Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Accidental Grace: Poetry, Prayers, and Psalms

In his new book, Accidental Grace, poet-rabbi Rami M. Shapiro transforms Psalms, Jewish prayers, and Bible poetry into fresh lines that send us thoughtfully reeling into spiritual realms.

Published by Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a copy to review, this highly recommended book brings wisdom, humor, and spiritual insights into ancient biblical truths, which the poet reveals as relevant today.

Take, for instance, Psalm 1, which many of us know in the King James Version (KJV) as beginning: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.”

Notes in newer translations of the Bible often acknowledge that the word “Blessed” at the beginning of Psalm 1 is not the same Hebrew word that’s usually rendered “blessed” but, instead, is more akin to saying, “Oh, the joy!” or “How happy.”

In his smoothly written lines running roughly parallel with Psalm 1, Rabbi Shapiro wakes us up with this rendition:

“Do you want to be happy?

Ignore the counsel of the selfish;
avoid the path of the cruel;
refuse the company of nihilists.

Do you want to be happy?

Delight in life unfolding;
immerse yourself in what is as it is, from morning to night.”

In considering a Psalm that’s even better known, Rabbi Shapiro begins his poetic version of “Psalm 23” like this:

“You alone shepherd me,
lessening my needs and fulfilling them.

Lying delighted in lush green pastures,
I know You are all.”

Then he closes the poem with these thought-inducing lines:

“When I walk with You and know it is You who walks as me,
I leave only goodness and mercy in my wake,
knowing every place is Your place, and every face is Your face.”

Following the section of contemporary psalms we find a group of insightful “Poems” to welcome such as “Welcoming Angels,” which contains these lines:

“In the deeper quiet
I sense the greater Life that is my life.
I do not live only; I am lived.
I do not breathe only; I am breathed.
I am not only the one I appear to be
but also the One who appears as me.”

Another poignant poem, “I Am Loved,” begins:

“I am loved.
Too easy to say, perhaps.
Too fleeting a feeling upon which to anchor a life.
And yet it is so.
I am loved. Though not always by me.”

To give you one more example of the meditative moments that arise with each reading, I’ll print “One Without End” in full:

“Below the birth of becoming
There was the Source of Being.
When all is ended, that Source remains.
Alone without second, the One is all.
This One is my God, my redeemer, my refuge, my shelter.
This One is the cup of life from which I drink daily.
When I wake, as when I sleep, I rest in This.
One Substance in infinite manifestation,
One mind in infinite variation.
Know this and fear not.”

Amen! Then, the last section of the book, entitled “A Parable: Reenvisioning the Book of Job,” is set as a script or screenplay centered on Job’s encounter with God. Although the story ends shy of redemption, the dialogue between God and Job shows a sense of humor, which our One God and Creator of All Types and Seekers, surely has.

© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer of traditionally published poetry books and new editions of the Bible, is also a freelance writer in all genres and poet-author of 3 books of poems: Living in the Nature Poem, the children’s book Beach Songs and Wood Chimes, and her book of Bible-based poems, Outside Eden.

Accidental Grace, French flap paperback

Friday, September 4, 2015

Pilsen Snow by Philip Kolin

In the new chapbook Pilsen Snow by Philip C. Kolin, who kindly sent me this chapbook for review, the first verse of the first poem “Eden in Pilsen” immediately gets us grounded in what was once the second largest Czech neighborhood in the world:

“The new world they searched for in Pilsen
squeezed them onto lots,
20 by 95 feet long,
a bungalow to birth a family of nine,
a three flat close enough on hot summer nights
to reach out and touch the melting tar
on the flat roof of the building next door.”

Those lines introduce us, visually and matter-of-factly, to this community in Chicago where:

“The air moaned it had no place to go.
No place for anything green.
Here is where they looked for paradise.”

The sounds and sights bequeathed to us in this opening poem sweep across the neighborhood, while the next poem, “Speaking Czech,” gives insight into inner lives where:

“They lived in two worlds at once
but not at the same time.
Their homeland was real;
America demanded an act of the imagination.”

