Lauren Tyrrell reviews
Names We’ve Never Known
Never the Whole Story
by Anita Skeen
Poets possess that enviable power to evoke images from ineffable subject matter, to offer concrete renderings of complex or ethereal notions. Poets concerned with spiritual matters such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Louise Glück have demonstrated this capacity in their verse—they root their study of divinity in the physical world, grounding readers in images and emotions common to the human experience. With this accessible entryway into a poet’s exploration of faith, readers can engage in their own journeys, unraveling, reconsidering, or better appreciating their religious beliefs.
Former Texas Laureate Karla K. Morton (Redefining Beauty) invites readers on a spiritual journey in Names We’ve Never Known, her newest collection. To include readers, she anchors her moments of transcendence in straightforward terms. For example, in ‘The Sacred’ she describes God’s presence ‘inside each / sleeping woman’s womb; / pipe dangling from His lips; reminiscing…’ Morton’s casual portrayal of God here warms readers with familiar images. The gentle rhythm of participles adds detail one brushstroke at a time. These prosodic elements make her depiction of the divine feel organic.
This highly imagistic portrait contrasts with other poems in which Morton finds language inadequate to describe transcendent moments. One poem, ‘Athesists,’ invites nonbelievers to join her at Palo Duro Canyon:
let them watch thick canyon walls slide
from brown, to amber,
to dusty purple; let them stand beneath a
simple geode night
sky, watching it crack open to a drusy
of stars. . .and then let
them ponder the possibility that there
just might be something—
some vast, wondrous Being, greater than themselves.
The abstraction ‘something’ may frustrate readers who prefer to see a poet using concrete imagery. However, Morton’s move in this poem emphasizes her focus on the immediacy of her experience. Readers sit beside her at the canyon and witness her struggle to articulate what she sees and feels in the presence of such grandeur.
For Morton, grandeur emerges from a variety of sources. In ‘A Rare Man,’ for instance, the speaker describes the sound of a woman walking, ‘the sweet song / that swept between her bare thighs.’ This phrase, filled with sibilant ‘s’ sounds, encourages readers to notice that which we often take for granted. Morton exhibits here, and in many places throughout her collection, how a spare style can lasso the subtlest of subjects—the sound of legs rubbing against each other—with poignant language.
In some poems, though, Morton’s Spartan style grows thin. ‘Summer at Texoma’ depicts a friendly gathering, concluding with a trite observation: ‘True-hearted friends. / Words and wine flowing. / Life, lived well, / never ends.’ Her description here offers little more than generalities, and rhyme gives the verses a singsong tone that belies any sensual or analytical value the poem might contain.
Intellectual and analytical thinking guide Anita Skeen (The Resurrection of the Animals) in Never the Whole Story, as she explores a world riddled with love and loss, disease and delight. She divides her collection into five sections, and the title of each quotes Christian hymns, including ‘For the Beauty of the Earth,’ ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer,’ and ‘Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.’ Though such a structure might suggest overtly religious poetry too steeped in faith for most readers, Skeen’s approach to the spiritual proves more insightful than preachy.
This thoughtfulness flourishes in Skeen’s use of quotidian detail. ‘Water Aerobics, YWCA, Easter Sunday,’ for example, compares the women exercising in the water to Jesus, asking ‘if these bodies / wishing to give up their material selves / feel lighter, stones rolled away.’ Skeen views the class as a baptism, an observation that imbues ordinary lives, ordinary moments, with the presence of the divine. Similar observations root ‘Psalm for Anne.’ The poem describes a meeting in a diner in which one character, Anne, updates her friends about her metastasizing liver tumors. Skeen uses quiet images to convey the imminent sense of loss the group of friends feels—Anne’s partner ‘sits across the table / calmly eating pancakes. / Later, I notice she carves / a face into the one remaining.’ Here, Skeen combines the everyday image of a woman eating breakfast with a forceful verb (‘carve’), underscoring the widespread devastation of Anne’s disease.
Memorable, multi-layered language surfaces in Skeen’s poems about Alzheimer’s disease. ‘Father and Daughter at the Nursing Home’ evokes a mother ‘who barely knows / her daughter of more than fifty years.’ Skeen uses railroad imagery throughout the piece, depicting how her father ‘switches gears’ when his initial conversation with his wife fails, and how they hear but cannot see a passing train in the windowless room. At the poem’s conclusion, the narrator describes their efforts to converse with her mother as ‘empty boxcars on a derailed train.’ The repeated figurative language creates a mood of desperation in the piece, palpable in all its characters.
