Mormon Poets / Poetries / Poetics

Posts Tagged: American poetry

"My next-door neighbor’s going to hell.
I know because his soul
has hung on his clothesline since 1982.
To me, it’s like a warning sign:
“Beware of Dog”
but slightly more dangerous because souls are involved."


FitP Poet Highlight 32/82: Laura Nielson Baxter, “Take Care of Your Soul—It’s Flapping in the Breeze

"Take Care" is an exercise in absurdity. I mean, a neighbor airing his soul on a clothesline like recently washed laundry then leaving it to dry for a few decades? How absurd! But this premise hasn’t been pushed to absurdity just for absurdity’s sake. This is poetry, after all, the realm of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole—a place where language (itself a realm of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche) is pushed to its limits. A place where one image, concept, or any part thereof stands in for another image, concept, or part thereof. A place where not everything should be taken at face value.

As in the realm of piety, where not every display of righteousness should be taken at face value. Consider the Pharisees, for instance, those make-sure-others-see-me-praying-on-the-street corner “saints” whom Christ chided with a striking simile: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (ref). In “Take Care,” the poet tweaks and updates this comparison, making it less macabre, more suburban Utah (the poet’s home and the setting of many of her poems), where overt displays of Mormon piety can border on the Pharasaic and are often rewarded in the Latter-day Saint social structure wherein the degree of one’s faith is often judged in acts of service performed, motivations and actual righteousness notwithstanding. I think, for example, of a former Church leader in my hometown who was so busy serving and gaining social status and praise in the Church and his local community that he sorely neglected his wife and kids to the point where his wife finally asked for a divorce. Or another well-loved leader who cheated on his wife with a married woman he was counseling. Or a father who sexually abused his step-daughter, all the while “honoring” his position in the church. Or apparently-devoted, marriage-covenant-honoring husbands whose late-night pornography addictions and untempered lust turn into covert flirtations—and beyond—with co-workers. 

While such uncleanness may be the exception and the extremity in a religion that preaches the sanctity of familial bonds and among a people who strive to practice and to embody that sanctity in their daily lives because, well, as we’re fond of repeating, “no other success can compensate for failure in the home,” such hypocrisies are also, to put it simply, dangerous. Laura observes the danger embodied in such acts of hypocrisy—and so moves to air Mormonism’s cultural laundry—when she says her neighbor’s “hung” “soul” is “like a warning sign: / ‘Beware of Dog’ / but slightly more dangerous because souls are involved.” And not just the “abandoned soul” of this “[v]icious,” “crafty and elusive man” whose sins we don’t know, save his hypocrisy, which, paradoxically with his piety, is couched in metaphor and on public display day after day, year after year, decade after decade. But also the souls of those who fail to see and are taken in by his pretension and lack of integrity. To see him as he is, then, is to see him “Un-souled,” as the poet sees him. And in the Mormon cosmology, which posits that the spirit and the body constitute the soul and that the soul is redeemed through Christ’s atonement, this suggests that the poet’s pious neighbor has denied himself the physical and spiritual redemption offered in mortality and beyond only in an abiding relationship with and through emulation of Christ. He is thus ultimately not at one with God, with his neighbors, with himself. 

Maybe, then, as the poem’s final stanza suggests, someone should remind him (and the culture that has enabled his hypocrisy) that he’s “forgotten” something—"the weightier matters of the law," perhaps: judgment, mercy, faith. And that in so doing he’s hung himself out to dry and that, by virtue of his denial of the atonement, he’s thus crucified Christ afresh. But who should do the reminding? Mormon culture’s poet-seers?

Or is my reading just a little too absurd?


Immersed in liquid light, like an insect
quenched in the amber’s flow, its body
pressed into the absence at the core,

the figure ripens on his tree, his nearest hand
pinned tight to the horizontal beam,
fingers and thumb contracted against

the sting of history’s curse, his other hand
lost in the amber haze… .



