Mormon Poets / Poetries / Poetics

Posts Tagged: the body

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.

Source: youtu.be

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

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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
husband.

"

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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.

"O! the dream of the dropped stitch! the loophole
through which that unruly within might thread,
catch with a small snag, pull the fray, unknit
the knots unnoticed, and undoily me."

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(Mormon) Poet Highlight 1*: Kimberly Johnson, “Ode on My Episiotomy

Yep. That’s right. Episiotomy. A woman’s “most matronly adornment,” as Kim has it. What better reason, then, to write an “Ode on My Episiotomy.” (Not that I have one—not that I’ll ever have one, unless, like I ruminate here, I can slip on my wife’s. Not likely though.) I adore this poem—as I adore Kim’s poetry (she’s one of my abiding poet crushes)—for two reasons:

1) It’s short, as most of Kim’s poems are. Brevity is everything, I believe, in poetry. Focus and compression, as an editor once suggested to me, are keys to creating successful poems. Turn the innovative phrase, I add, but turn it succinctly; make it tight. Compress experience into the poetic vessel so when you light the fuse and release it on the world, it will explode in the reader’s face, it will reverberate through the bones.

2) I like how it’s rooted in the body, as Kim’s poetry is—it’s visceral, full of the flesh. I’ve become increasingly convinced that language is intimately tied to human corporeality and that, by becoming intimately acquainted with a poet’s words (of course I’m referring to poetry here, but this can extend to other forms as well), we can connect with the poet, with the particulars of experience, with the world, in morally redemptive ways.

Consider the effect of these lines: “But O! the dream of the dropped stitch! the loophole / through which that unruly within might thread, / catch with a small snag, pull the fray, unknit / the knots unnoticed, and undoily me” (lines 8-11). The alliteration, the articulative shape and connection of the sounds as they slide across the mouth, through the lips; as they snag the tongue, “unknit / the [phonetic] knots unnoticed, and undoily” the body, providing a release of physical tension through the acts of lyrical language. Such acts have the potential to bind us together as human communities, to take us out of ourselves, if only for a cathartic moment or two.

Poetry, then, as compressed, highly refined language, is a redemptive, sacramental act. And it may just prove our salvation.

But there’s no bias here.

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*As a corollary to my FitP Poet Highlights, I’m also highlighting other poets who are associated with Mormonism but who don’t appear in FitP for whatever reason.