Poetry Roundup: Huntington, Luddy, Hecht

Some poetry collections that have recently come across my desk:

Cynthia Huntington’s The Radiant has been on my must-read list ever since a poem from this collection, “The Rapture”, made the rounds on my poetry listserv. (It’s reproduced on the website of Four Way Books, which awarded Huntington their Levis Poetry Prize in 2003.) The book is well-named because a sublime light pierces through her treatment of even the darkest subjects, as in “The Rapture”, describing the seizure that heralded the onset of her multiple sclerosis:

I remember standing in the kitchen, stirring bones for soup,
and in that moment, I became another person.

It was an early spring evening, the air California mild.
Outside, the eucalyptus was bowing compulsively

over the neighbor’s motor home parked in the driveway.
The street was quiet for once, and all the windows were open.

Then my right arm tingled, a flutter started under the skin.
Fire charged down the nerve of my leg; my scalp exploded

in pricks of light. I shuddered and felt like laughing;
it was exhilarating as an earthquake. A city on fire

after an earthquake.

A lover’s betrayal is another of the book’s main storylines. Here, she is equally at ease flinging visceral curses at the other woman (“I want to throw stones at her mother’s corpse,/send her children to name-change foster homes”) and depicting the austere beauty of the Cape Cod coastline where she goes to face down her solitude. The latter theme connects the luminous poems in the first section, “On the Atlantic”, where pain and peace somehow coexist in concise verses whose every word feels bought at a great price. From “Vale”:

This vale of tears, this world…
As in: the valley of the shadow
of death, the cloud, the fall,
the unknowing. As when he said
“I’ve had another life”
and his face was lit with escape.

This world is where we die:
place of gardens and fires,
water carried up from streams.
Water carves itself a home
in the lowest place. Can only rest
when there is nowhere to fall.

There is no easy hope here, and yet The Radiant is anything but despairing. Though stylistically more accessible, it reminded me of Katie Ford’s Deposition, one of my favorite poetry books, which is similarly haunted by an ineffable God who is sensed through absence and obedient suffering. In “Hades”, Huntington writes that God made the dog “Stunned by desire,/mistaking the vastness /of his hunger for a taste/of the eternal”:

It’s always the same,
so awkwardly sad,
how they stare at you
when you’re making dinner
or having tea and reach
for a biscuit–how they’re
transfixed with wanting.
“It’s not the real God,”
you tell them, “not the food
of this earth.”
But they don’t believe you,
and are not saved,
and that is why a dog
is set to snatch and growl
at shades, starving forever
before the dismal gates.

My only criticism of Huntington is that she sometimes falls too much in love with her own best lines, repeating them more than once in the same poem. Some writers like to do this to give free verse more structure, but I find that it usually dilutes the effect of the line in question, making it seem like a clever prepared remark rather than a spontaneous outcry compelled by the emotions of the poem. The illusion of unguardedness is important to maintain, however much we know that poems this good are the product of careful craft.


Wolf Heart is North Carolina author Karon Luddy’s first poetry collection. By turns sassy, nostalgic, heartbreaking and wise, these poems cover some of the same territory as her hilarious and moving young-adult novel Spelldown, about an irrepressible adolescent girl whose love of learning provides an escape from small-town poverty and her father’s alcoholism. As a writer who works in both genres, I found it instructive to see how new facets of the same events were revealed, depending on whether the narrator was the young girl, masking her vulnerability in sarcastic down-home prose, or the mature woman poet, able to assemble the fragments of memory into a clear-sighted yet compassionate picture of a troubled family.

Luddy’s poetic style is simple and straightforward, but she has a gift for apt phrases, folksy yet with a sting. For instance, in “What They Didn’t Cure”, about her father’s hospitalization for pneumonia, she selects a few key details to expose both personal and class-based tensions:

Has he been crazy like that before? the doctor asked.
No, but he drinks an awful lot, Mama said,
then hung her head
like a little girl who’d been
caught killing a kitten.

Delirium tremens–the doctor pronounced
as if he’d solved the riddle of the Sphinx.
A week later, pneumonia cured,
they discharged my father, his eyes shining like
black marbles he’d won from the Devil.