What a profound picture of the situation immigrants from almost any country most likely encounter! Instead of paradise, they find themselves located between memories still easy to envision and the hope but unclear picture of what might be.

As Editor of The Southern Quarterly and “Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi,” poet Philip C. Kolin has certainly distinguished himself in his work and many books, showing that, eventually, a peoples’ hopes and dreams may be fulfilled. He might not like my pointing that out, though, as his poems reveal a highly observant eye and mind not given to focusing on the self. He’s more apt to think about saints, politicians, mothers dressing their infants in Czech flags, or boys in mischief.

In “First Confessions,” for instance, the poet brings to life the “curtained box/ in the far corner of the church, closest/ to the vestibule where the ushers lingered,/ smelling of cigarettes and Vitalis before mass” as boys speculated on rumors:

“Another was sure it was God’s private elevator –
the green light on the top meant anyone in there
at the time was going straight to heaven –
as fast as God could call the angels
to pick him up and fly him out of there
before anyone knew he’d gone missing.”

Among the missing, albeit alive, was the beautiful, talented mid-twentieth century movie star from the poet's hometown, Kim Novak, to whom he wrote:

“You disappeared early into stardom
shaped by what the studio wanted to showcase.
On screen, you laughed.
Off, you cried.
You were not cut out for Hollywood.”

Eventually missing, too, was the first voice of Pilsen, where residents might be more inclined now to speak Spanish, and yet, in the closing poem, “Czech Hieroglyphics,” we see remnants of “some boy’s initials from the 1940’s/ squint underneath” a re-lacquered pew and learn:

“The sunlight no longer speaks
with a Slavic accent in Pilsen,
but it still highlights the buildings
where the Czechs left behind
their future plans in hieroglyphs.”

Etchings on school lintels and names fading on mailboxes leave hieroglyphs, reminders of a passing time and former neighbors who now live together only in the proximity of these poignant pages published by Finishing Line Press.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer in all genres

Pilsen Snow, paperback chapbook

Friday, August 21, 2015

Resources for poets and writers

A couple of years ago, I posted a list of poetry resources on this page, so this time, I’ll add hotlinks that weren’t included.

If other resources have helped you with your research, writing, revising, marketing, or publishing, feel free to add those in the Comments section below, preferably with the full URL included.

Also, please save this page as a Fav, so you'll be able to find it again as each hotlink will whisk you away from this site.

Online Poetry and Writing Resources

B-rhymes give you word pairs that almost rhyme, but not quite.

Beginner’s Guide to Successful Blogging shows you how to start a blog to post poems, writings, reviews, or discussions about poetry.

Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry is the e-book version of the poetry course I wrote and used for years with poets from diverse age groups, backgrounds, and levels of skill.

Dictionary search and reverse dictionary site on OneLook.com helps you search for phrases that begin with key words of interest.

English Grammar website gives you grammar rules, online exercises, and writing tips. Similar sites can be found, but I found this one to be especially clear and easy to navigate.

EServer Poetry Collection provides poems by well-known poets writing in English.

New Pages site guides you to literary markets to read, study, and send your batch of poems.

Open Culture has over 1,000 free online courses, including literature.

Poetry 180, sponsored by the Library of Congress, offers a poem for each day of the school year but to be read anytime too.

Poetry and Literature page, also sponsored by the Library of Congress, gives histories of poetry, interviews with poets, archives of poetry, upcoming events, Poet Laureate bio's, and more.

Poetry development of your poems or a poetry critique with my one-on-one feedback is available for a minimal fee. Having done this for 30 years, I assure you, I'll be encouraging but honest and helpful.

Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun e-book covers poetry forms and terminology, from A to Z, in what may be the only poetry dictionary for children. I recommend it for classrooms and poets of all ages because it’s a fun way to learn and because I wrote it.

Project Gutenberg brings you the full texts of over 49,000 classical books, including poetry, online at no charge.

Rhyme Zone helps you find definitions of words as well as true rhymes, slant rhymes, and synonyms.

