Bez & Co- January 2022 Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-
pseudesthesia • Daniel Jones
Saint Peter • S.E. Reid
Pray For Us Mothers • Mary Tarantini

Book Review-
Cuarentena • Stephen Lang [Wipf & Stock]

Advanced Book Review and Interview-
I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember • Matthew J. Andrews

pseudesthesia

Here goes our phantom limb of hope.
We both feel something
which hasn’t existed in years.
A flutter, a tremor, a quaver, for me.
For you, a nagging ache.

-Daniel R. Jones

Saint Peter

the small dead fir
had hidden behind a taller hemlock
until the storm
brought it to its knees,

tipped near the top
snapped
head downward
shaggy and undignified
against our driveway.

that’s where the dog and I found it the next morning,
puffs of breath in the cold sunlight
we walked around it,
admiring how it had hidden there
until this moment of revelation;

the dog investigated its top-most branches
seeking out bird-hymns and bug-psalms
as yet unsniffed;

but my nose could only find the sweet scent
of the dozens of usnea lichen that had grown
soft and fragrant
slowly eating away at the dead limbs;

and I thought: what a fate
for your true beauty
to be witnessed in this death,
shaggy and undignified,

a testament
upside-down.

-S.E. Reid

S.E. Reid

S.E. Reid is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living on a patch of wooded wetland in the Pacific Northwest with her craftsman husband and her big black dog, Finn. Her nonfiction work has appeared in the now-retired Plants Are Magic magazine in the UK as well as the current issue of Being Human magazine, and her short fiction has been published by webzine Mysterion. She regularly posts her poetry and short prose on Instagram. When not writing she loves to cook nourishing food, read widely, and tend to her vegetable garden. Website: http://writersereid.wordpress.com

Pray For Us Mothers

A cardinal alighted upon a branch
Outside my window pane
Red against a piney green – 
I called you by your name

Your name is ever on my lips
My first gift to my first love
Bestowed before you breathed your first
With every dream I could ever dream of

I never should have lived to see
The day that you were taken from me
Pray for us mothers who bury their babes
Kneeling by gravestones now bearing their names

– Mary Tarantini

Mary Tarantini
Mary Tarantini, TSSF, is a poet, mother, high school English teacher, and a professed member of The Third Order Society of Saint Francis. She holds a BA in English and a MA in Theological Studies. Some of her poems have been published in The Franciscan Times, the newsletter of The Third Order Society of Saint Francis.

Review of Cuarantena by Stephen Lang
[Review by Daniel R. Jones]

Besides the obvious tragedy of the climbing death toll, the outbreak of COVID-19 gave way to a myriad of other, more subtle tragedies. The trajectory of the entire world seemed to turn on its heel, overnight. The routines we so tightly clung to were disrupted and thrown askew. And somehow, born out of all that chaos, was Cuarentena, Steve Lang’s second collection of poetry.

You may remember this author from our inaugural issue, released exactly one year ago today. His poem “Humility” appeared in that issue. “Humility” can be found in this collection as well, alongside 39 other well-sculpted poems that plumb the depths of human experience.

Lang’s preface tells us that our English word “quarantine” comes from the Venetian word “quarantena,” which literally translates to “forty days.” A ship entering the port of Venice had to spend 40 days in isolation in the days of the Black Death.

And while most of these poems are not directly “about” the pandemic, they all stemmed from it.

On the one hand, you could liken these 40 poems to the 40 days Christ spent in the desert: they’re stark, raw, and often take an unflinching gaze at the most painful parts of our humanity. An example of this can be found in Lang’s short poem “Late Afternoon Sunlight.” He writes:

Late afternoon sunlight

On a cloudless day
in El Salvador

So pure
And placid
And appaling

Upon cracking the spine of Cuarenta, Lang’s attention to craftsmanship and wordsmithing become immediately obvious. His images are so deftly crafted that they’re sure to haunt his readers with an uncanny feeling, long after the book is set aside. One fascinating example of this comes in the poem “Littoral,” which inverts a saccharine “Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul” type anecdote and fleshes it out with a more austere and poignant sense of abandonment.

But yet, for all the dark shades present, Lang rounds out the picture with lighter tints. The wide-eyed surrender into the Kairos of the present moment can be seen in “Ser/Estar.” Indeed, throughout the entire book, the effortless vacillation between Spanish and English (Lang wrote these poems in El Salvador) adds a level of intrigue and musicality to the poems.

Although an English-only poem, “Orchid” shows off Lang’s abilities to craft a sonorous poem as well as any in this book. He writes: “…Pink slippers lurid/ Adder’s mouth/ Resupine/ All wanton inflorescence/ Labellum swollen fused/ In Vanilla inner whorl…” The cadence and vibrant imagery of the flower creates for a gorgeous reading experience.

