but not perfect. In particular, I don’t like his choice to translate the line “Ya que los árboles no son sino muebles que se agitan” as “Since trees are nothing but moving trees.” Muebles is the Spanish word for furniture. The line is more like, “Since trees are nothing more than still-moving furniture.” I’m not sure why Williams repeats trees in his translation, particularly since the metaphor is meant to express the idea that our own deaths and transformations are already germinating within us. Along the same lines, I think Williams would have been better served using “resurrect” to translate the word “resucitar.” This line is also about transformation, but in this instance it is about the poet’s conviction that there will be no ultimate transformation that will redeem the world from the chaos it presents to us. In fact, as the poet says, “chaos” is not even the right word, since the world only makes sense if somewhere else in space and time there is something like order.

The entire poem is one sentence, a series of subordinate clauses that lead up the poet’s declaration that he would like to “propose a few things.” The subordinate clauses themselves are statements of existential despair. What I love about the poem is how they all build up to these statements of desire that follow the colon and belong to their own stanza. This is what I mean when I say the poem is beautiful in its own way. It could easily say, “Since trees are nothing more than still-moving furniture, I have decided to lie down on my bed and die.” Instead, the poet says, “I wish to make a noise with my feet. / I want my soul to find its proper body.” I find that defiant yearning beautifully affirmative.

Happy birthday, Nicanor Parra. I’m honored to share it with you.

Rae Armantrout, “Dark Matter”

Dark Matter


Who am I
to experience a burst
of star formation?

I know this —

after the first rush
of enthusiasm

any idea
recedes and dims.


Each one
is the inverse
shape of what’s


One might try
the matter up

in a single
Judas kiss,

all bitter-sweet

and feigned ignorance

I first encountered Rae Armantrout’s poetry after her book Versed won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. It was considered an unlikely winner, as Armantrout specializes in opaque, language-centered poetry rather than the conventional lyric poetry that the Pulitzer committee tends to recognize. (When I say “language-centered” poetry, I’m using a shorthand to describe postmodern philosophical and poetic currents going back to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of the 1970s.) I picked up Versed and was immediately hooked. Armantrout is now one of my favorite living poets. Her poems never fail to simultaneously delight and challenge me.

Many of the poems in Versed emerge from Armantrout’s battle with adrenal-cortical cancer. (You can read more about her experience battling cancer in this threepart interview.) “Dark Matter” comprises three parts that at first seem to have little to do with one another. The first begins with the interesting image of experiencing a “burst of star formation.” Then the poet talks about the idea receding and dimming, which makes it seem like the “burst” was perhaps the idea itself, the proverbial light bulb turning on as someone makes a discovery or has a sudden stroke of insight. But another way to understand the image is as a reference to radiation therapy. The poet is describing the enthusiasm of beginning treatment, and the technological mysticism that accompanies the idea of shooting charged particles through a person’s body to damage cancer cells. We have harnessed the very power of the universe.


Star Formation: Carina Nebula

The second stanza would make a brilliant poem on its own. It’s like a little zen koan, a meditation on what it means that things exist, that matter is present in space and time. We usually think of emptiness as the inverse or negative of matter. But here the poem asks us to consider matter as the inverse or negative image of nothingness. It reminds me of this poem by Mark Strand. I particularly like the enjambment of the second stanza, with the line breaking on “one.” One what? Person? Object?

The third stanza introduces another idea and image altogether. It also begins with “one,” but this is “one” as a pronoun. We might initially take “dark matter” as a reference to the theory in astronomy of a substance filling apparently empty space so as to explain otherwise inexplicable gravitational phenomena. But when the poet talks about “summing the matter up,” we realize that the entire poem is pivoting on the other meaning of “matter,” an event, thing, affair, or circumstance that is of some concern to someone. The matter in this poem, of course, is death, or at least the threat of it. But that’s hardly a topic for polite conversation. It is acknowledged only in passing, only by putting a brave face on, by feigning ignorance.

