The Turning Aside: The Kingdom Poets Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry

By Rosenthal, Peggy | The Christian Century, October 25, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Turning Aside: The Kingdom Poets Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry


Rosenthal, Peggy, The Christian Century


The Turning Aside: The Kingdom Poets Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry

Edited by D. S. Martin

Cascade Books, 262 pp., $29.00 paperback

The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems

Edited by Mark S. Burrows

Paraclete Press, 224 pp., $20.00 paperback

The Turning Aside takes its title from a beloved poem by Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, placed as the book's epigraph. Called "The Bright Field," the poem begins with an image of a field illuminated by the sun, which the speaker notices and then forgets. He then admonishes himself for not treasuring that moment, for "life is not hurrying on to receding future"--

   It is the turning
   aside like Moses to the miracle
   of the lit bush ...

The editor, D. S. Martin, explains that all the poems he has assembled in some way pause to "turn aside." The anthology includes the work of many of the most significant English-speaking Christian poets, including Richard Wilbur, Scott Cairns, Mark Jarman, Jeanne Murray Walker, Luci Shaw, Julia Kasdorf, Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner, Les Murray, Christian Wiman, and several younger accomplished poets like Tania Runyan. I was delighted to find included one of my favorite poems, Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." Its opening image of "the morning air ... all awash with angels" is dazzling, even when we learn that these angels are sheets hung outside the window of a person waking.

Runyan discovers the transcendent in the mundane by taking biblical lines into her current context. For instance, in "Put on the New Self' (which alludes to Col. 3:10), the speaker, lying on the couch with her dog, "turns my eyes to things above / in the window," where she sees not only "squirrels gibbering" but "the face of Christ in the bark." Angels and Christ appear in unexpected forms, but we see them, these poems suggest, only when we pause to turn aside.

Baumgaertner's "My God, My God" approaches Christ's cry to God on the cross with an unexpected image: his "ragged cry" is

   like a mound
   of sand, piled high, giving way,
   falling grain on grain burying
   the burrowing crab almost impossibly

   as he does his dark work.

Other poems in this anthology turn not to a single moment, but to a reflection on language and its relation to God. While Baumgaertner's poem ends with a sober statement of God's "silence," Walker writes noisy creative fun into "In the Beginning Was the Word." The deliberate slang that opens the poem--"It was your hunch, this world. On the hey-day / of creation, you called Okay, go!" continues through "the kerfluff / of a moody moon," and trees with "their endless rummage / for light, their photo-what's-it," until:

   Soon people, bursting into language.
   Creation thinking about itself: our
     words soaring
   like yours through time, dangerous,
     ordinary words.

Another take on the interplay between God and words appears in Murray's deservedly famous "Poetry and Religion." Deftly, he makes his title terms metaphors for each other. For instance:

   God is the poetry caught in any religion,
   caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in
     a mirror

   that he attracted, being in the world
     as poetry
   is in the poem, a law against its closure. … 

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