But perhaps my favorite in the collection is the poem “Cuarenta.”It’s a rumination on the number “40” as much as it is an exploration of our own quarantine. Rather than spoiling a perfect piece of writing, I’ll only say that it manages to be the most profound poem I’ve read on the subject of our post-Coronavirus world.

If, coming out of the past couple of years, you—like me—ask yourself, “What more can be said about this pandemic?” The answer is “Cuarenta.”

And in a broader sense, one that spans much more than just COVID-19 and the global backlash to it, Stephen Lang has much to say to you in Cuarentena. The subject-matter is wide and engrossing, the language is vivid and lyrical, and the author doesn’t shy away from taking on the most difficult of topics. Grab your copy at Wipf and Stock’s website or Amazon today.

Daniel R. Jones

Interview with Matthew J. Andrews

Daniel: First and foremost, Matt, thanks for taking the time to chat. Right there in the blurb, it’s announced that I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is “born of spiritual crisis.” Without prying into your personal life, can you talk a little about that? How did events in your own life inform the creation of these poems?

Matt: In short, the “crisis” at hand was a real disconnection with the Christian faith, which had once permeated every aspect of my life. I grew up in church, absorbed all the right teachings, even contemplated seminary, but within a matter of years I found myself on the brink of apostasy. I had a lot of things pulling me away, but at the heart of them was the fact that I had grown disillusioned with the Bible, what we often put at the centerpiece of the faith. I grew to no longer trust it, to place its stories more in the category of “myth” than “truth,” which had a domino effect everywhere else.

I spent many years adrift before I felt compelled to revisit my faith, and poetry was a big part of that process once I did. The poems in this collection were written as a way of reengaging with the stories of the Bible, of trying to breathe new life into something that had become stale and lifeless, of making these communal narratives feel personal again. I spent about two years writing poetry in this way, just creating out of the need within me. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I had a collection on my hands.

Daniel: Speaking of “spiritual crisis,” this book is filled to the brim with biblical figures facing such a dilemma! The collection is described as being filled with characters that “struggle with their place in the grand narrative.” What I find interesting is that some of these struggles are emotional (i.e. the picture we see in “Ezekiel’s Wife,”) while other struggles could be described as cognitive or “thinking errors.” (I’m thinking particularly of the eyebrow-raising methods suggested in “Boanerges.”)  When you wrote these poems, how did you choose the particular struggle each character faced?

Matt: Most of these poems sprang up pretty organically. As I read through the Bible again (and again and again), it became sort of a spiritual discipline, something akin to the practice of Lectio Divina. Rather than trying to force anything, I tried to let myself notice what I was taking away from my reading: what characters am I relating to, what images are resonating with me, and what emotions am I experiencing as a result? I then built poems based on honest answers to those questions. It wasn’t until I looked at these poems as a whole that I understood just how much I was writing about the challenges these characters must have faced, the burden that comes with being compelled by the hand of God.  

Your examples are interesting, and I think they point to the variety of ways people struggle with faith. On one hand, the story of Ezekiel’s wife (detailed in Ezekiel 24, for those who are unfamiliar) is told so quickly that it’s easy to overlook it, but it’s a troubling story with a real human cost and some hard questions about servitude and justice. It’s hard not to read that story and have your heart sink into the floor, to feel like Ezekiel was a victim. “Boanerges,” inspired by James and John offering to call down fire and destroy a Samaritan village in Luke 9, is a very different kind of struggle, one based more on the corrupting power of a faith held too closely to the chest, where the main character looks more like a villain. In the end, both are very human stories, and I certainly find pieces of myself in both of them.

Daniel: The carnal, more base desires are at odds with higher, more spiritual purposes in this collection, just as they conflict in Scripture (and indeed, in our everyday lives.) The Bible is filled with broken people who use songs, hymns, and poetry to process the disparity between spiritual reality and the way they feel. This is probably most evident in the Psalms of King David. To what degree does writing serve this purpose for you? Do you see writing as a sacrament of worship or a method to process the events of your life?

Matt: Writing poetry is definitely a process for myself, a way of wrestling with the things that weigh on me. And as a man with propensities for doubt and cynicism, I have many things weighing on me! This is not to say that I don’t also write poems that venture into the area of worship, but even when that happens, I feel much more like I am exploring the depths of something I don’t quite understand than making declarations that come anywhere close to sacramental.

Daniel: You said that poetry is a “way of wrestling with the things that weigh on me.” Israel, of course, means “wrestles with God,” and anyone who does even a cursory reading of the imprecatory psalms can see that King David used poetry to work through some tough emotions. How does one make this an edifying exercise? As we all know, when dwelling on the tough aspects of life through the arts, it’s easy to become self-indulgent or lead ourselves into a worse headspace than when we started. What’s your take on this?