This turn in the way we read the word “matter” ties the entire poem together. Imagine the poem as an extended answer to the question, “what is the matter?” one that riffs on the question to also consider its close cousin, “what is matter?” The two questions are pretty intimately tied together, after all, since from one perspective to contemplate death is to contemplate the end of existence. Given this idea, the three parts of the poem actually correspond to birth, life, and death: the burst of “star formation” in the first part, the miracle of existence in the second, and the terrible end of existence in the third.

I keep coming back to that first stanza of the poem. It’s another wonderful use of enjambment, as the first line constitutes its own, provocative question, “who am I?” that then becomes the very different question, “who am I to experience a burst of star formation?” The second question is formulated in such a way as to indicate the poet’s sense of humility and wonder. “Who am I to …” suggests that anyone could have been chosen to experience this miracle. Why me? Once we know what the “matter” of the poem is, however, that initial burst of enthusiasm becomes grimly ironic. It becomes a statement of existential despair. Who am I? Why must I, of all people, confront this dark matter of death?

This is a brilliant poem, but also an uncomfortable one, a poem that should make us squirm. That’s why I think it’s so valuable. We live in the age of what Philippe Ariés famously called “invisible death,” where hospitals and long-term care facilities have removed the specter of the dying from our everyday lives. The poem is coy about who or what the Judas-kiss in the third part refers to, but I think it could refer to the poet, who must repeatedly convince herself that treatment will work, that she need not die, though this is finally not true. Everyone will die. Or alternately, it could refer to the false or performed cheeriness of well intentioned friends, family, or visitors. “Complicity” seems a harsh word in this context, but I think it refers less to real culpability — no one is responsible for the poet’s death in the way a murderer is for his victim’s — than to the resentment the poet feels against the way that life just goes on. In this way, the poem hints at the verb form of the word “matter,” as in, will my death really matter? Will it be of concern to anyone?

It’s a dark matter, a sad poem, but I do think that the poem enfolds some hope within itself. That second stanza suggests that at least in the present moment (note how we refer to the “present” with a word denoting presence) our existence does matter. Our existence is literally matter, and metaphorically the only thing that matters. I like to think of the second stanza as the poet thinking about other people. It is a vision of plenitude. At least in the present, we are surrounded by so many people who are not missing, who are the inverse shape of what’s missing. They matter.

*This post is dedicated to my tía Rosa, who lost her own battle with cancer earlier this week. We love you and miss you already.

Joseph Massey, “Last Spring”

When I teach my students to close read poetry, I like to demonstrate using Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro,” which is only two lines long (three if you include the title). Students have usually encountered the poem before in high school, and with so little material, you’d think there would be nothing to talk about, but I’ve led probably a dozen discussions about it now, and they’ve never lasted less than 45 minutes. The point is that a lot of great poetry works through compression, and the reward comes from dwelling in the poem, reading it over and over, testing its shallows, and plumbing its depths.

Here’s a poem I love by Joseph Massey, from his wonderful collection Areas of Fog:

Last Spring

On the horizon
what you thought
was exhaust
from the pulp mill
was rain frayed
over the mountains–
mottled blue,
in the foreground
locked by eucalyptus.

Length-wise, it’s not much more substantial than Pound’s. I’m initially tempted to dismiss the poem as simply an invocation of a beautiful image. Honestly, I don’t think a poem has to do anything more than that. But this poem does.

I have no frame of reference for exhaust from a pulp mill, but I imagine something like exhaust from other kinds of factories or refineries. Rain frayed over the mountains, on the other hand, I know very well, as does anyone familiar with the spectacular vistas of the Wasatch Mountains. It makes me think of coming up to the top of Victory Road  and seeing a storm stretched out on the southern edge of the Salt Lake Valley, or rounding the point of the mountain and seeing rain backlit against the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. A beautiful sight, and a far cry from the mundane, gray nastiness of factory exhaust.