While dealing with themes of death, disease, and grief, Skeen offers stunning meditations on the natural world. For example, in ‘The Clover Tree,’ the speaker sits beside Little River, allowing her thoughts to course along with its flow; from grace to Georgia O’Keeffe; from family to ‘Good Night, Irene.’ Her thoughts halt, though, when she notices:
without my glasses,
the tree above is a field of four-leaf clover
on this, my lucky day, where I know
what the river knows, and I feel
I could go on doing this
This reflection cracks the building pressure of the collection’s ponderous motifs; she punctures the tension with close observations and reflections of beauty.
Like Skeen, Canadian poet Lorri Neilsen Glenn in Lost Gospels, her fourth poetry collection, favors meditation to examine a world brimming with beauty and power. Blending verse and prose poems, Glenn’s collection bursts with shifts in form. In one series of prose poems, ‘Verge,’ Glenn discusses nature’s ability to elicit beatific experiences. Examining a red lily, the speaker sees:
holy red chalice, Hera’s wild colour, upright, anthers throbbing with pollen, those dark eyes a feral presence the child could not understand. All she knew was they were the answer to the question: What single thing do you love?
Pulsing language like this energizes the collection and gives Glenn’s poetry a breathless, charged feeling reminiscent of Mary Oliver in ‘The Summer Day’ or ‘The Swan.’ Readers will find themselves swept up in Glenn’s meditations, eager to see the intricacies of nature through her eyes.
Glenn, though, does not restrict her revelations to the natural world. ‘Legs’ describes a young student with:
the hungover look of thunder-clap sleep that follows love-making,
a green scarf puddles loosely around her neck, rope on a pier. She floats up, out
of slumber as though her limbs were cork…
She is ready,
to spring into the day, to spring into the days. Pilgrim,
she may be an oracle.
While the unorthodox rhythm feels choppy, it parallels content. Stressed syllables and assonance accent the girl’s wild appearance, while softer phrases apply analyses and figurative language to those physical details. Here, Glenn’s stylistically strategic study lets the young woman’s youth and vibrancy pop off the page, helping readers to see the girl as Glenn does: bursting with wisdom and possibilities.
Appreciating nature and people as portals to spirituality, Glenn also considers unpredictable forces. Another prose poem, ‘Winter fire on a country road,’ describes the speaker watching flames engulf a neighbor’s home: ‘we wonder what truth waits in the dark, what the devil offers this time, which new play god is rehearsing. We don’t know and who does.’ The speaker’s raw fear manifests the spiritual insecurities of the poet. These insecurities, in turn, render Glenn human, vulnerable, someone who, despite moments of transcendence, still grapples with faith, still trembles at powerlessness.
To combat this powerlessness against unpredictable forces, Glenn revels in that which she, as a poet, can control: words. She celebrates the influential potential of her words in ‘Writing has always felt like praying.’ Describing herself as ‘ready as a tuned spring / to witness what is ravenous, mythic,’ Glenn imagines ‘cobbling a makeshift pulpit, casting truths as they are given me: / man, woman, child, sun, moon, breath, tears, stone, sand, sea.’ The rhyming couplet and use of strong monosyllabic words at the poem’s conclusion highlight the solid stuff of life. Such emphasis reveals the nature of Glenn’s spirituality, rooted not in mystical truths but in everyday manifestations of divinity. Readers might compare this poem to Hopkins’ charged praise of earth’s ‘dearest freshness deep down things’ in ‘God’s Grandeur.’
These three recent collections demonstrate that poets need not bury their spiritual contemplations in lofty language or arcane philosophies. Morton, though sometimes dabbling in abstractions, keeps her feet steady on Texas soil. Her spiritual truths rise from this same vantage point, and resonate. Skeen and Glenn push spirituality a step further in their poems. They illuminate pathways that offer readers a new way to pray: not with recited supplications and thanksgiving, but with words as unfettered as the wilds that they use to celebrate life’s shining, and sometimes blinding, glories.
Lauren Tyrrell is a graduate of Penn State's MFA Creative Nonfiction program. She currently works as an online communications specialist in Washington, DC.