Matt: The job of the poet is to interrogate and probe, and I think that’s key to avoiding the holes you described. When wrestling and writing, I try to take a step back and create some distance, to give myself space to ask questions: Where do these feelings come from? What do they mean in terms of my relationships with others, or with God? How would I feel if things were different? I think writing from a place of exploration keeps you balanced. 

In retrospect, I’m seeing now that working through issues via biblical characters automatically creates some of that distance by channeling myself through their experiences, sort of like giving a kid a toy to play with in therapy. As a result, the poems end up a strange hybrid of myself and the characters.

Daniel: Are there specific poems in this book that you hold particularly dear? If so, how come?

Matt: “Isaac at Twilight,” which focuses on the aftermath of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, holds a special place for me. Some of that is thematic – the father-son dynamic comes up a lot in my writing, and this story in particular has always been a very difficult one for me to stomach – but a lot of it is because it took such a long time to get right. It’s not a long poem (12 brief lines and 44 words), but it was stubborn; it started out as two poems and then took a lot of finagling and adjusting once they came together. I consider it a triumph that it exists at all.

Daniel:  I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is your debut collection. Though the book isn’t yet released, do you anticipate a second chapbook in the future? What can readers expect from you in the future, and where can they find your work?

Matt: I certainly hope this is the first of many books from me! I am actually hard at work finishing and compiling a second chapbook, which I intend to be a collection of surrealist prose poems based on the songs of Bob Dylan. Once again, I didn’t intend on putting a collection together, but I had a goal to listen to the entire catalog of Bob Dylan (39 albums!) in 2021, and I suppose it just kind of bled out of my brain and onto the page. I’m hoping to have that wrapped up by early 2022. Beyond that, I’m not sure, but readers can always keep up with me on my website (http://matthewjandrews.com/) or on Twitter (@2glassandrews). 

Daniel: That sounds fascinating! As a fan of Bob Dylan as well as sprawling prose poems, it sounds right up my alley. Are the poems ekphrastic–that is, a direct sort of “reader’s response” to Bob Dylan’s catalog, or based more loosely off the themes in his songs?

Matt: The poems are all pretty loosely based on the themes in his music and events in his life, with each poem grounded in a song and every one of them featuring Bob Dylan as a character. They’ve been fun to write, and as a group they explore that strange relationship between the artist and the audience, as well as between the artist and the people in their life. I’ve had a few of these published individually, and these three poems in Pithead Chapel do a pretty good job of previewing what to expect: https://pitheadchapel.com/its-all-right-the-thin-man-and-with-god/.

Review of I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember by Matthew J. Andrews
[Review by Daniel R. Jones]

I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is Matthew J. Andrews’ upcoming debut chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Anyone familiar with Scripture will recognize the figures scattered throughout these pages: the prophets, kings, disciples, and warriors, herein.

I’ll admit, I was reluctant to review this collection, initially, for this very reason. Poems aimed towards reimagining biblical figures are notoriously difficult to pull off. Too often, the author takes so much creative license that their theology suffers. Or else the author swings to the other end of the pendulum, taking no risks, and writing a poem that is ineffective due to its lack of nuance or creativity.

I Close My Eyes suffers from neither of these maladies.

The subject-matter is approached respectfully and reverently. Even still, each piece feels unique and inspired.

Sometimes, this creativity comes in the form of a clever play on words. For instance, in “A Toast,” Matt writes: “Drunk at the bar, Pilate slams his glass/ on the table to broadcast his emptiness.”

The decision to frame this image as Pilate broadcasting his emptiness rather than the glass’s emptiness is as clever as it is profound.

In “Onesimus,” the titular character contemplates going from one type of slavery to another. Paul reminds Onesimus that “You are no longer your own.” Onesimus counters with “I have never once been my own.” Our narrator struggles with varying forms of “entrapment” in the poem, and the writing is razor-sharp, contemplative, and thought-provoking.

The chapbook has a pleasant cyclical motif, as well.

In the very first poem, “The Sixth Day,” we see God feeling a “compulsion” to create, and that feeling is satiated by the creation of humankind. It’s only fitting, then, that in the final poem, “The Gardener,” we see a mirror image of the Almighty: the poet imagines the Lord at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, his eye straying to the void bursting with possibility. He feels the inkling to create again.

In reading this collection of poetry, I found that same inkling rising in my own chest: the desire to not just digest the material, but to let it impel me towards a creation of my own. And to be frank, I can’t give any chapbook a great endorsement than that.