FitP Poet Highlight 31/82: Tyler Chadwick, “Submerged: Two Variations on Serrano’s Piss Christ" (on page 72)

My rumination on writing “Submerged” and some thoughts on a Mormon poetics:

The central method of gaining knowledge we have is our language. I do not think it is the function of the poets to give us little homilies in it, but to try to work the language to the limits of its resources, because when it is so worked, it has to be humanizing; it has to be a way of knowledge, because it is as deep inside ourselves as any part of our being.

—John Ciardi, New Era (Aug. 1987)

* * * *

Some years ago during an undergraduate intro to art class, the professor introduced us to Andreas Serrano’s controversial photograph, Piss Christ. While some students couldn’t have cared for the picture either way, many ranted, railed, and gnashed their teeth about it, asking, in essence, “How could someone be so sacrilegious as to bury an image of Christ in a vat of bodily fluid?” 

Because it caused such a stir in class and because so many of the students placed themselves in opposition to the picture, I decided to exercise my critical thinking skills and take a stance for the image. It does have a certain beauty, I reasoned, and illustrates the notion that Christ essentially re-entered the womb (which is really just a vat of pee, after all) so we could live again. 

And so on.

But, still. Urine makes such a bold statement, I had to suspend the hellfire and damnation in myself to keep from dismissing the image entirely.

And my response was such that I was compelled to write a poem about it. Here’s how my first attempt turned out:

On Piss Christ

Is the subject of religion so inviolable 
that it is not open to discussion?

-Andreas Serrano

Pouring waste and blood
into a ritual retelling
of Sheol’s abyss—

immersed in liquid light, 
the fetus ripens on His tree,
reentering the womb 
to rebirth His fallen race—

the artist bites a nerve
in the modern body of Christ,
confronting the helm
of christianity’s
ritual sacrilege.

Nothing spectacular. So I let it ruminate for a few years.

Fast forward to January 2009, I think, when, digging through my stockpile of crappy poems, I came across my initial attempt to approach Serrano in verse and thought I’d try again. And I scratched everything but two lines, around which I tried to do what Ciardi mentions in the quote I’ve epigraphed (though I didn’t really know that’s what I was doing at the time): to push language to its limits, to re-humanize this controversial image in a way that helps others see it, and Christ, in a new light. “Submerged: Two Variations on Serrano’s Piss Christ" came out of my effort to push my observations of and experience with the picture beyond a surface treatment.

Through this rhetorical labor, I learned something important about revision: sometimes, you just have to let a poem’s language ferment for a while before it can achieve full-bodiness (not that I’ve done anything particularly spectacular or full-bodied here). I also realized something about the work of a distinctly Mormon poetics through something poet Paul Lindholdt said about the poem. In “Submerged,” he said, ”The poet managed to take a very controversial and even ugly photograph and assign it beauty. […]

"Especially impressive are the verbs in this poem. ‘Quenched,’ ‘ripens,’ ‘shorn,’ ‘pickles,’ ‘leaching,’—these inventive verbs bring the static photograph to life and restore some of the reverence the photographer stripped from the crucifix in his image. Another striking feature of this accomplished poem are its subtle internal rhymes."

I really like the bit about language restoring reverence to the image of Christ. It reminds me of something Gideon Burton once said about Mormon criticism

"Consider the Restoration of the Gospel as a paradigm for Mormon criticism. Sensing some apostasy from truth, the critic rectifies this falling away through an act of restoration. As Joseph Smith sensed something incomplete about the truths of religion and then became an instrument in restoring this truth, so the Mormon critic, equally sensitive, becomes an instrument in restoring the truth to which he or she is witness. One feels a void, then fills that void with words. Here Restoration invokes original Creation: God’s spirit, brooding on the void, filled it through His Word. In this sense Mormon Criticism is both restorative and creative, both reactive and active. The Restoration paradigm provides powerful metaphors for criticism: critics can assume roles as prophets and creators, as mediators and seers. It is a heady vision for criticism, but one to which I have been witness, one for which according to the paradigm I am constrained to bear testimony."

