Saturday, December 24, 2005

Best Books of 2005 - Poetry

The Sapphire and the Stream by Denise Levertov

"'Straight to the point'
can ricochet,
Circumlocution, analogy,
parable's ambiguities, provide
context, stepping-stones."

--from Poetics of Faith

As I worked through my Master's thesis on Paul's letter to the Romans, I was constantly at pains to emphasize that most commentaries and theologians grappling with Saint Paul miss precisely this point: that he was not a systematic theologian but was rather a salesman, a story-teller, an adventurer who speaks and writes out of a whole and bountiful religious and cultural context full of allusion, indirection, irony and playfulness. How much better Denise Levertov gets to the point in this, one of many gems of religious poetry found in this late collection.

The collection is impressive, too, because Levertov was a convert to Catholicism from a largely secular Jewish upbringing (I have not read her early poetry much but am told that it is highly political--this from the Catholic Readers Society, about which more will be said in later posts). She possesses both the convert's zeal and the a Jewish sensibility about prayer, a sensibility to which I am very sympathetic. It is a sensibility that the Fathers of the Church called parrhesia or 'boldness', proper to a son or daughter speaking with a Father. To wit:

"Tyrant God.
Cruel God.
Heartless God.

God who permits
the endless outrage we call


I do nothing, I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me

minute by minute
from falling.

Lord, You provide.

---from Psalm Fragments (Schnittke String Trio)

And what a bonus that she appreciates Schnittke!

The best praise I can think of for this book is that is shares with Gerard Manley Hopkins (and with the Psalms themselves) a quality that religious poetry ought to possess: an obvious familiarity of the poet with God that expresses itself in a natural avoidance of cliche and platitude.

Honorable mention: Supernatural Love by Gjertrude Schnackenberg

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice! Levertov is one of those people whose name I've heard but can't put into a context. Thanks for the info! You hit on something here with the notion of parrhesia. It would seem to give a person's faith live the much needed "3rd dimension".


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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