BYU Studies Quarterly just published my review essay on two recent poetry collections: Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt (Signature Books, 2013) and Lance Larsen’s Genius Loci (University of Tampa Press, 2013). Both collections are well-worth your time and they sustain and reward multiple readings. Here’s an excerpt, right from the middle of my review, to whet your lyric appetite:
Mormon theology demands that in all we do—language-making included—we attend closely to the environments we inhabit. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, then again in his sermon at the Nephite temple and to Joseph Smith in Kirtland. His utterance, reiterated across dispensations, calls his disciples to rely on his grace as they seek to build Zion: “You’re worried about where you’ll get your next meal?” he seems to ask. “How you’ll quench your thirst and clothe your nakedness? Well, look closely at the lilies. See how their relationship with the earth sustains their growth? They root in rich soil. They withhold their presence and their beauty from no one. They consume only as their needs demand and what they produce contributes—even in death—to the health and constant renewal of their environment, to which the species readily adapts. Can human institutions, which are prone to excess, say the same of themselves?
“Live, rather, like the lilies.”
Howe, it seems, has taken this imperative to heart (though perhaps not directly via Christ’s statement), using her poiesis as a way to sustain the world and to draw out her presence—as well as her readers’ presence—therein. Poet and professor Lance Larsen, who (like Howe) teaches at BYU, seems to have responded likewise, although the places he inhabits in his fourth poetry collection, Genius Loci, are more directly mobile than those Howe inhabits in Salt. Salt‘s geographies and the people and creatures who populate them are essentially in motion. But a persistent concern in Genius Loci is what it means to live in a world that doesn’t hold still—scratch that: not just to live in a world that doesn’t hold still, but to be fully present in that world.
You can read a PDF copy of the full review essay on the flipside of this link.
In Almaâ€™s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: â€œwe will compare the word unto a seed.â€ He continues by outlining some criteria for the seedâ€™s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.
My focus in this brief note is on Almaâ€™s statement about the seedâ€™s healthâ€”â€œif it be a true seed, or a good seedâ€â€”and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics.
The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes â€œgoodâ€ over â€œtrue,â€ a priority supported by the fact that he uses â€œgoodâ€ not â€œtrueâ€ through the rest of the discourse. Almaâ€™s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truthâ€”their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative arenâ€™t â€œIs it true?â€ or â€œHow true is it?â€ but â€œIs it good?â€ or â€œWhat good does it do or encourage its audience to do?â€
The prioritization of a narrativeâ€™s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (includingâ€”maybe especiallyâ€”Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.
In which I springboard off a moment from Man of Steel and explore what it means to touch people with the products and processes of the mouth. Again, I mention some things that are specific to the course I’m teaching, but you should still get the gist of what I’m talking about.
After my hiatus, I’m back with more ramblings on re: language and Mormonism (and the language of Mormonism). This week I spend some time exploring a moment in LDS Church history when the Word stepped in to save the day (as, frankly, He will). I mention some things that are specific to the course I’m teaching, but you should still get the gist of what I’m talking about.
After spending some time in the Books of Moses and Mormon over the past several weeks, in this installment I turn to an episode from Christ’s life and explore what it can teach us about life-giving language.
Per usual, your thoughts are welcome in the comments.