And so: on with the work of restoration. That’s one thing, I think, Mormon artists, poets, critics can do, even if they don’t know they’re doing it: Feeling a void, they can then fill that void with language in an effort to try to restore something to God and His kingdom and His children that’s been stripped from them by the world.

I only hope I can live up to this “heady vision” in my own work.

FitP Poet Highlight 30/82: Elaine Wright Christensen, “Sermon On Manchac Swamp

Ah, “[t]he world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” So Hopkins, for whom “nature is never spent.” For whom creation is a living fountain of ritual, language, rhythm, metaphor—a sensual spring over which the poet moves and “broods” like the “Holy Ghost,” spreading his words like his seed, anointing the tongue with lyric balm pressed from the fruits of observation and experience (ref). And so Elaine Christensen, for whom the lyric now—foregrounded in “Sermon” by the repeated heres—also consists of moving across waters “green” with life, spreading language like seed over nascent worlds, anointing the tongue, as the senses, with lyric balm pressed, of course, from the fruits of observation and experience.

At least that’s one way to read “Sermon”: in melodic counterpoint with “God’s Grandeur.” Indeed, both poems offer highly-textured, deeply-sensual meditations on the pro/creative moment, though each poet approaches that moment from a different angle:

Hopkins goes Grand, ruminating over the Divine Agency—represented in the figure of the Holy Ghost—who oversees and propagates the continual re-creation of a “bent world” “trod” and “trod” and “trod”—all-around taken advantage of—by humanity’s “generations”; a world “seared with trade,” scorched in the process of exchange between bodies, “smeared” and “smudge[d]” by their inter-relational “toil” and, like those bodies, “smell[ing]” of human sweat.

And Elaine goes local, focusing “here,” on a particular experience with particular flora and fauna in a particular geographical location—Manchac Swamp, Louisiana. She even reads the poem with local flavor, though not the Cajun-spiced palette you might expect from a poem come out of a Louisiana bayou; rather, her performance tastes very much like Wasatch Front Utah. Her tone is sincere and endearing, her inflection attitudinally positive, her facial expressions emphatic. She is no staid Modernist or metaphysical poet. She is, well, a bit Relief Society, a performance register that tends toward didacticism and sentimentality.

And this very Mormon register provides an interesting contrast to the deeply sensual imagery of Elaine’s poem, which is far from didactic and sentimental. The poem is ultimately erotic, after all, beginning with it’s post-pubescent setting: an aging swamp matted with “Spanish moss” “crisp and wiry” as, well, you know. This sets up a meditation on mature sexuality: “Here” where “lean[ing]” “cypress” yearn to maintain “roothold,” to remain erect, potent, vital. “Here” where bodies smolder in “wet” “heat,” where schools of fish “hang / just below the surface,” rising, perhaps, only on rare occasions. “Here” where the poet and her companion “listen” to maturity’s “sermon on / idleness,” on simply being with another body, basking in “how it smells” (a mark of physiological attraction), “how it smiles” (emotional attraction), and in the “immense satisfaction” of riding the soul’s vessel with another “happily into the shade” of mature sexuality.

Yes, indeed, the world—including the body—is charged, erotically and otherwise, with the grandeur of God. And that is a deeply religious, deeply spiritual, deeply poetic proposition.


"I’m sorry that I killed your son
I did not know he was your son
I only knew he was my enemy"


FitP Poet Highlight 29/82: Jonathon Penny, “Confession, after battle

At first glance, “Confession” seems a simplistic poem: the poet repeats the same structure for four, essentially five, stanzas, changing only a word per stanzaic turn. The structure is thus something of a template—

I’m sorry that I killed your ______
I did not know he was your ______
I only knew he was my enemy

—in which each blank is filled, respectively, with the words son, husband, father, brother. The rest of the language also seems simplistic, childish, perhaps, consisting of words many children learn—or could easily learn and use—early in their development.