Oquirrh Mountains and rain, mottled blue and black

Oquirrh Mountains and rain, mottled blue and black

So this is a poem not about a momentary beautiful sight, but about the act of perception itself, how it changes depending on our vantage point, our state of mind, and our memory. Notice how the poem toggles among different scales of perception. First it invokes the horizon, far away and vast, then moves to “the pulp mill,” a reference that sounds local in its specificity, but then back to “the mountains,” another big, perhaps distant point of reference. One thing that’s happening is the poem is describing our poor ability to distinguish depth at a distance under certain conditions. What is far away in the poem, the rain, looks like it’s something nearby, and in fact at the end of the poem, it looks like it’s trapped in the foreground, “locked” by eucalyptus.

The title of the poem concretizes these difficulties in perception: “Last Spring.” Here is a moment that the poet has held on to for how long? A month? A year? I imagine him turning it over and over in his mind, wondering how he could have mistaken the rain for the mill exhaust, then wondering how the image of the rain could appear locked in by the trees the way it did. (I’m thinking of the poem as an interior monologue here. That is, I’m assuming the “you” is the poet himself, that he’s talking to himself. But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s interesting to think of him talking to someone else, reflecting on a shared moment of (mis)perception.)

I always think of UCLA campus when I think of eucalyptus.

I always think of UCLA campus when I think of eucalyptus.

The poem subtly reveals something about the poet’s state of mind. (When I say “the poet,” I mean the voice speaking the poem, not necessarily Massey himself. And definitely not “the Poet” that sometimes gets invoked in church talks.) Why is the poet so quick to think that this haze on the horizon is exhaust from the pulp mill? Why assume it’s something ugly? Even when he does perceive it for what it is, he uses metaphorical language to transform the image into something dark, almost violent. The rain is “mottled,” or splotchy, blue and black, an image that evokes bruising to me. And it’s “caught,” “locked” in the foreground by the eucalyptus. (I love that repeated /c/ consonant. So harsh, so cutting.) But that’s impossible. It’s not really caught; it only appears so to the poet.

Having read the other poems in Massey’s book, I know that the pulp mill is important here, that the poet’s general attitude toward what he sees is colored by his thoughts about environmental and labor issues. The poem makes me wonder how my own perceptions of the world are refracted through my thoughts, feelings, biases, and/or mood swings. Am I really seeing what I think I’m seeing? Did I really see what I thought I saw?

“When God Was a Woman” by Carmen Giménez Smith

A poem title to catch your attention.

This poem comes from one of my favorite contemporary poets, Carmen Giménez Smith, who teaches at New Mexico State University and edits the literary journal Puerto del Sol. Giménez Smith has published four poetry collections and a beautiful memoir, and this poem comes from her most recent collection, Milk & Filth.

When God Was a Woman

When God was a woman,
empire was meh.
When God was a woman,
we built Schools of Listening
and every week we sat quietly
until we could hear
each other’s thoughts.

No shadows when God
was a woman. Little girls
had great dominion,
and grandmothers
were venerated.
Sky was the giant
bellows of her inside.

The grace of God meant
flowing and willowy. This
was when God was a woman.

She played harmless pranks
because she liked keeping
things light. She made it rain
on our collective good hair days.
When she met someone
who seemed fun
and a little mysterious, she invited
him into heaven,

then she made her daughter
blind for a week, which in retrospect
was kind of mean, but her
daughter made the best of it.

The poem’s tone is so conversational and light-hearted that it’s easy to miss some of its careful turns. I love the short third stanza, for example, in which the repeated /w/ sound enacts the “flowing and willowy” grace of God. W is a special kind of English consonant known, fittingly, as a “glide.” Because the lips don’t come together and the tongue doesn’t quite make contact with any part of the mouth, the consonant has a special flowing openness to it.

You could easily imagine this poem with the word “if” instead of “when” in the title. After all, the poem is engaging in a kind of playful thought experiment. But I love “when” for the way it suggests a sense of loss, as if the poet were talking about the way things used to be in some pre-lapsarian past. Milk & Filth is a defiant, feminist collection of poems, and certainly this poem operates under the conviction that we might be better off without the aggressively masculine, domineering gods of so many religions throughout history, from the vengeful god of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to the capriciousness of Zeus, Ares, and their ilk.