-Daniel R. Jones

Bez & Co- October 2021 Issue

Table of Contents:

Book Recommendation-
Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite • Daniel R. Jones

Fiction-
The Bullet Maker • Matt Hollingsworth

Poetry
Another Expedition • Debasish Mishra

Visual Art-
Equity’s Decline • Kay Em Ellis


Book Recommendation: Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite

Judging based on our shared interests, I suppose it was only a matter of time that I found Malcolm Guite. He seems preoccupied with the Numinous. He’s interested in the writings of literary giants such as G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Seamus Heaney. Oh, and he’s really into Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

In short, right up my alley.

In this book, Malcolm Guite takes a look at the intersection of the artist’s imagination and Christendom. Guite himself is a particularly interesting character. He’s a poet, song-writer, and Anglican priest. He holds a PhD from Durham University. So, it’s not surprising that Lifting the Veil scans in a pretty academic tone. Even still, though, his profound and spiritual message is never overpowered by his eloquent words.

The book serves as both an exploration of Christian Art through the ages, as well as a clarion call for creative followers of Christ to “lift the veil” on their own lives, in order to notice the ways that the Lord works in and through the imagination. 

One truth that stood out to me from this book involves the difference between “apprehending” and “comprehending” language. 

On page 27, he writes:

In the gift of faith, and in Christ himself, we glimpse more than we can yet understand, our imagination apprehends more than our reason comprehends. This is not to say that the Gospel is in any way “imaginary” in the dismissive sense of “unreal” or “untrue.” On the contrary it is so real and so true that we need every faculty of mind and body, including imagination, to apprehend it.

Throughout the book, Guite draws from his deep understanding of poetry and the written word to get to the heart of his thesis. The author is clearly well-versed and at home with poetic devices, and his ability to elucidate the complexities of language in well-known pieces of literature is eye-opening. 

At the risk of sounding cheesy, he really “lifted the veil” on several occasions for me. I was able to see connections that I hadn’t previously noticed, both in Scripture and in poetry. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you pick it up. I hope and pray that reading it will be as serendipitous and as joy-filled for you as it was for me.

-Daniel R. Jones


The Bullet Maker

Peter was seventeen when he first saw the names.

Perhaps they’d always been there and he’d never noticed. Thinking back, he couldn’t remember ever looking closely at a bullet before going to work in the factory.

He thought it was a joke at first. A bullet with your name on it, like the old phrase. But he soon realized that no one else could see them. It was like a superpower, and Peter felt sure that if he’d been clever, he could have thought of a way to use it for the good of the Empire.

But the truth, Peter knew, was that he wasn’t particularly clever, nor strong, nor special in any way other than that he saw the names. He hadn’t even made the draft, though almost all males were required to spend at least a couple years in the military. Rather he was told he could better serve the Empire at home. In other words, the Emperor didn’t need a 50 kg asthmatic in his army.

So here he was, now twenty-one, earning a meager living for his family, pulling levers to operate the press that made bullets. And as he examined them, looking for faults, he would see the names of the people those bullets would kill.

He was surprised, at first, how few bullets actually had names. Fewer than one in a hundred. The rest, he guessed, would miss, finding their final resting places in muddy battlefields, under rubble, beneath sand dunes, or in the trunks of scorched trees. (He could never keep the locations straight for the seemingly endless conflicts the Empire fought.)

Often the names would be foreign, but sometimes he would see Imperial names—Jonathan, Stephen, George. He guessed that these were casualties of friendly fire, and as he examined them, he would cause intentional damage so the bullet wouldn’t fire. The name would disappear, and Peter would send it on its way. Then Peter would smile, happy to have saved a life.

He considered for a while disabling all the bullets with people’s names on them, saving many more lives, but he didn’t do it. Such an act would be treason, and it wasn’t his place to determine which wars and killings were just. Besides, if he stopped an Imperial soldier from killing an enemy, that enemy might instead kill the Imperial soldier. Then Peter would be responsible for the death of one of his countrymen, and he’d been taught that there was no greater crime.

Peter completed his ten-hour shift. It was a payday, and he walked home with the satisfying clink of coins in his wallet. Walking back, he routed himself to avoid the tent cities. His family wasn’t rich by any means, but he felt guilty when he saw the truly poor.

He lived with his parents in a one-story cottage on the outskirts of the city. He’d been engaged until six months ago, and his fiancé, Jennifer, was planning on moving in with him after their wedding. They couldn’t afford their own home on his meager salary and would have had to live together with his parents. 

He’d secretly felt like he didn’t deserve Jennifer. He hadn’t confessed these fears to her, but she must have guessed them, for she would always tell him how much she loved him and how it didn’t matter if they lived in one of the tent cities—she just wanted to be together. She’d said that right until she’d met some rich war hero and fallen in love with him. She’d broken their engagement in a 30-minute conversation, and he hadn’t seen her since, although he hadn’t actually tried to contact her.

