Mormon Poets / Poetries / Poetics

Posts Tagged: poetics


Musky as the cedar drawer
in Grandmas’ standing metal trunk,

a genie scent, improbable and
distant as the sound of hooves on sand

in some Arabian tale read by Father
in the hall between bedrooms to say goodnight.

Rose petals, five generations of fragile crinkles
once supple, fresh, pressed on at a precious time

into the four-inch cloisonné on pointed golden legs
fat as a Buddha tummy …



(Mormon) Poet Highlight 4: Emma Lou Thayne, “The Rose Jar

Disturbing the dust on a bowl on rose leaves …

—T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton

In the opening section of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” the poet muses on the interconnections and “unredeemab[ility]” of time (line 5): “What might have been,” he says, “is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in the world of speculation” (6-8), the business of imagination and memory. He opens the door to this possibility when he hears

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind. (11-5)

The poet’s job, this implies, is to pursue the footfalls of memory into places we’ve never been. “But to what purpose,” he asks, does “[d]isturbing the dust on a[n imagined] bowl of rose-leaves” serve (16-7)? Why pursue these “echoes / [that i]nhabit the garden[?] Shall we [indeed] follow” them “through the […] gate” of meaning; “[i]nto our first world, shall we follow / The deception of the thrush?” (17-8, 20-2). And yet the voyage into and through deception, he suggests, is the end “which is always present” (48). So perhaps, though the past is ultimately “unredeemable,” we can redeem ourselves, our identities, as the poet’s efforts suggest, in the myriad possible passageways of and rhetorical passages written by memory.

Emma Lou Thayne takes this poetic cue in “The Rose Jar” wherein she quite literally (if we can take her at her word) disturbs the dust in her grandma’s jar of rose petals, stirring up the fragrance of rose and memory as she runs her fingers and her mind over the intricate surface of the “four inch cloisonne [jar] on pointed golden legs / fat as a Buddha tummy” (lines 9-10). Finding this jar in the “cedar drawer” of her “Grandma’s standing metal trunk” (1-2), she enters the intersection of several memories, some her own, some others’. The cedar musk reminds her of “some Arabian tale read by Father / in the hall between bedrooms to say goodnight” (5-6); the rose petals call forth “five generations of fragile crinkles” in lives “once supple, fresh,” but now only “fragile” memories (7-8); the jar itself inspires visions of “centuries of Chinese hav[ing] their way” in an intricate culture, their “careful hands […] pluck[ing] each [intricate] piece in place” (18-9); and the fragrance of it all, of this “holy mash,” becomes “tiny gusts / of history waft[ing]” community rituals—“the gatherings of births, graduations, / weddings, funerals, celebrations”—“into decades collecting / but never filling [the jar] to the top,” instead infusing the space of life, of memory with the “subtle, still surprising breath of God” (20-7).

And that, I think, is one reason we disturb the dust on our metaphorical bowls of rose-leaves: because doing so draws us together in bonds of imagination, kinship, and shared memory, such that, like Adam and Eve, we are infused with the breath of God and so become living souls, living communities.

And that, I think, is one thing poets and poetry are for.



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.


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”


Or, Poetry’s Value In Uncertain Times

Or, Go Read a Poem, Dangit! It Might Just Save Your Soul

Take Kathy DeFord’s word for it: She’s a dentist and a mother and a payer of bills. And her take on poetry is really quite practical—and, frankly, valuable, especially when we live in such an anxiety-filled age. After she recently acquired—and read some of—Fire in the Pasture, she said, “I have been stressed and worrying about paying bills and growing my dental practice lately, and it was refreshing to my soul to sit and read poetry.”

Plain and simple. Take some time for poetry. It’ll refresh your soul.

And maybe even your teeth.