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.