He told himself that he was happy for her. That she deserved someone like the war hero. 

He told himself that.

Peter’s parents were happy to see him as always. Their city had fallen on hard times recently, and all three of them worked long hours to afford rent on their cottage. It would have been easier if Jennifer was there. A fourth income would have gone a long way, and unlike them, she had some university education which qualified her for more prestigious jobs.

Peter’s parents were old now, long past when they should have retired, but they still managed to put on a smile when he came home. And they would dine together, grateful for their modest meal. Then, after eating, they would gather by the hearth, basking in the warmth.

As he sat in his room that night, he grabbed a book off his nightstand. It was Jennifer’s. A war novel that she’d loaned him that he’d forgotten to give back. He liked to hold it sometimes, ruffling through the pages. 

Sometimes, Peter wished he could see his own future the way he saw the future of those bullets. Other times, he was glad he couldn’t, because what if his future was sitting at that machine, pulling lever after lever until he died. How would he feel about that?

#

The next day, Peter returned to the factory, pulling levers and examining bullets. He’d seen quite a few today with names—all foreign—and he was happy that the Empire’s armies were winning. And then he saw something that gave him pause. He lifted the bullet from the conveyor belt, reading it a second, third, and fourth time, though he was certain he’d read it correctly the first.

On the bullet was the name of the soldier that Jennifer had left him for.

Immediately, all the forgiveness he’d thought he had for them was gone, and he found himself, almost without thinking, placing the bullet back on the belt. 

But no, he couldn’t do that, could he? Killing a fellow countryman was a crime. The greatest crime.

But was Peter really killing him? The soldier would be a victim of friendly fire a thousand miles away. No one would even know about this moment. No one would know what he’d done.

Maybe Jennifer would even come back to him. He imagined seeing her at his doorstep, begging forgiveness for having left. He felt tainted.

He couldn’t believe he was considering this. He had thought himself a good person, and he wondered if the guilt would be unbearable. If Peter killed Jennifer’s soldier, maybe he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

But somehow, he knew he’d be able to. At least, he thought he knew.

But he pictured Jennifer sobbing after hearing the news. Pictured her dressed in black, crying over a casket. And that was something he couldn’t let happen. Before he could think about it further, he damaged the bullet. A dud. The name disappeared and Peter smiled.

Another life saved.

And suddenly, Peter was overwhelmed by the vastness of the world. How many names had he seen on those bullets? How many people with lives just as rich and complex as his own? And here he was in his tiny corner of the universe. This small sliver of creation. And he knew in that moment, that he wanted to make it the best sliver it could be.

Matt Hollingsworth


Matt Hollingsworth is a Christian and a freelance writer/editor from Knoxville, TN. His blog is available at https://jmhollingsworthblog.wordpress.com/


Another Expedition

Rowing past the tides of blinding white
and Leviathan-like large obstacles,
I move on quietly like a breath of air:
from a coherent beginning at the shore
to a smoky panorama of indecision.

Even with the wealth of my skills
and supreme foresight, a gift of Christ,
there comes a time when I wonder,
Will I be home? Or am I lost in 
the sea? Will I reach the end?

Life is threatened yet I hold on
and believe in the strength of the oar—
too small a device for too huge a task—
like Hemingway’s poor Santiago.
But faith buoys me and I gently pass.

Tomorrow, somebody else
would be rowing here,
in this very boat, in this very place,
with the same oar against the same white foam
while I would be off somewhere
rowing past the tides of another sea.

Debasish Mishra


Debasish Mishra, a native of Bhawanipatna, Odisha, India, is the recipient of The Bharat Award for Literature in 2019 and The Reuel International Best Upcoming Poet Prize in 2017. His recent poems have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Penumbra, trampset, Star*Line, Enchanted Conversation, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and elsewhere. His poems are also forthcoming in The Headlight Review and Quadrant. A former banker with United Bank of India, he is presently engaged as a Senior Research Fellow at National Institute of Science Education and Research, HBNI, Bhubaneswar, India.


“Equity’s Decline” by Kay Em Ellis

When Kay’s not writing, you might find her traveling the world. She especially loves hitchhiking through Transylvania, playing guitar outside Notre Dame in Paris, and dropping notes and poems along the riva in Hvar Town. Don’t ask her to take another bumpy, dusty bus ride through the Bolivian desert (she’s on strike), but she’ll be happy to talk to you about her favorite country in the world (Romania). Her devotions have been published by Christian Devotions Ministries, and a list of her writing awards can be found at her website: www.backpackwithkay.com

Book Review- ‘A San Joaquin Almanac’ by Don Thompson

(Review by Daniel R. Jones)

In our January issue, I ran three poems by Don Thompson. Don Thompson has been publishing poetry for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  In addition to his poems in our inaugural issue, I also purchased his most recent poetry book, A San Joaquin Almanac.