I really wanted to love Jennifer Michael Hecht’s new poetry collection, Funny. Her first collection, The Next Ancient World, came out from Tupelo Press around the time of the 9/11 attacks, and brilliantly anticipated the disorientation of a late-stage empire waking up to the news that its historical moment would pass away like all others before it. For Hecht, a historian and philosopher, humor is always connected to its cognate, humility. As she explains in Funny‘s concluding theoretical essay (which is worth the cover price all by itself), comedy generally arises from someone else’s lack of self-knowledge. Something is funny because we, the outsiders, see the absurdity of a situation that the participants are dead serious about.

In this sense, humor can be a leveling political force, similar to the study of history. To show that ideas have a history, as Nietzsche did in The Genealogy of Morals, is to make formerly self-evident truths appear contingent, and thereby open up space for other ideologies. Hecht’s most recent nonfiction book, The Happiness Myth, applies this genial skepticism to various conceptions of the good life from ancient times to the present. (This book is so well-written that she nearly persuaded me to get high and march in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade, which suggests that the Athenians had a point about the dangers of philosophy.)

Funny is a high-concept book that unfortunately didn’t animate its theoretical skeleton to my satisfaction. I loved the premise: each poem is an extended riff on a somewhat corny joke, imagining back-stories for the characters and exploring what their predicament reveals about human alienation and mortality. I bought the book on the strength of “Hat Trick”, one of the best in the collection, which I read on The Cortlandt Review website. Other favorites in this book were “A Little Mumba” and “Chicken Pig”. Too many of the poems, though, were not as tightly written, feeling more like scattered notes for a philosophy lecture, without an emotional investment in the characters.

I wonder whether Hecht has fallen prey to a type of spiritual exhaustion that I’ve seen in writers who look too long at death without forging a connection to the transcendent. It’s the same mood that darkens absurdist-philosophical comedies like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life or Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series, as well as the later works of poets Stephen Dobyns and Mark Strand. Perhaps “life as cosmic joke” falls flat by Hecht’s own standards because a godless universe has no outside vantage point from which we can laugh at our own short-sightedness on earth. There’s no possibility of getting outside, no larger context to shrink our agonies down to scale. Without the Divine, perhaps there can be no Comedy.

Bimbo No More

This health story from specialty-foods purveyor Vital Choice is the best news I’ve heard in a while:

Curvy Women and their Babies Test a Bit Smarter
Women with heftier hips and thighs test smarter, as do their kids; Cognitive edge is attributed to the higher omega-3 levels in lower-body fat
by Craig Weatherby

People’s perceptions of female beauty range widely across the world, and Western cultures’ standards for womanly allure changed dramatically in the decades following World War II.

Nowadays, being thin is in, with the linear figures of top fashion models getting so slim as to incite official attempts to bar underweight models and their starvation-style diet regimens.

There’s little doubt that women with smaller waists bigger hips and thighs – proportions that researchers call a “low waist-hip ratio” – have long constituted the female ideal.

From ancient India and Persia to classical-era Greece and Rome, up through the 19th century, portrayals of ideal women were curvaceous females with plump hips, ample thighs, and modest waists.

The voluptuous, curvaceous women portrayed by 17th century Dutch painter Peter Paul Rubens gave women of this body type the appellation “Rubenesque”….

Fleshy, curvaceous Rubenesque women were the Western world’s female ideal until well into the 20th century, and remain the acme of attractiveness in much of the modern world.

The results of new research suggest there’s an evolutionary reason why men have long favored this particular type of female pulchritude.

In fact, most men associate the term pulchritude – which the dictionary defines simply as “female beauty” – with ample, curvaceous figures in the mode of Marilyn Monroe or Jennifer Lopez.

The new findings suggest that men’s common misuse of the term reveals an ancient, evolution-driven yen for fuller figures, which seem to signal a smarter mate … and one who will produce brainier offspring to boot….

Study finds curvy women and their babies extra smart: Omega-3s seen as key
Periodically, the US Dept. of Health and Human Services conducts The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) among American adults and children.

This large health survey is unique because it includes medical examinations and laboratory tests in addition to questionnaires about diet and lifestyle.

A new analysis of NHANES data has produced intriguing new findings that tie women’s body shapes to their mental performance and their children’s brain power.

Compared with abdominal fat and other upper-body fat, the fat in women’s hips and thighs contains relatively higher proportions of omega-3 fatty acids: the kind of fat most important for brain development.

In contrast, abdominal fat and other upper-body fat is relatively low in omega-3s, and relatively high in omega-6 and saturated fats. These fats are, respectively, less important to brain development/performance, and possibly unhelpful to it….

