A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith

Article excerpt

A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith

Edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler

Tupelo Press, 286 pp., $19.95 paperback

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A striking and apt image enhances the cover of this new collection of inter- views with 19 leading American poets. An antique chair sits half in shadow; its cane seat, crossed by a beam of light, filters bright intricacies onto the legs, the dowels, the timbered floor. The message here is illumination, from a source offstage. Against the dark wall behind the chair, the printed title, A God in the House, invites the reader into the mysteries of prosody and its sources.

I read this book end to end, pausing briefly between chapters. The interviews were conducted by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler either in person or by correspondence, and the poets' responses take the form of frank personal essays. From diverse backgrounds and religious or nonreligious perspectives, the stories represent a spectrum of reflections about the sources of poetry and art. Most of the poets take for truth the idea that physical realities hold meaning beyond themselves that may be accessed and celebrated through poetry. Many of those interviewed are activists against injustice, violence, poverty or abuse, and some of their activism is religious. It seems as if outrage initially propelled them into pondering how the world works, or doesn't, and into considering whether the traditional Christian view of a Creator God gives them cause for hope or reason for revolt.

I value discovering what poets have to say in prose as they find language to describe where they've come from, who they are, and how they catch a feather of experience and the emotion it carries and craft it into poetry. A common theme is the search for that indescribable place between belief and longing-guessed at or searched for and barely grasped.

This is the stuff of mystery, and many of these writers present themselves as mystics. Carolyn Forche says she finds no distance between the I and the Thou. Kazim Ali suggests that religious belief is not like a boulder to sit on but is "much more fluid." Grace Paley exclaims, "We live in mystery, and the making of the world is simply great and mysterious."

Poets tend to write as a way to search for the source of their images, as if their verses are floating a ladder through space between the visible and the unseen, hovering and ephemeral. G. C.Waldrep compares a poem to an ark, "a vessel that carries a message across a void." Gregory Orr asks: "What was the original impetus to most poems?... As is true for most poets ... this is usually a phrase. We call it 'the given.'" Each of these essays is a witness to the validity of the receiving of the gift.

Creativity itself may be an attempt to harness spirituality. For some, Christian orthodoxy is seen as death to spirituality and poetry; they resolve the problem by replacing the deity with the see Their writing often becomes a searching out of the self in order to express it. For others, such as Waldrep, Orr, Christian

Wiman and Li-Young Lee, and to some extent Jean Valentine, Marilyn Nelson and Fanny Howe, Christianity is a valued source of illumination and connection with the invisible real. Forche doesn't "attempt to resolve contradictions between spheres of faith and belief; considering all descriptions of deity as figurative. …