When I first cracked open A San Joaquin Almanac, I expected a glorified love letter to the San Joaquin Valley in California. What I found was considerably less reductive than that, and so much better. In this book, Thompson relays the weather patterns of the soul. He plums the depths of a people and the space they inhabit. Each month possesses its own poem, and 44-pages later, I’m left with the impression that I really did spend a year in the Valley.

The first thing that grabbed my eye was Thompson’s incredibly diverse palette. His poems are a sensory overload, effortlessly contrasting the light and dark hues of the world he calls home. Thompson has no qualms about penning visceral, immersive lines, such as the following: “Coyotes, so sleek last winter,/ look bedraggled, moth-eaten, the unappetizing color/ of tobacco juice stained teeth.”

But for as coarse and carnal as some lines can be, the poems are also populated by the likes of Li Po and Dame Julian, W.H. Auden and Tiffany angels. Thompson can hook you, with lines such as “…memory is a rundown theater/ in the seediest neighborhood/ of the limbic system.” He can also have you reaching for the thesaurus, employing words such as “amanuensis” and “sacerdotal.” The net effect of these poems is a geography of words. While mulling them, I felt I could vacation in them. The world was so engrossing; I could almost step through the page and settle down in the Valley, myself, if I could just learn to stomach the unrelenting heat.

A lesser writer might struggle with such disparate pieces, where sordid characters nestle alongside five-dollar-words; where the pious and profane coexist on the page. But not Thompson. This book is one to take your time on. Purchase A San Joaquin Almanac from Main St. Rag Publishing Co. and check out Don Thompson’s website at www.don-e-thompson.com

Talking Shop: Dead to Oneself; Alive to the Work

by Daniel R. Jones

I’ve enjoyed the work of Wendell Berry for quite some time. His books often exist at the confluence of multiple topics: conservation, agriculture and husbandry, poetry, and his own faith. Berry is the son of a lawyer, and perhaps as a result, he always writes with crystal-clear diction. He is also a farmer, and so he writes with that archetypal hint of familiarity and down-to-earth warmth. 

Recently, while reading A Small Porch, which includes both poetry and an essay on the topic of Nature (with a capital “N,”) the following passage leapt out at me:

How does an instructive poem instruct? The answer seems obvious – by containing something worth knowing – but there is one condition: It must teach without intending to do so. In support of this I offer a sentence by Jacques Maritain, who said of the cathedral builders: “Their achievement revealed God’s truth, but without doing it on purpose, and because it was not done on purpose. The point, I believe, is what the cathedral builders were doing on purpose was building a cathedral. Any other purpose would have distracted them from the thing they were making and spoiled their work. Teaching as a purpose, as such, is difficult to prescribe or talk about because the thing it is proposing to make is usually something so vague as “understanding.”

And later,

Just so, an honest poet who is making a poem is doing neither more nor less than making a poem, undistracted by the thought even that it will be read. Poets, or some poets, bear witness as faithfully as possible to what they have experienced or observed, suffered or enjoyed, and this inevitably is instructive to anybody able to be instructed. But the instruction is secondary. It must be embodied in the work.

I believe there is a truth to be gleaned about the Christ-follower as a co-creator here. 

The cathedral-builders described by Maritain bring to mind Bezalel and Oholiab, the namesakes of this website. Those men were described in Scripture as “filled with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft to design artistic works…” (Exodus 31:1-5, HCSB.)

I believe what Wendell Berry is after here is that as artists, we are often better able to reveal truth— God’s truth – by getting lost in what we are doing. Rather than following a step-by-step, prescribed process, we are better able to accomplish our artistic vision by, well, forgetting about it.

This might sound a little mystical. Maybe it is. But put simply, I think it cuts to the heart of where many of us go wrong when we try to create a “Christian poem,” or a “Christian painting,” etc. I believe a lot of creatives who love Jesus sit down, and say to themselves, (maybe not in so many words,) “I am going to create something beautiful with a Christ-honoring message. I’m going to create something edifying, with a definite moral.” 

And to be clear, this is a noble goal. 

But sitting down with a pre-meditated intention for the theme of your work is rarely the bet way to accomplish that goal. Most art can’t be reverse-engineered in this way: picking first the desired effect you’d like to make on your audience, then choosing the theme accordingly, dressing it in a plot, and finally adding in characters and dialogue. Such approaches to art can stifle the life out of the work. At very least, they certainly deprive it of its mystery. The end-result often falls flat.

In a thought-provoking conversation published in the New Yorker, Berry paraphrases the artist David Jones, saying “to be dead to oneself is to be alive to the work.”

Call it self-abandonment. Call it getting “lost in the moment.” Call it the dissolution of ego.

