“An Open Palm and a Consecrated Life”

When I don’t have other things occupying my mind (and often when I do), I think a lot about language and kinship, about the potential of words to forge new relationships among people and between people and things and thereby to shape new neural, emotional, physical, and social worlds. Because I believe that language has this cosmoplastic capacity, I’m convinced that it has the potential—more than violence and threats of violence—to lead us to better, more sustainable versions of ourselves as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a species.

In light of Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, I needed to remind myself of my convictions, which inform my writing and my teaching; so, egoist that I am, I turned to an essay I had published on the topic in Sunstone last year: “‘An Open Palm and a Consecrated Life’: Three Meditations on Being-with Others.” The essay explores the implications of a question Adam Miller asks in Letters to a Young Mormon: “The question is, will we greet [the] passing [of everything and everyone we know] with a closed fist or with an open palm and a consecrated life” (75)? My response to Miller grapples with the ethics of state-sponsored violence, lyrics from Emma Lou Thayne, and Enoch’s vision of a God who weeps over human violence.

Here it is. Take my words however you will.

Mother’s Milk

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The first impression Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s Mother’s Milk gave me—and this may sound negative, but, for reasons I’ll explain, it needn’t be interpreted that way—was of a notebook filled with bits and pieces of poetry yet to be written. Many small fragments, repetitions, recursions, moments, ideas, pieces, jots, tittles. It feels like finding a poet’s moleskine on a bus bench and piecing together what she was working on.

Here’s my spin on why this … chaotic unfinish is appropriate for Mother’s Milk: Although there is plenty of evidence Heavenly Mother is in our discourse (evidence, evidenceevidence, evidence), it definitely feels like there isn’t. (Likely reason for this feeling [outside most people being unaware of what does exist]? There plain is not enough stuff.) Certainly we have not seen a single-author collection exploring this theology (I suppose this comes closest). Therefore: A collection that feels like the first steps of order being formed from chaos is exactly what people wanted to read—even if they didn’t realize it. Continue readingMother’s Milk

Claire Åkebrand’s
What Was Left of the Stars

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You likely remember Claire Åkebrand from your studious rerereading of Fire in the Pasture. I’m happy to say you can now add an all-Claire volume of poetry to your shelves.

What Was Left of the Stars came out earlier this year from Serpent Club Press. I’m not sure how aware the Mormon poetry-reading public is of her collection, but I fear the release of this volume has been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for Mother’s Milk (which I am currently about a third through and will write about when finished).

Now, I’m not about to claim that this is a “Mormon” book in the way some books are—this may be by a Mormon, but it’s not exclusively for Mormons nor indeed is it even about Mormons unless you know The Code.

But with that in mind, I’m going to do a Mormon reading of the collection’s first section, which is heavily centered on the Garden of Eden.

The first time I read this first section, I was amazed by how every poem was a distinctly Mormon look at Eden—or, to be more specific, how the poems seemed to be about the Endowment. Not just the Endowment’s version of that tale, but the actual physical act of being in the temple and “doing” an Endowment.

Rereading those poems, I wonder if my first read wasn’t a tad overread, but certainly that reading is valid and it’s the angle I want to present now.

(Incidentally, scripture is one of Åkebrand’s go-tos in the collection, even beyond this first section—among others, expect startling appearances from Lazarus, Lot’s Wife, and the angels of Revelation.) Continue reading “Claire Åkebrand’s
What Was Left of the Stars

Enter the Poetarium:
On the Problem and Promise of Alex Caldiero’s Sonosophy

After nine years of doctoral study, I’m finally putting my PhD to bed. I defend my dissertation the morning of May 1 and will be presenting some of my research in a colloquium that afternoon. If anyone’s in the Pocatello area and would like to drop in for my presentation, here are the details:

  • Title: “Enter the Poetarium: On the Problem and Promise of Alex Caldiero’s Sonosophy”
  • When: Monday, May 1st, 3-4pm
  • Where: Room 329, C H Kegel Liberal Arts Building, Idaho State University (880 South 5th Street, Pocatello, Idaho)