But let’s not confuse simple with simplistic, because Jonathon’s poem is anything but simplistic. Sure, he essentially repeats the same stanza four, almost five times. But he does so with good reason: the speaker, obviously a soldier, is traumatized in the wake of a battle. The adrenaline has subsided. Perhaps he’s looking over a field of fallen soldiers, considering the gratuitous destruction of war. Perhaps he’s looked into the glassy eyes of his “enemy” and been struck by their humanness—he looks so different now than he did through the scope of my rifle. He puts the man in context, sees him as part of a family—as a son, a husband and a lover, as a father, a brother. He, perhaps, enters the other man’s life, recognizes himself in the Other.

And language fails him.

His thoughts become fragmentary, incomplete, as suggested by the lack of periods in the poem. The trauma of coming so suddenly and deeply into contact with an Other’s humanness has disrupted his system of meaning, except that which matters most—and paradoxically, the least, because what signs and symbols can replace a human life?—in the moment: the language of grief, which flows so deeply in the subterranean river of human emotion as to be, well, unspeakable.

So he prays. He confesses his grief to the soldier’s mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter. He recites a litany, a ritualistic, primal repetition meant to purge his sorrow, to bind him to the human community (as rituals are ultimately meant to do), to give him knowledge and meaning. Because in addition to grieving for the Other’s life, he’s also grieving over the annihilation of a system of meaning that taught him the Other was “my enemy,” that automatically placed the Other in opposition to the Self.

And that’s how the poet leaves the poem: with his final line—”I did not know he was not my enemy”—he exposes the devastating gaps (the naught, the emptiness) in the speaker’s former epistemology. With that, he leaves it to readers to complete the final stanza, which seems to have been left intentionally unfinished—it’s missing the third line (“I only knew he was my enemy”) or a variation thereon just as it’s missing the period. By so leaving the structure wide-open, he thus passes the torch to readers, offering no trite or easy conclusions, though I think a more filling and fulfilling epistemology is there, if only we look deeply enough to see.


Fire in the Pasture is such a treasure-house of riches that it deserves all of the attention it can garner—and as many readers as possible… .

[It’s] not a volume to be read in a day, or a week, or perhaps in a month or longer. Page after page reveals fruits to be tasted, savored, lingered over, and transmuted into ideas and images that may change lives. Each reader will discover favorites that speak directly to the individual’s mind and heart … . [A]t one point or another, with one poem or another, the anthology is likely to feed any hunger, resonate with any need.


- Michael R. Collings—author, poet, literary critic, and bibliographer, and a former professor of creative writing and literature at Pepperdine University—in his short review (Fire's first), “Fire in the Pasture: Gleaning After the Harvest”

"What is this soft array of leaves and light
But morning? The sky opens with the wind
That caps the upper branches like spume,
Whiteness over them sweeping mist that rises
From meadows. And now what is the array of light
As one looks down upon the city’s scape
Of buildings? The places where Joseph came
To find his Zion are in the spell of prophecy,
The sound of vision, and moments of his certainty."


(Mormon) Poet Highlight 3: Clinton F. Larson, “The City of Joseph

While “The City of Joseph” is obviously meant as inspirational verse (especially considering its venue of publication), I don’t find it sentimental in anyway. In fact, the language and imagery and the way Larson binds them together in his poetic vision are quite striking, quite accomplished. In fact, I think seeing it as a tightly-crafted vision of a poet-seer is one way to make sense of the whole.

To begin with, it incorporates a sweeping sense of Mormon history (specifically) and natural history (in general), of human presence in the world and the West, of the Mormon movement from east to west as directed by the Morning and Evening Stars. It opens with what I read as an allusion to the First Vision, with Joseph and his influence on a chaotic world at the center, as represented by “light” and “whiteness” rippling outward from the “meadows” over “the places where Joseph came / To find his Zion” as moved by and “in the spell of prophecy,” beginning with the grove he knelt in that Spring morning, then moving to the city he planned and helped build, then to the Saints’ movement West, and finally to the valley where he knew they would establish themselves, could make their home and further influence the world “because,” as Margaret’s mother says, “we believe” in Joseph’s vision and words and in the “harvest” to come.