"Goddess" by Galen Dara

“Goddess” by Galen Dara

I’ve thought about this poem a lot lately with the attention given to gender issues in the LDS church. I have wondered, and I know I have friends who have also wondered, why we don’t talk more about Heavenly Mother, one of the most beautiful and unique Mormon doctrines, but one that is for the most part muted in church culture. (I’d love to read a Mormon feminist version of this poem. The title would need to change, since the issue is not “when God was a woman,” but the fact that God, or at least god, is a woman.) In particular, I have more than one friend who has expressed that because of negative experiences with fathers, teachers, or male priesthood leaders, they find it hard to relate to the idea of a loving Heavenly Father and wish that they could openly embrace a relationship with a female deity. (It’s a special blessing in my life that I have a great dad and haven’t had this problem.)

I love the lines in the second stanza that say when God was a woman “little girls / had great dominion, / and grandmothers / were venerated.” Maybe this is because I have little girls in my family, and I think the world would be a pretty fun, creative, and overall compassionate place if they had great dominion. The lines only make sense, though, in a culture in which little girls have very little dominion, and grandmothers are not venerated–in other words, American culture. We are taught that we were created in the image of God, but I also think it’s the case that we tend to create God in our image. That is, our ability to understand God is constrained by our experience, values, and imagination. What happens when our experiences and values lead us to think that the most powerful beings in the world are aggressive men? We can only imagine that God is like that as well.

So this poem invites us to start over and imagine a world in which God is not a powerful man but a compassionate, albeit slightly mischievous, woman. I’ve heard various, mostly unsatisfactory, reasons for why we don’t talk more about Heavenly Mother in the church. The most convincing to me is that we simply don’t know much about her (though that never stopped any high priest group I’ve been a part of). That’s why I love this poem, because I think revelation depends on desire and imagination. We need to want to know things, and we need to begin to study them out in our minds, i.e., use our imaginations, among other critical capacities.

One last, slightly unrelated point. I love the idea that the God of the poem lets into heaven anyone who strikes her as “fun and a little mysterious,” rather than just those who are good or righteous. It seems like we do everything we can to suck the humor and joy out of religion. I’m all for a god that lets it back in.

Poetry and Revelation: Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H. 54”

K and I had our fourth child on June 30th. He’s a healthy and sweet baby, but the delivery was slightly more difficult than with our other three children. His shoulder caught on the way out, and the doctor asked the nurse to call for some backup right at the moment he was being born. Suddenly, eight other hospital personnel rushed into the room, and I was pushed aside as the nurses helped K get into the proper position and make it through the difficult moment. After he was born, another doctor-nurse pair examined him under the warming lamp. It was a minute or so before we breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of his tiny voice crying out for the the first time.

I’m so grateful for our beautiful baby boy and that K is healthy and recovering fully, but I’ve thought more than a few times in the weeks since the birth how easily things could have gone wrong. I’ve been reminded of the following poem, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet,
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

Obviously, the repeated reference to “an infant crying” in the final stanza is what I have been thinking of after our baby’s birth. It’s made me think of how fundamentally human the impulse to pray is, and how important my faith is to me. When you strip away all of the forms of religion, the rituals, the hours of meetings, and the cultural quirks, each of us is just an infant crying in the night, crying for the light.

Tennyson published this poem in 1849, sixteen years after the death of his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while traveling in Vienna in 1833. In Memoriam A.H.H. comprises 133 separate cantos, most of them about the length of this one, number 54, and all of them written in the same form: four-line stanzas (or quatrains) with an abba cddc etc rhyming pattern. The entire poem is an extended meditation on Tennyson’s crisis of religious faith after his friend’s senseless death. You can hear his yearning in these lines. Surely if “not a moth” will be “shrivell’d in a fruitless fire” in God’s eternal scheme, then Hallam’s death will also have some ultimate redemptive meaning.