Here’s a rundown of what I’ll be discussing:

Utah-based poet Alex Caldiero calls his performative poetry and poetics “sonosophy.” This mode of poiesis calls upon various cultural figures and performance traditions to explore and practice language as a process of communion and relationship-making; I call this intermingling of figures and traditions Caldiero’s performance ecology. In this colloquium, I will introduce sonosophy and discuss this ecology of influences, which include Caldiero’s Sicilian cultural heritage; his mystical experience; his participation in Catholic and Latter-day Saint faith communities and religious rites; the embodied poetics of the Beat generation; the playfulness of Dada plastic, performance, and language arts; and a tradition of seers that contains (among others) the Paleolithic shaman, the premodern bard, and ancient Hebrew prophets. I will focus specifically on how this ecology was cued in Caldiero‘s 2010 “Poetarium” performance at the Utah Arts Festival and explore ways that an understanding of his performance ecology can both shed light on and provide a lens through which to interpret what Caldiero seems to be doing with sonosophy.

(The event poster.)

(Cross-posted here.)

Three Poems by Mormon Women to Joseph F. Smith, 1855-1857

Joseph F. SmithMy recent study on the correspondence of Ina Coolbrith and Joseph F. Smith introduced me to three poems Mormon women wrote to the future prophet while he was on his first mission to the Sandwich Islands (1854-1858). While each poem shares some common themes and sentiments, their quality, style, and content vary in interesting and revealing ways.

The poems come from members of Joseph F. Smith’s family. Eliza R. Snow, Smith’s aunt through her plural marriage to Joseph Smith, wrote the earliest of the poem:

Lines address’d to Elder

Joseph Smith, Missionary to the Sandwich Islands

By Eliza R. Snow.

Joseph, the Lord has blest you
To be in early youth,
A herald of salvation—
A messenger of Truth.

And yet, the load is heavy
For youthful nerves to bear,
Amid the hosts of trials
The sons of Zion share.

Continue reading “Three Poems by Mormon Women to Joseph F. Smith, 1855-1857”

On Poets & Poetry: Salt to the World

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.

(Cross-posted here.)

Vote in the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz and you will be blessed

Voting for the twelve finalist of the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz is now open through this Saturday, June 11. The editors have made it super easy to vote this year. Just click on the link above, open up the links to each of the eligible works in a new tab, narrow your choice down to four, rank those four and then fill out the form on the original page.

Also: if you feel compelled to publicly comment on any or some or all of the entries, do leave a comment on the discussion post. We authors appreciate it when readers engage with what we wrote.

It’s a fascinating group of finalists this year — some names that are familiar from LitBlitzes of yore; some that are new. And quite the eclectic mix of poetry, personal essay and poetry. Kathy Cowley and James and Nicole Goldberg have done a wonderful job. So much so that I’m going to say something about each of the entries. You might want to wait to read the commentary below until you’ve read all of the entries. But I’m not kidding when I claim that you will be blessed if you do the reading required to vote for the finalists. I was:

“Foolish and Wise” by Lisa Barker: Lisa gets at something that I can really relate to — parables often present contrasts of two or three types of individuals. But most of us don’t fall cleanly into one of those types. We’re both or all.

“Fresh Courage Take” by Bradeigh Godfrey: when it comes to flash fiction the most difficult thing to do is fit a robust premise into 1,000 words. Bradeigh chooses the right situation for his story. We’re so familiar with the post-apocalyptic/trek back to Zion tropes that he doesn’t need to worldbuild those out. Instead he shows us the emotional impact and let’s us fill in the blanks to add even more weight to the story.

 “Leaving Egypt” by Tyler Chadwick: When I taught the Old Testament, I was a bit harsh on the Children of Israel at points, but I also tried to show how they weren’t all that different from us and tried to provide context for their experience. Tyler captures in a few lines what weeks of clumsy lecturing on my part barely got across. That’s the power of poetry, folks.

