Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Experiments in Sociolyric Voicing: Dubious Narrators in the Recent Work of Jeff Gundy and Keith Ratzlaff

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Experiments in Sociolyric Voicing: Dubious Narrators in the Recent Work of Jeff Gundy and Keith Ratzlaff

Article excerpt

Abstract: Poets Jeff Gundy and Keith Ratzlaff describe an interest in new, challenging approaches to the speaking voice--approaches that can include discontinuity and shifts of perspective--as a way of evolving poetic form. This essay traces how their recent works, Deerflies and Dubious Angels: Poems after Paul Klee, "shatter the lyric I" through the development of polyvocal, existence-crossing, socially diverse narrators. Readings of poems are developed in relation to communal themes in literary theories of language, narrative, spatial logic and process theology.

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  Because we are all angels kneeling, drinking, unfinished and
  dubious, wavering in the glare between worlds (1)
  --Keith Ratzlaff, Dubious Angels

  Let's imagine we know the true word
  for this life, for one duck and a silvery battered boat,
  three men on the quarry and the mumble of afternoon traffic,
  persistent and stunned as the leftover mutter of the big bang. (2)
  --Jeff Gundy, Deerflies

These quotations from Dubious Angels and Deerflies, recent books of poems by Keith Ratzlaff and Jeff Gundy, respectively, both speak from the point of view of a collective--as a "we" who persist in searching for linguistic and theological meaning in a condition of affirmative doubting, a condition of betweenness: between worlds of lived experience and of divinity, suspended between ways of knowing rather than lost in a condition of certainty. The first epigraph offers a collective image of humanity as angels who exist in an unfinished process; the second presents humans as wishing we could believe we could know the "true word," but seems dubious about the plausibility of seeking either one truth or one word for it. At the same time, a divine truth is implied as behind--or currently immanent in--the processes of ongoing evolution, the "leftover mutter of the big bang." The dubious tone in that phrase and in the paradoxical quality of evolution being both "persistent and stunned" develops an ultimacy of divine mystery by situating divinity in the unfinishedness of being and searching. Throughout this essay, my intention is to experiment with processes of reading that follow through on the terms suggested by these epigraphs: namely, as a shared, ever unfinished search for meanings on literary and theological levels. The essay thus intertwines much study of tone, language and organization of these books of poems with an analysis of their content related to process theology, community and indeterminacy.

Both books of poetry invite engagement with theological and communal issues by means of a distinctively "dubious" tone that playfully and seriously values the condition of uncertainty. Both are stylistically distinctive and notable for their complex, experimental features, one of which is the above-mentioned use of collective perspectives, which are organized through a range of very individual voices. Ratzlaff's book is a sequence of first-person lyrics spoken by diverse angels, each of whom is in linguistic, imagistic and jazz-structured improvisatory relationship to a roughly sketched angel from late in the life of modernist artist Paul Klee. (3) Four sets of traveling narratives constitute Gundy's book of poems, an organization determined by geographic spaces and spaces of knowledge or inquiry. The narrators speak from the existentialist now of perception and also from ancient themes that are shaping this perception. Gundy often presents these poems as imagined voicings of other people from other places, who observe social and environmental places, but always from the perspective of one who walks or runs or drives through--a traveler whose unfinished journey is a logical consequence of a commitment to ongoing response to the human, landscape and animal environments of others. The poet behind these voicings, as a traveler on an unfinished journey, thus offers images connecting to an ongoing, if dubiously-toned "mumble" of evolutionary creation, audible in settings varying from the language of traffic to the language of ancient texts. …

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