Whatever you call it, there’s a recurring notion that high-caliber, Christ-honoring art is less about meticulously checking off a prescribed list of boxes to shoehorn a creative work into the category of “Christian art” and more about seeing the work through to its completion—staying true to the work at hand. The final product is often an homage to the Creator, unquestioningly glorifying Him, anyway. 

In a sentence, art that glorifies God most often comes out of a natural overflow of who we are in Him.

I think Wendell Berry’s word serves as a good reminder: Let’s get out of our own way. In so doing, we may succeed in not only creating better art, but also accomplish that loftier goal stated by John the Baptist: “He must become greater; I must become less,” (John 3:30 NIV.) 

Talking Shop: Five Reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘YA Books’ Succeeded

Those with even a cursory knowledge of my literary preferences will recall my fondness for the late Madeleine L’Engle

My first brush with L’Engle came when I picked up a beat-up paperback copy of A Wrinkle in Time in fourth grade. At that time, L’Engle’s books expanded my consciousness, creating in me a yearning for more–spiritually, creatively, and academically.

C.S. Lewis once credited the acclaimed Scottish author George MacDonald with “baptizing his imagination.” Throughout my childhood, L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter “Madeleine.”

A week or so ago, I decided to pick up a book by L’Engle which I haven’t previously read. The book is titled The Arm of the Starfish. I was hesitant, because the book is filed squarely in the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

I’ll admit my bias. I tend to dislike most books that can be categorized as “YA.” for reasons that will soon be apparent. In short, I find most books in the genre lacking–both in substance and in any modicum of literary merit.
It’s an established fact that L’Engle hated when critics panned her work as “juvenile.” She famously quipped, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Still, I approached the book with a little trepidation. I didn’t want to return to an author that I cherished so deeply for so many years and become ultimately disappointed that I’d outgrown her. I feared being disillusioned.

Ultimately, out of respect for L’Engle’s perspective, and her phenomenal track-record in my reading history, I decided to give this YA-novel a chance. 
What I found, to my relief, was a tightly-knit, cosmopolitan spy-novel that did anything but disappoint me. 

As I set the book down, I reflected a little on why L’Engle’s YA worked where so many others have failed. How is it that her books stood up, not only to the test of time, but also to the test of the audience aging?

I came up with the following five reasons:

1.She never shied away from “grown-up” topics.

In The Arm of the Starfish alone, L’Engle deftly navigates topics as complex as nationalism, the thalidomide disaster of the late 50s and early 60s, the Spanish Inquisition, and deep-seated theological issues. 

In the hands of a less capable writer, such a diverse survey of topics would quickly turn glib and disingenuous. L’Engle manages to explore these topics with aplomb, always rejecting an easy explanation.

2.Conversely, she didn’t resort to shock tactics. 

Without slinging mud at any particular authors, “YA lit” (writ large) often acts as a taxonomy on “edgy” or “controversial” subjects, such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, etc. 

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing any of these topics for a younger audience, it’s often handled in a clumsy way, detracting from any real message and instead promoting controversial content for the sake of controversy. 

L’Engle’s doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope, but it never feels contentious for the sheer purpose of bolstering sales.

3. She whetted the appetite of her readers.

Madeliene L’Engle was a walking, talking Liberal Arts education. Her works are replete with allusions to science, medicine, history, philosophy, mythology, linguistics, literature, theology, art, and music. 

In The Arm of the Starfish, L’Engle alludes (among other things) to the Tallis Canon, Jackson Pollack, and the Greek myth of Diana and the Golden Apples. She utilizes Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as both a secret-code and a theme interwoven throughout the book. The subject-matter of the book delves into the topic of marine-biology: both real and speculative.

In every instance mentioned above, regardless of the topic, L’Engle instills in her readers the desire to learn more. Inspiring your audience to dig deeper into the humanities is a hallmark of great literature.

4. She never condescended to her readers. 

L’Engle had an impressive command of language, and she didn’t let the fact that she was writing for a young audience dissuade her from putting it to use. In The Arm of the Starfish alone, she writes in four languages: English, conversational Spanish, tidbits of Portuguese, and Koine Greek. 

Most of the words and sentences she employed can be understood through context clues, but in some examples (such as the “Phos Hilaron” hymn in the original Greek,) she requires her readers to do a little research outside of the pages of her own work to uncover the meaning and origins of the text. 

L’Engle never felt the need to “dumb down” her vocabulary on account of her younger audience, either. She used words like “echinoderms,” “anagogical,” “desultorily,” and “porcine.” 

She gave her younger readers the benefit of the doubt: if they didn’t know a word, they could look it up in a dictionary.