Read the whole article here. (Ignore the gratuitously cutesy and anti-feminist final paragraphs, where Weatherby takes evidence that ought to be empowering to us stout, brainy chicks and turns it into an excuse for men to ogle women other than their wives and girlfriends. “I couldn’t help it, honey, it was her omega-3’s!”)

Somewhere, Velma Dinkley is smiling.

Christmas Carol: Sing a Different Song

Sing a different song now Christmas is here,
sing a song of people knowing God’s near:
The Messiah is born in the face of our scorn,
sing a different song to welcome and warn.

Shout a different shout now Christmas is here,
shout a shout of joy and genuine cheer:
Fill the earth and the sky with the news from on high,
shout a different shout that all may come by.

Love a different love now Christmas is here,
love without condition, love without fear:
With the humble and poor, with the shy and unsure,
love a different love. Let Christ be the cure!

Dance a different dance now Christmas is here,
dance a dance of war on suffering and fear:
Peace and justice are one, in the light of the sun,
Dance a different dance, God’s reign has begun!

Music: Different Song John Bell (20th C)
Words: The Iona Community (20th C)

Hear the music here. Merry Christmas!

Readings for Christmas Eve: Darkness and Light

The Christmas season is a time of contrasts. In a dark cold night, the light of a star offers hope. The King of Kings is born in a humble manger. The church’s Advent readings draw this contrast even sharper. When the society around us is celebrating with holly-jolly cartoon characters and piles of presents, we’re asked to think about repentance, prophecy and the end times.

Why dwell on sin and death as preparation for Christ’s birth? Otherwise we would miss the true world-colliding awesomeness of the event. “Peace on earth, goodwill to humankind,” we say, as if good intentions made it so. But peace and solidarity are fragile flames, always in danger of being blown out by the dark winds of violence, power struggles and prejudice. Forget this and we forget to shield them against the enemies that arise within and without. God as infant is not merely born into love and cuddles, but into all the vulnerability of being human in a sinful world. Like all of us, he is born to die — but not only to die, as Easter tells us.

So Christmas is not the end of the story. It is still part of the between-times that do not reach their resolution until the Second Coming, and so we read Bible passages about the continuing war between darkness and light.

Yet light will win in the end. How do we know? Not because of overpowering military force, but because of this baby who was born. How improbable, how full of grace.

Christmas Bells
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The Carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of Peace on earth, good-willl to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
    ‘For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Elisha Porat: “Metamorphosis”

        To the memory of Arieh Lahola

He did not attempt to saw the bars
but carried his cage around on his back:
days, nights, years, ages.
And when the gleam of the water beckoned,
the small pleasant ripples tempting him,
its heavy weight pulled him to the depths.

He did not kick and did not rail
just sank, succumbing to
the river: resigned, passive, estranged,
so far from the Land of Israel.

He did not chant and did not speak,
language deserted him in the bubbles
empty, soft, dizzying.
His throat was waterlogged and he
choked, stifled, was transformed
and floated, voiceless and without language:
A rhythmic hum emanated from him,
his swollen legs twitched
and his arms beat like those of a drummer.

        Translated from the Hebrew by Cindy Eisner

Read more work by Israeli poet Elisha Porat in the journal Deep South, from which this poem is reprinted by permission. Deep South is a publication of the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Remembering Dorothy L. Sayers

Mystery writer and Christian apologist Dorothy L. Sayers died on this date in 1957, and is commemorated in a very informative thumbnail bio at The Daily Office. More reflections on her work can be found at the blog Dead Christians Society.

Her 1940 lecture “Creed or Chaos?” is a bracing rebuke to “enlightened” Westerners who would like to have religious sentiment without doctrinal clarity. As later postmodern critics of liberalism were to point out, everyone has a creed, a set of core beliefs about the nature of humanity and the universe, on which we base our political, ethical and economic choices. The historical context of her speech — Europe facing the rising Nazi threat — reminds us how high the stakes can be. Sayers argues:

While there is a superficial consensus about the ethics of behaviour, we can easily persuade ourselves that the underlying dogma is immaterial. We can, as we cheerfully say, “agree to differ.” “Never mind about theology,” we observe in kindly tones, “if we just go on being brotherly to one another it doesn’t matter what we believe about God.” We are so accustomed to this idea that we are not perturbed by the man who demands: “If I do not believe in the fatherhood of God, why should I believe in the brotherhood of man?” That, we think, is an interesting point of view, but it is only talk — a subject for quiet after-dinner discussion. But if the man goes on to translate his point of view into action, then, to our horror and surprise, the foundations of society are violently shaken, the crust of morality that looked so solid splits apart, and we see that it was only a thin bridge over an abyss in which two dogmas, incompatible as fire and water, are seething explosively together.