Writing Resources on my website include those mentioned here and in the previous post. If you know of others, I’m eager to find out what helped you to improve your work or what might help other poets to learn about poetry. Thanks.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes (for children) and Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

In his home country of Brazil, Carlos Drummond de Andrade was considered a great poet in his own lifetime (1902-1987) with his poems going beyond borders, thanks first to John Nist then such well-known American poets as Elizabeth Bishop and, later, Mark Strand, who translated his work from Portuguese into English. Now, Richard Zenith has translated poems in a new bilingual edition Multitudinous Heart, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, who kindly sent me a copy to review for which I’m grateful. Without this highly recommended book, I might never have discovered a new-for-me poet whose work I look forward to experiencing and reading again.

Zenith’s Introduction presents a brief biography of this fascinating poet, who, as a child of 10 or so, begged his father for a 24-volume set of Western literature to study, “beginning with Homer, as well as many selections from nineteenth-century British and American authors now more or less forgotten. This hodgepodge of poetry, essays, fiction, and theater became the literary foundation for the little boy,” whose readings as an adult “would continue to be a mixed bag of irreproachable classics and recent literature of uneven quality.”

Reading those words from the Introduction made me wonder if a poet’s academic study of literature today has been impoverished by a lack of poorly written poems and stories! Conversely, a self-taught poet, such as Carlos who initiated his own studies at an early age, might be apt to come up with an eclectic mix of writings, whose inconsistencies could help a poet discern the characteristics of well-written works on one hand and provide a list of “Things Not To Do” on the other.

No doubt Carlos’ background as a lifelong lover of literature and his adult employment as a government bureaucrat helped to shape his view of himself and the world as revealed, for example, in the opening piece entitled “Seven-Sided Poem.”

“When I was born, one of those twisted
angels who live in the shadows said:
‘Carlos, get ready to be a misfit in life!’”

The poem “Elegy 1938” gives us another glimpse of that ongoing push-pull between a literary life and the everydayness of the working world, beginning with “You work without joy for a worn-out world/ whose forms and actions set no example.”

Then midway in the poem, these sad but insightful lines appear:

“You love the night for its power to annihilate
and you know, when you sleep, the problems stop requiring you to die.
But you fatally wake up to the Great Machine existing,
and once more you stand, minuscule, next to inscrutable palms.

“You walk among dead people and with them you talk
about things of the future and matters of the spirit.
Literature has ruined your best hours of love.”

The intrusion of literary arts goes “Hand In Hand” with the resolutions put forth in these lines:

“I won’t be the singer of some woman, some tale.
I won’t evoke the sighs at dusk, the scene outside the window.
I won’t distribute drugs or suicide letters.
I won’t flee to the islands or be carried off by seraphim.
Time is my matter, present time, present people,
the present life.”

That life spent “In Search Of Poetry” finds what works in poems and what does not. For example:

“Don’t write poems about what happened.
Birth and death don’t exist for poetry.”

Also, “In Search Of Poetry”

“Don’t sing about your city, leave it in peace.
Poetry’s song is not the clacking of machines or the secrets of houses.
It’s not music heard in passing, nor the rumble of ocean on streets
near the breaking foam.
Its song is not nature
or humans in society.
Rain and night, fatigue and hope, mean nothing to it.
Poetry (don’t extract poetry from things)
elides subject and object.”

Despite the negatives "In Search Of Poetry," the poem "I'm Making A Song" acknowledges that...

“My life, our lives,
form a single diamond.
I’ve learned new words
and made others more beautiful.”

The title poem “Multitudinous Heart” also reflects the connections poetry brings to us through other people or places, for instance, where

“The sea was beating in my chest, no longer against the wharf.
The street ended, where did the trees go? the city is me
the city is me
I am the city
my love.”

Connecting the self with the city hints at the “Truth” found in the poem by that name:

“The door of truth was open
but would only let in half
a person at a time.

And so it wasn’t possible to have the whole truth,
since the half person who entered
returned with the picture of a half truth.
And the person’s other half
likewise brought back a half picture.
And the two halves didn’t line up.”

We need our full selves and one another to see a whole truth, which, like any subject for poetry, often eludes us. Therefore, “Truth” tells:

“.... And so each person chose
according to his whim, his illusion, his myopia.”