The idea that poetic seership is at work also arises in the repetition of “vision/s” (five times) and the repeated occurrence of “eyes,” “seen/saw,” and the passage of “time,” which, the poet confesses, “elides antiquity and the nearby years,” suppressing history in immediacy, something the poet strikes out to remedy by following Mormon history from “morning” to “evening” and by drawing together Earth’s glacial prehistory (ever-present in the “moraine[s]”) with a specific woman’s (archetypal) progeny, a group of “children” who stand “on a hill”—“a holy place”—and consider their ancestral path, an act that sounds very much like temple worship (”devotion”) to me.

In fact that may be another fruitful way to consider the poem: as an endowment-like ritual through which certain images and key-words are meant to bring us together as the family of God, meant to bind us together in “gray cirques of vision” that will eventually clarify in the Dawn of Christ’s return.


[T]he sun and the moon
set the world in a swoon
and clothed it in meadow and wood.

And with bashful glance
began to dance

… and called it good.



FitP Poet Highlight 28/82: Danny Nelson, “Creation

Danny is a poet of considerable range and talent. He works deftly in poetic forms from light verse (as here, here, here, here, here, and here) to the free-verse dramatic monologue (here) to forms situated between (here, here, and here). “Creation” revises the Old Testament’s opening text and, as such, it delves deeply into the “procreant urge of creation”, a phrase straight out of Whitman. Indeed, in Nelson’s poem, as in Whitman and, I would argue, most poetry, I find this “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world” advancing “opposite equals”—as poets and readers—“out of the dimness” of matter unorganized into bodies and relationships eternally on the verge of being (or greater manifestations thereof). Danny captures this paired advancement in “Creation” with his depiction of the (pro)creative union of the sun and the moon, an interaction representative of the male and female aspects of Nature working together to craft a new sphere from the fabric of the universe.

Within the Mormon context of the poem (it originally appeared in The Fob Bible, an anthology written by a writing group made up of Mormons of various stripes), the (pro)creative movement of these “opposite equal” spheres further implies the eternal (pro)creative influence of both male and female Deities over the universe. For if we have a Father in Heaven and if, as Eliza R. Snow reminds us, “truth is reason, [then] truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a Mother there” and that she’s doing more than merely keeping House. Rather, as Danny’s variation on this theme suggests, she, as represented in the creative power of the moon—which here “lift[s] land” from the earth’s watery void, “set[s] the rain in silver sheets / upon the ocean’s stormy streets” and places “birds in flight” and fish in the sea—and as the feminine coeval with God the Father, is an active participant in the eternal, reiterative round of creation, a circling “dance” that is more productive of all that is “good,” beautiful, and holy than many of us may care to—or even, at present, can—imagine.

"amicus, amici, amico, amicum, amico,

The window, with its morning salty joke
of squinting scowls, unfolds a dusty yellow ray
of light on you, while I still close-eyed soak
in shadows in the middle of the room.
We resurrect the third declension, bring
the plural genitive alive, resume
linguistic worship, conjugate the Mass, and sing
our hallelujahs, pater nosters, pronoun penance
for our poor grade in repentance
for our reprobate translation of this sentence."


FitP Poet Highlight 27/82: Arwen Taylor, “Lingua Doctrinae

In this poem, Arwen’s lyric is crisp and pointed. And her poetic engagement with words is a means of “linguistic worship” centered on the conjugation and communion of bodies through rituals of the tongue. Speaking to an unnamed “you” (a lover? the reader? God?) upon whom “light unfolds [in] a dusty yellow ray,” she discusses their conjugal acts of language, witnessing that in their continued relationship, in their textual communion, they “resurrect the third declension, bring / the plural genitive alive.” The poet renews the complexities of linguistic inflection and possession in the plural pronouns “we” and “our” as, in her’s words, “we” “conjugate the Mass, and sing / our hallelujas” and “pater nosters,” paying “pronoun penance / for our poor grade in repentance / for our reprobate translation of this sentence.”