“Ghost” by Merrijane Rice: I’m going to repeat a comment I left on the discussion post — If “Ghost” is about what I think it’s about, then Merrijane has given me quite the bittersweet view of the future (my daughter is currently 12). Actually: already starting to glimpse it. But then again: isn’t that exactly a type and shadow of our relationship to our Heavenly Parents? — and then add that this line continues to resonate with me: “let me haunt the corners of your mind”

 “Requiem for Those People Who Lived Briefly in Your Ward” by Rose Green: Transient ward members are such a pain. The ones who live in a place too long to be visitors but not long enough to settle in. The ones who you have to reorganize home and visiting teaching around. Who you want to get to know, but not too well because, well, it’s painful when people you love leave. Read that third to last paragraph again. What a perfectly observed metaphor with a multitude of meanings.

 “The Gift of Tongues“ by Annaliese Lemmon: I love, love, love that Annaliese takes this initial (very interesting and unique) conceit and then complicates it in a way that is so very Mormon.

 “Branch 9 ¾” by Kaki Olsen: I have a thing about the personal essay form. I so often find it frustrating. Too crafted. Too earnest. Not fiction. But here Kaki takes one of the major themes that preoccupies me on an abstract level — that of the interaction between Mormonism and the broader culture — and presents us with something very real and meaningful.

“Golden Contact” by Lee Allred: Lee’s story is a joke. I mean that literally not as a commentary on the story. But I like that even in a story that is a joke Lee can include lines like “There’s sort of a unnatural sharkskin texture to them that almost glows.” He’s one of our best at expressing the uniqueness of Mormonism in a unique way.

“The Back Row” by Kelli Swofford Nielsen: Kelli’s essay does for me some of the same things that “Branch 9 3/4” and “Requiem for Those People Who Lived Briefly in Your Ward” did but with the added bonus that because I’m a back row sitter (who underwent a similar process to that described in the essay), I can very much identify with her observations.

“Rumors of Wars” by Zachary Lunn: An impactful poem because it connects the wars of today with the Church of today with the Church and wars of before and does so with some simple, powerful imagery.  

 “Last Tuesday” by William Morris: I hope other readers find that it balances the things I wanted to balance; otherwise, it’s kind of ridiculous. But what am I if not a leading Mormon purveyor of the ridiculous and the sublime?

 “From the East” by Merrijane Rice: While up until this year Steve Peck might have some claim to the crown, I think it’s now obvious that Merrijane owns the Mormon Lit Blitz contest. This poem is another proof why. Pay especial attention to the rhythm of it and the use of alliteration which seems profligate in its abundance until you read it out loud and then it seems perfect.

Elizabeth C. Garcia’s Stunt Double: A Review

Elizabeth C. Garcia’s new chapbook Stunt Double (Finishing Line Press, 2015) is a strong contribution to the field of Mormon poetry. While not overtly Mormon in content, it addresses many of the themes and preoccupations—social and theological—that Mormons grapple with regularly. Specifically, Garcia’s poems display an obsession with the internal landscape of family dynamics, foregrounding intricate ties that bind parents to each other and their children. Often, Mormons speak of interest in these ties as the “Spirit of Elijah,” or the turning of generational hearts to each other. While this “spirit” is usually associated with genealogical work, Garcia’s poems show how the it can manifest itself as we seek to understand the nature of family, generations, and the lived, enduring consequences of human relationships.

We see this happen, always subtly, in most poems in the collection. In “Leaving California,” a poem Garcia dedicates to her mother, we see how something as simple as a cross-country move accentuates the cost of family life on the individual:

She bundled up her baby, all her mother things, her books,

till the blue wagon was full. Her husband drove the whole way,

 

so she watched the desert, how it stood still for minutes

at a time, only moved when she wasn’t looking, like her life,

 

plucked,             because he had a dream:

they would live in Georgia, where she knew no one,

Continue reading “Elizabeth C. Garcia’s Stunt Double: A Review”