The truth in that statement gives us a subtle truth about poetry in general as we search for ways to encounter new experiences through the written word while connecting our own experiences with ones richly provided in insightful poems such as these.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes (for children) and Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books.

Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems, hardcover

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Christian Poet Scott Cairns

Scott Cairns collected his poems in a new book entitled Slow Pilgrim, which recollects his pilgrimage as a Christian in many of the poems.

Using the concept he refers to as “sacramental poetics,” Cairns brings together theology and poetry as did poets of the past, who saw this connectedness in the “Logos.” Indeed, as the Introduction to the book reminds us, “The Greek word for ‘word’ is logos, familiar to us from the opening of the Gospel of St. John. But Cairns believes that in modern Western thought logos has too often reduced ‘word’ to disembodied abstraction. He prefers the Hebrew word davar, which means both word and thing – and even, as he notes, a power.”

And “yet one of the key milestones along his pilgrimage has been his embrace of the Orthodox tradition of ‘apophatic’ theology, which is an expression of humility before the inadequacy of language.” This apophatic theology helps us to know God by stating Who or What God is not, rather than Who or What God is. For example, when we say God is immortal, we’re saying God does not die. Or if we call God a Spirit, we’re saying God isn't confined to a physical form as we are. Or if we say God is truth, we’re saying God does not lie.

Often Christian poets and writers rely on metaphor or analogy to equate God with this or that. Or perhaps we present a particular point-of-view or communicate an experience. Conversely, Cairns’ pilgrimage is more inclined to take us from communication into communion, slowing us down, so we can listen between the lines and hear the silence that arises into worship or poetry.

This is not, however, a devotional book, nor collection of inspirational writings. As the Introduction tells us, these “poems address us in our quotidian experience of life: they are best experienced in an armchair, not in church.”

For example, “Taking Off Our Clothes” strips us down to our real selves where:

“We’d talk about real things, casually
and easily taking off our clothes. We would be
naked and would hold onto each other a long time,
saying things that would make us
grin. We’d laugh off and on, all the time
unconcerned with things like breath, or salty
skin, or the way our gums show when we really
smile big. After a while, I’d get you a glass of water.”

This use of the visible, the tangible rather than the abstract, calls us to recognizable truths, such as how getting real with ourselves and each other makes us feel naked. In these times of vulnerability, we might do nothing more God-like than bringing each other a cup of cool water in Christ’s name.

Since the poem just quoted in part comes at the beginning of the book, readers will know upfront not to expect anything sentimental or puritanical. Having squirmed through too many of the latter types of poems or flat statements of belief or long-winded diatribes, a subtle invitation to find God among real people in real life can, itself, be as refreshing as that glass of water.

This time I knew to expect such an approach as the publisher, Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a review copy, had done the same last year for Cairns’ book, Idiot Psalms. However, to claim familiarity with the work of this respected poet would be misleading as I suspect I’ll never fully catch what’s compressed into each poem.

Sometimes this slowness to comprehend occurs because of differences in male and female perspectives but also because of the poet’s artistry in drawing negative spaces that may or may not be filled with God’s invisible presence. That said, Cairns can use metaphor well when he wants to as shown in the poem “4. Mortal Dream” where “It is not a very clean city, even the air has fingerprints.”

For the most part, though, I found the poems accessible and occasionally amusing. For example, “5. My Imitation” begins:

“I sold my possessions, even the colorful pencils.
I gave all my money to the dull. I gave my poverty
to the president. I became a child again, naked
and relatively innocent. I let the president have my guilt.”

But what seems to be humorous turns into a common union with Christ as the poem continues:

“I found a virgin and asked her to be my mother.
She held me very sweetly.”

And ends:

“I rose again, bloodless and feeling pretty good.

I forgave everything.”

Unlike the sweet greeting card verses that assure us all is well even when it isn’t, I’m more attuned to the hope we have in Christ when reading such lines as: “And still I have suffered/ an acute lack of despair.” Yes! How true!

Besides our lack of despair, aren’t we all archaeologists? As shown in “Archaeology: A Subsequent Lecture,” we see:

“…the pleasure lies

in fingering loose ends toward likely shape,
actually making something of these bits
of persons, places, things one finds once one

commences late interrogation
of undervalued, overlooked terrain –
what we in the business like to call
the dig.”