In this sense, militant atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have more in common with Sayers than with liberal-relativist Christians. They understand that religious doctrines have life-or-death consequences, though they disagree about what those are. (This theme was dramatized in G.K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross, about an atheist and a Catholic who propose to duel to the death, and instead become fast friends because no one else they encounter even understands why the issue is worth dying for.)

Here is Sayers on the Incarnation, also from “Creed or Chaos”:

It is quite useless to say that it doesn’t matter particularly who or what Christ was or by what authority He did those things, and that even if He was only a man, He was a very nice man and we ought to live by his principles: for that is merely Humanism, and if the “average man” in Germany chooses to think that Hitler is a nicer sort of man with still more attractive principles, the Christian Humanist has no answer to make.

It is not true at all that dogma is “hopelessly irrelevant” to the life and thought of the average man. What is true is that ministers of the Christian religion often assert that it is, present it for consideration as though it were, and, in fact, by their faulty exposition of it make it so. The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ was only man, then He is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if He is only God, then He is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all.

Finally, visit the archives of conservative webzine The View from the Core for more pithy quotes from Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker and other works.

More Thoughts on the Prose-Poem

In the latest issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry, my friend Ellen LaFleche reflects on how the prose-poem genre, occupying a space that is betwixt and between, can be especially fruitful for exploring the identity disruptions produced by illness:

I experience diabetes as a disease that lives on and between boundaries. For example, the person newly diagnosed with diabetes is told that they have “control” over the disease process. Achieving this “control” involves a difficult regime of diet, exercise, self-education, glucose monitoring, frequent labwork, and numerous visits to specialists. But diabetes is also a progressive disease, a reality that even the most dedicated diabetic cannot change. And even someone with tight control over their blood glucose levels can experience complications. So the idea of “control” is both a reality and an illusion. Some experts claim that diabetes can even be “reversed” with various dietary supplements such as cinnamon capsules or fenugreek seeds. These did not work for me, and I had to struggle with feelings of guilt over not being able to miraculously reverse my illness. Perhaps the most confusing boundary was when a specialist told me that I could be a “healthy person with an illness.” What did that mean? Was I ill, or healthy? Or both? Can a person be both ill and healthy at the same time?…

I had written and published four prose poems before I realized how strongly I had tapped into my unconscious feelings about illness. All of the fairy tale characters were struggling with some form of disability or illness. In my first prose poem, Rapunzel has suffered a stroke (a possible complication of diabetes.) (“Rapunzel Recovers from a Stroke”, Patchwork Journal, online here) She cannot speak, so she spits fire at the nurse who wants to cut off her archetypal long hair. Rapunzel’s hair is her power. I realize now that this poem helped me to prepare myself for a possible future complication. Yes, I will spit fire at any person who tries to take away any part of my power or dignity.

In “Identity Theft”, (Silkworm, 2007) Rumpelstiltskin experiences rage at his situation. He has been promised the queen’s firstborn son – he did, after all, save the queen’s life by spinning straw into gold. But the queen refuses to honor her side of the bargain. She deceives him by stealing his identity. Rumpelstiltskin has lost control – something that I deeply fear as a try to manage my illness – and he feels justifiable anger. He splits in half, “a kind of split personality.” Only after seeing this prose poem in print did I realize that the words “split personality” reflect my struggles over the daily duality of control vs. non-control, over the strange duality of illness vs. health.
Ellen’s poetry appears in this issue of Wordgathering, along with African poets Tendai Mwanaka and Omosun Sylvester, and other well-known names.