Tennyson (left) and Arthur Henry Hallam (right)

Tennyson (left) and Arthur Henry Hallam (right)

A lot of you who read this blog are already familiar with another section of In Memoriam, canto 106, which appears in the LDS hymnbook as #215, “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” It’s one of the two semi-official New Year songs that gets sung typically once a year. Most people I know hate it because it sounds so mournful, and because the rhyme scheme is unconventional. I actually love the minor setting and the way it resolves into a perfect D-major chord at the end of the third verse, when we sing, “Ring in the Christ that is to be,” emphasizing that only Christ has the power ultimately to resolve the contradictions and disappointments of life.

That kind of hope isn’t really present in canto 54. The poem ends simply by declaring that we are no better than infants. I love the last line, “And with no language but a cry.” It’s kind of ironic, since it comes at the end of a poem. Clearly Tennyson has a lot of language at his command. But I feel just the same way at times, like any words I might say in a prayer or blessing are ultimately worth nothing more than a baby babbling. Particularly in moments of despair, I think that language always feels woefully insufficient.

I love that we have a Tennyson poem in our hymnbook. In a Sunday School lesson about a month ago, we were talking about the psalms, and I started thinking how cool it is that a bunch of poems have not only been canonized as scripture, but have come to be regarded by many people as the most beloved scriptures of all. Jesus quoted from the Psalms all the time, even on the cross. (What better endorsement could you want for the value of poetry?)

It’s funny, though, because most poems, and the psalms are no exception, aren’t intended to teach us things, nor do they generally make any claim to be divine revelations. Why is it that these attempts to craft a language for ideas or feelings or memories should come to be regarded as scripture? It’s not that Tennyson’s poem or the 23rd Psalm necessarily reveal things about God that we didn’t know before. It’s because these poems catalyze a relationship of intimacy with God through a feeling of sympathy with other people. There’s something about reading In Memoriam, even the expressions of doubt (especially the expressions of doubt) – I feel a stirring inside, as if I were a chapel, and the poem were a song that matched my acoustics perfectly. Not only does someone else understand, but he’s managed to articulate my yearning.

At such moments, I feel as if the poem were revealing me to myself. And this is why I think it’s not surprising that poetry has made its way into scripture, both ancient and modern. We think of the scriptures as revealing God to us, but I love Paul’s promise that when the veil of this life is rent away, we will know even as we are known (1 Cor 13.12). It implies that before we can know and understand God perfectly, we will have to come to know ourselves. The best poems, like the best scriptures (and yes, I think some scriptures are definitely better than others) are the ones that catalyze this process.

Drawing Circles

When I was in high school my dad clipped a passage for me from a book or newspaper. I don’t remember where he got it, and I wish I still had the clipping, which contained a homily about God’s universal love for his children. I do remember that the clipping quoted this short poem by Edwin Markham:


He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

I was shaken last night by this news. I shed some tears, and I know that many people are troubled and grieving. I don’t think it’s my place to weigh in on the specifics of these cases. This post on BCC articulates my feelings pretty well. However, I do have a strong opinion about a disturbing phenomenon I’ve witnessed in internet comments, FB posts, and private conversations: schadenfreude. Glee. Gloating. I find it sickening that anyone would be happy to see a brother or sister leave our ranks. John Donne famously wrote that he felt diminished by any man’s death. We should feel similarly diminished by any loss, no matter how it comes about.

I went for a nice long run this morning and got drenched in the fog. I felt refreshed by the quiet and the beauty of the forest preserve where I run. I recommend it to anyone feeling wounded right now.

As I ran, I kept repeating Markham’s epigram in my mind. I don’t think it’s great poetry. If I encountered it for the first time today, I might dismiss it as sentimental doggerel. But it’s a great sentiment. I’m glad my dad passed it on to me. I want to draw bigger circles, not smaller ones.