In addition to digging through our collective or individual past, these poems give us a new take on familiar Bible stories such as told in the poem “The Entrance of Sin.” In its departure from the Genesis 3 story, the second paragraph of this prose poem offers a prior scenario:

“For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.”

I love that a man wrote those lines! And I welcomed the insight into relationships today. I also enjoyed the dry humor, as in “Possible Answers To Prayer,” where:

“Your petitions – though they continue to bear
just the one signature – have been duly recorded.”

Then these exquisite lines in “I. Nativity” give us a glimpse of that biblical scene as told from the perspective of a man gazing on a woman beloved:

“As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend
the tiny God is wrapped
in something more than swaddle. The God

is tightly bound within
His blessed mother’s gaze….”

The poem continues:


the famous star is all
but out of sight by now; yet, even so,
it aims a single ray

directing our slow pilgrims to the core
where all the journeys meet,
appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,

where crouched among these other
lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers
receive that creatured air, and pray.”

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer in all genres and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and poetry

Slow Pilgrim, quality paperback

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Reviewing Heaven

In the book, Heaven, written by award-winning poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, who kindly sent me a copy for review, the poems in this particular “heaven” lean not toward the baptismal but the mythological. So, if you’re expecting a biblical view of heaven, as I was, you might miss the search, as I first did, into heavenly realms that began with light, music, and flights of literary allusions.

While these poems do not land in a particular place or spiritual environment, they explore a variety of routes people have taken to get there. For example, the opening poem, “The Mind After Everything Has Happened” begins with “Perpetual peace. Perpetual light./ From a distance it all seems graffiti” then ends:

“If Hell is a crater to a crater
To a crater to a crater, what then
Is Heaven, aside from its opposite,
Which was glorious, known, and obvious?”

But then there’s the question of whether that last line depicts Heaven or Hell.

The poem “Boys” seems more obvious as the guys cut class to hang out “to play/ Just about all the music we knew,” caught up in the heavenly tunes of their own making. Interestingly, that all-day endeavor ends in suffering:

“When the dark would come, we’d show each other
Our blisters, the painful white whorls peeling,
Our read palms upwards, outstretched and unread.”

After reading the search in those palms, we read “The Starry Night,” where “Night frees its collar from around its neck/ And walks slowly past the two bathing bears/ Wading in the black stellate subheaven.”

From celestial places and beautiful myths to the beauty in nature and love, the poet briefly descends into “News From the Muse Of Not Guilty” with these sensory and highly visual lines:

“He sits in a Hawaiian shirt over a bulletproof vest,
Slumped in a beach chair, its back to the ocean.
Even his red wine spritzer tastes like Skittles now.”

“An Excuse For Mayhem” starts with “The Kingdom of Heaven” as perceived through the Christian faith then ends with this word or, is it a warning?

“…the sublime blue hour
Of the voice, the mute light, mute church, mute choice.”

The final lines of the book, however, find rest in an earthy heaven and this confession:

“…all I want to do is lay my head/
Down, lay my head down on the naked slope
Of your chest and listen there for my heart.”

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print, the first of which, Living in the Nature Poem, was published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press with an e-book version in 2014. That same year, Kelsay Books published Mary's book of nature poems for children and her book of Bible-based poems, Outside Eden.

Heaven: poems, hardback

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Prose poem for Father’s Day

Textiles. Textures. Materials. Cloth.
by Mary Harwell Sayler

Wearing this shirt worn by a stranger no longer wears down the edges of my fingernails. Eventually, all polish chips away. Once in a while of silk slippers and white chiffon, I had grown too accustomed. Denim did not come as effortlessly as imagining denim and then only on Saturdays with my father’s sturdy long-sleeved shirt loosely matching the dependable fabric of his arms. Some say his spirit gave me God, while connecting with people tangled in maternity, not material – text, not texture, but sometimes the way the weave is worn.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. This prose poem was originally published in the poetry book, Outside Eden. For more about prose poems, see “Do real poets read and write prose poems?”