5. She weaves all of the above nimbly into a well-told story.  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the above points are wrapped up into a well-plotted, breezy narrative. The net effect of reading one of her novels is that you ruminate deeply while simultaneously enjoying a great-read. Or, as she puts it while alluding to Frost, “your avocation and vocation become one.”

In so doing, L’Engle crafts dense, imaginative, sprawling concepts into tightly-packed, well-resolved stories. Regardless, even, if her books include the “YA” moniker. 

The Numinous in Lovecraft: A Christ-follower’s Thoughts on Horror

Jewelers refer to the brilliance of well-cut diamonds as their “fire.” There are a variety of factors that allow a diamond to sparkle: the quality of the cut, the clarity of the diamond’s surface, the carat size.

The same can be said, I think, of literature. A writer’s brilliance can be determined by a number of things: the quality of craftsmanship, the clarity of the message, the sheer enormity of the story.

But ultimately, the written work, like the diamond’s fire, is only as good as the light pouring through it. Often, I’ve marveled at the multifaceted worlds of some luminous writer, and thought to myself, “What beautiful intricacy, but what a dingy light.”

I regret to say this was my reaction to much of H.P. Lovecraft’s work.

As I’ve culled through the mainstays of his work, I must admit, I’ve been blown away by the cohesive universe he built around the Cthulu mythos. Previously, I’d read “The Dunwitch Horrors” and “The Music of Erich Zann.” Recently, I’ve delved into “The Call of Cthulu” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” Most of Lovecraft’s corpus of work weaves seamlessly into the fabric of the Cthulu universe–populated by “Old Ones,” multidimensional beings, and non-Euclidean geometry.

But the aspect of Lovecraft’s work that most interests me most is his particular attentiveness to the numinous.

I’ve written in depth about the concept of the numinous in the past, which can be broadly defined as the “uncanny” or “wholly other” impression left upon human beings by the supernatural. In spiritual terms, the numinous is the aspect of holiness beyond the grasp of human’s rational mind. But in Lovecraft’s pulpy, weird tales, the numinous takes on a much more ominous connotation. His works are replete with beings and knowledge that exceed humanity’s reach. These alien beings overwhelm and mystify Lovecraft’s protagonists, driving them to madness, homicide, or suicide.

What makes Lovecraft’s stories so chilling is that they have a basis in reality: the numinous devoid of benevolence is unsettling.

It’s one thing to think of God in terms of the numinous. As we read scripture, many of us have grappled with the thought of “fearing God.” We may wonder if the Hebrew or Greek word for “fear” connotes the same feelings of trepidation as the English one. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that when we experience the numinous aspect of God, we “feel wonder and a certain shrinking.”

But no matter how you define the “fear of God,” we as believers in Christ can ultimately put our trust in Him because we know that his intentions toward us are good, and that He is loving.

Not so with Lovecraft’s creatures. The numinous divorced from holiness becomes something utterly profane. They’re not supernatural, but instead become something preternatural, and eventually even subnatural.

In Lovecraft’s works, he imagines entities from other realms beyond humanity’s understanding–aliens as malevolent as they are beyond us, and that is what makes his work truly horrifying.

Book Recommendation: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, is a decidedly peculiar book.

The children’s fantasy novel is Victorian through-and-through: it makes use of goblins, a good-natured monarchy, and a heroic working-class protagonist: Curdie, the miner.

It was published only seven years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and certainly a reader can easily draw comparisons between the two. Both appeal to the same demographic: middle-aged children who  find the miraculous amidst the tedium of every-day life. Both stories involve a heroine who is swept into serendipitous adventure. Neither girl was looking for said adventure.

As you progress through MacDonald’s story, however, you begin to notice some pronounced allusions to the spiritual world. Princess Irene stumbles upon her great-great (etc.) grandmother while exploring the labyrinthine passageways of her castle. Irene’s great grandmother seems to have a touch of the Divine–only some characters can see her, if they’re ready–but who or what she is exactly, remains undiscovered.

The Grandmother-figure gifts Princess Irene with a magic ring (fantasy readers may see parallels to the One Ring in Tolkien’s work) which is attached to a string that always leads Irene back to her Grandmother (and safety.)

What I love about MacDonald’s novel is that it is anything but heavy-handed. There are spiritual applications to be made, but he eschews allegory at every turn. Even for a book 147-years old, the tale took unpredictable twists.

Perhaps the best summation of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is told right from the get-go: “Every little girl is a princess,” he tells us, meaning that she’s a daughter of a King. He adds: “She’s always in danger of forgetting her rank.”

One can easily surmise that the string attached to Irene’s magical ring represents the spiritual life: sometimes it defies our understanding of the natural world. It is all but invisible. But if the wayfarer, and indeed the reader, walk by faith and not by sight, she’s sure to find her way.

Thank you, George MacDonald, for keeping us from forgetting our rank.