Such trouble as the poet’s punning and rhetorical uses of ritual may make is, at once, as these lines suggest, the source of the poet’s need to repent and the means of that redemption. Through the “locution of [… this poetic] system” of worship, she thus explores the relationship among languages, doctrines, individuals, the sexes, human and the divine, in ways that highlight the subversively redemptive possibilities of humanity’s communal acts, including communication. And by so doing, the poet presses readers to consider that language is something more than mere garments for our ideas, more than mere marks on the page, more than a series of vibrations that pass through the aural cavity, even as seemingly meaningless as these garments, these marks, these vibrations can sometimes seem.

Because language, especially poetic language, is ultimately much, much more than any of these materialities combined.

but not afraid
to let her touch me,
we’ll undress
slowly like
passing the sacrament …"


FitP Poet Highlight 26/82: Will Bishop, “When I Do Go On My Honeymoon”

Will captures the thrill—and the anxiety—of embarking on such a (pro)creative journey in this poem. He begins by engaging a paradox experienced by unsuspecting virgins when they sexually collide atop the marriage bed, a realization that, even though they may intuitively understand the holiness of sex (as the poet understands it here, at least intellectually), there’s more to making married love than turning “No! No! No!” into “Go! Go! Go!” and oiling the mechanics of procreation. Beyond knowing that God ordained sex for our pleasure and for the peopling of the earth; beyond the semantic conversion I mention and the understanding that Tab A goes into Slot B, this entails an interdependent willingness to embrace the fear of vulnerability. The poet engages this paradox here with wonderfully spare lines that mirror the sparseness of emotional vulnerability: “Afraid / but not afraid / to let her touch me,” he says, “we’ll undress / slowly like / passing the sacrament.” His reference here to passing, not simply partaking of, the emblems of the Lord’s Supper suggests, first, that the pair is acting with God’s sanction and, second, that each party’s movements are deliberate, meant to prepare the other for the moment of consummation. Such an unselfish and careful approach (literally one full of care) to another’s body, even if unconscious, underscores the holiness of the act of marriage. Indeed, it emphasizes the very nature of the body as a gift from God, as part and parcel of the soul, which, in terms of the LDS cosmology, is the union of “body and spirit.” And, as Bishop reminds us in his closing lines, such a union is a beautiful, pleasurable, ennobling thing: “when I see her body, / bare and beautiful / and not ashamed,” he concludes, “I’ll kiss her mouth as if / she were the only woman / who ever existed.”

I’m certain such affection will be returned many-fold.


I counted them as they
came—sons and daughters
who didn’t count.

I counted their limbs, perfect
limbs, like their father’s—
nothing so imperfect.

I found him perfect, my one
week of us, my one weak



FitP Poet Highlight 25/82: E.S. (Sarah) Jenkins, “Weary”

In her moving elegiac poem, “Weary,” Sarah highlights a less than pleasant aspect of the woman’s (pro)creative relationship with God: childbirth and the toll it can take on the mother’s mind. Speaking with language that sneaks back on itself and shifts meaning in the movement, the poet explores an experience like Leah’s, the “hated” wife of Jacob whose womb was opened by the Lord such that she conceived four sons in rapid succession. I can only imagine (if that) what this does to a woman’s cognition, especially when she’s already under pressure to please a husband who likes her “beautiful sister”—his favored wife—that much more, but after watching my wife adjust to the needs of our first newborn daughter some years ago, I’m convinced that Jenkins captures the weariness well. And though my wife’s passage into motherhood wasn’t tainted by a husband whose attention was diverted elsewhere, there were times, say, after middle of the night feedings or nights of little to no sleep, when her words followed the circling rhetorical path the poet follows in the excerpt I’ve shared.

Such sorrow, “greatly multipl[ied]” at and because of conception and condensed here in the poet’s language; such physical, cognitive, and rhetorical labor as “Weary” represents is, I’m convinced, the (pro)creative heritage of the Fall, a re-creative act that essentially revised our premortal relationship with ourselves, one another, and with God, providing the means by which spirit could connect with flesh and language to the mind and body as never would have been possible had Adam and Eve remained in their unproductive sphere and, by so doing, bound humanity in a perpetually unembodied existence.