I used to tell people that I was a poet because I had too short an attention span to write prose. (So how did I end up writing two novels at the same time?) At the Poets.org site, Lynn Emanuel’s entertaining, edgy prose-poem “The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am a Poet” echoes this sentiment:

…And then he smiled. And that smile was a gas station on a dark night. And as wearying as all the rest of it. I am many things, but dumb isn’t one of them. And here is where I say to Jill, “I just can’t go on.” I mean, how we get from the smile into the bedroom, how it all happens, and what all happens, just bores me. I am a concep- tual storyteller. In fact, I’m a conceptual liver. I prefer the cookbook to the actual meal. Feeling bores me. That’s why I write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the reader and say, “Reader, you go on from here.” And what I like about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader. They’re not like some people, who maybe do it right if you tell them, “Put this foot down, and now put that one in front of the other, button your coat, wipe your nose.”

So, really, I do it for the readers who work hard and, I feel, deserve something better than they’re used to getting. I do it for the working stiff. And I write for people, like myself, who are just tired of the trickle-down theory where some- body spends pages and pages on some fat book where every- thing including the draperies, which happen to be burnt orange, are described, and, further, are some metaphor for something. And this whole boggy waste trickles down to the reader in the form of a little burp of feeling. God, I hate prose. I think the average reader likes ideas.
Read the whole piece here.

Support Prisoner Re-entry Programs

The Episcopal Public Policy Network is urging members to contact their U.S. senators in support of the Second Chance Act (Senate Bill 1060), which would give federal funding to state programs that rehabilitate prisoners and ease their re-entry into the community. These programs offer literacy and job training, drug treatment, and other mental and physical health services. The bill passed the House of Representatives this fall. Read more about it in Episcopal Life Online.

In other prison-reform news, Thousand Kites, a dialogue project on the U.S. criminal justice system, tomorrow will host its “Calls From Home” national radio broadcast for prisoners. Call their toll-free line (888-396-1208) Dec. 11 from 3 PM to 11 PM Eastern time to record your message to an incarcerated friend or family member. Messages will be included in a broadcast to over 120 radio stations across the country. Find out more here.

Violence Erupts Over Gay Jesus Art


Kittredge Cherry reports on her Jesus In Love blog about violence that broke out at an exhibit of photos by Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin:

A group of young people tried to set fire to a poster at the cultural center that was exhibiting her photos of a queer Christ. Staff intervened and as many as 30 people joined the fight, according to news reports.

The recent melee broke out over her Ecce Homo series, which recreates scenes from Christ’s life in a contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) context. The conflict occurred in the Swedish city of Jonkoping, known as a center of evangelical Christianity.

Wallin’s “Sermon on the Mount” is one of my favorite images from Cherry’s book Art That Dares, which I blogged about in August. Buy a copy and sign up for the Jesus In Love newsletter here.

More provocative and enlightening images from Ohlson’s Ecce Homo series can be viewed on her website. The AIDS-victim Pieta and the gay-bashing crucifixion fit comfortably with compassionate liberal Christian sensibilities, but what to make of John baptizing a naked Jesus at the baths? Does it sully a spiritual moment with sexual innuendo, or reveal an unlikely place where Christ may be present? It speaks well of this photo that I can’t collapse it into a single meaning. Perhaps it illuminates how sex can be both transcendent and decadent–and how religion also contains the potential for vulgarity and excess.

All I know is, if the wedding feast of the Lamb is anything like Ohlson’s drag-queen Last Supper, I’d better start planning my outfit. (In heaven, everyone looks great in a thong.)

Episcopal Diocese Secedes Over Gay Issue

The Fresno, CA-based Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin yesterday became the first full diocese to split from the national church over disagreements about the Bible’s view of homosexuality. The diocese, which is also one of the three US Episcopal dioceses that rejects the ordination of women, voted to place itself under the authority of a conservative South American congregation. Over 50 Episcopal parishes have seceded from the national church in the past few years to protest the trend toward recognition of gay relationships. CNN.com has the full story here.

I find it sad and ironic that in the name of upholding “tradition”, certain Episcopal congregations are playing fast and loose with our entire system of church governance, as well as dishonoring their vows to respect the authority of their bishop. There are many Protestant denominations that operate on a more congregationalist model, where individual churches are free to reshuffle their allegiance when doctrines or personalities clash. The Episcopal Church is not one of them.

Is the episcopate a flawed system? Do we want every person, every church, to vote their own conscience and pull up stakes when their superiors fall below some level of doctrinal purity? That’s a popular position, especially in hyper-individualistic America, but don’t call it historic Anglicanism. It’s more like those 1970s wedding vows where you promised to stay together only as long as you were both meeting each other’s needs for self-actualization.

And they say the gays are ruining marriage.