At the Edge of Forget by Reka Jellema, Brendan Bonsack, Kathryn Ross, and Jennifer Savage

at the edge of forgetThis unique volume of poetry tears down the stereotype of the solitary poet locked in a room, as the entire volume is the collaboration of four poets. It is not an anthology of their individual work, but a collection of collaborative poetry created across continents. Two of the writers, Reka Jellema and Jennifer Savage, live in different areas of the United States. Brendan Bonsack and Kathryn Ross are both from Australia. Together, they break the collection into three areas, “Resonance,” “Weaving,” and “Remberance.” And although it does not impact the contents, it is worth noting that the book cover photo and design are outstanding (and the work of two of the writers).

If you are skeptical about the concept, you will not be after reading the collection. This collaborative collection creates a strong, deep voice where the writers clearly listened to one another’s writing and enhanced their individual voices. To use their own titles, the ideas of resonance and weaving are what make these poems work, whie the poems of rememberance remind us of the connection with others of our mortality.

They seem to touch on their connection with one another in their opening poem, “We Met Before.”

“I have met you before
I can tell by the flurry of words

Spoken, not spoken
Assembled like confetti
Blown from my lips, flecked in my hair
A swarm of tiny letters
The sayable puzzles, and the unsayable

Were we meant to fit together,
And this blinking, squinting, mutter-mutter know?

When I met you before
Our time was runing low”

Throughout the collection, we see a range of themes and find both serious and winsome words. In the midst of a poem entitled “Canine,” we get an accurate look at dogs, but with a seriousness which can only make us smile:

“…
We licked
our spots, divined
A crotch
From miles off

Unleashing
With each nudge of snout
Scents by the millions
Stars exploding
Pungent edge of lawns, uprooted
Trees, and variegated clumps
Of weeds

Our nostrils quivered
And our tails shot up
…”

Whether exploring marriage (“A Love’s Little Scratching”), objects (“Ceiling”), or grief (“Ways to Say Goodbye”), the writers combine to create a unique voice, a new way of looking at life. A poem like “Wednesdays” could be written by one person, but the different voices in creating these snapshots add a depth to the voice. We see this again in “Men of Bicycle” as different views take us past the visual into a realm of wondering.

This collection offers us a new way to approach writing. While many have talked about collaborative writing in our digital age, this volume shows it not only working but presenting a new voice. It is exciting to think how the addition of a new person, or the replacement of one writer, could affect how these writers work together. Perhaps the four voices behind it make you feel like there is a conversation happening and you are invited to join in. Pull up a chair. You will be better for it.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

citizen coverI’ve read this fifth volume of Rankine’s poetry three times, and each time I learn more about what I do not know. Rankine exposes the everyday incidents of personal racism, the public racism of how Serena Williams is treated throughout her career, and the violent racism revealed in the deaths of unarmed black men. But the adjectives of “personal,” “public,” and “violent,” are mere artifacts. What Rankine is showing is that all racism is personal, public, and violent. As she, and the rest of the world, watch Williams be the object of blatantly erroneous calls, it is personal for her. And it is violent in how it attacks her very humanity. The deaths of unarmed black men, the “unintentional” racist comments of her white, liberal, and educated friends, and the public shaming of someone responding honestly to being harassed live beyond the moment.

The book itself is a scrapbook of poetry, creative prose, quotes, verbal collages, and visual art. She almost seems to be scrambling, desperately, for a way to get her message across. At times, she hits it over and over, as she experiences it over and over.

“Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted,

Author_Photo_of_Claudia_Rankine

Claudia Rankine

would call you by the name of her black housekeeper?  You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” These are the daily reminders of the racism inherent in our society but only experienced by those who are not white.

 

Ranking divides her book into several sections, including ones focusing on her daily encounters with racism, one on the treatment of Williams, and one focusing on headline events such as the killings of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson. In addressing so many forms of racism, Rankine requires a response (and, of course, not to respond is to respond). If you want to feel good about the U.S. (and the world) and race, don’t read this book. If, like me, racism is not something personally experience, this book will give you some insight to the pervasiveness and horrendous impact of racism.

Visit Claudia Rankine’s Website

See a Video of Rankine Reading from Citizen

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

91-a-David-GolderThis novel by Nemirovsky, published in 1929, is a stark description of greed and its outcome. It offers little hope and is even more powerful as a result. Nemirovsky shows us David Golder, a self-made businessman who has risen from a from humble beginnings by being intelligent, focused, and ruthless. Now, in his late 60s, his own poor health makes him look at his equally greedy wife and selfish 18-year-old daughter with new eyes. The book opens with Golder showing no mercy to his lifelong business partner, now bankrupt, who then goes and kills himself. Golder returns later to his own home (he often lives in other cities) and is confronted with his greedy wife and her demands for money. She lives to impress others, even changing her name so that her Jewish background is hidden. His daughter is a spoiled child who spends time traveling with young men. Golder is completely under his daughter’s spell, even though he sees her for what she is, and she ultimately brings about his demise.

Recovering from a heart attack, Golder lets his business deals fall apart and intentionally drives himself to ruin. Only his daughter can convince him to make one last deal so she can have more money, and it becomes his final deal.

There is almost nothing redeeming in any of the characters, although you can see that Golder is at least torn by what he has become. He pines for the simpler life, but is beyond finding a way to return to it. On the brink of the depression, her story shows the individual dangers of wealth and greed. Her refusal to offer any hope forces the reader to address the desolate message, still relevant today. [Note: The novel was made into a film of the same name in 1931].

This was Nemirovsky’s debut novel, and she received strong critical acclaim for it. She

irene nemirovsky

Nemirovsky

went on to write several other novels, before being sent to Auschwitz and being killed in 1942 — she was 39. It should be noted that Nemirovsky, herself of Jewish origin, has been described as a “self-hating Jew” by some critics. Of a Russian-Jewish background, she spent most of her time in France. Her husband was also Jewish (and also died in Auschwitz), but she converted to Catholicism in 1939. She creates an interesting dilemma to study, and her writing shows the study will be worth the effort.

 

“A Boy’s Will” by Robert Frost

A_Boy's_Will_1915This is Frost’s first book of poems, published in 1913, and it set him on the path that we are all familiar with. What surprised me is that this was published when Frost was 38 years old — and he still accomplished so much after this book. The poems reflect Frost’s interest in the rural landscape, the individuality of a person, and ruminations on our place in the world. Like many good writers, Frost is easy to read, but also not content with an unexamined life. He avoids the pretentiousness of many writers and

frost-1913-x

Robert Frost, 1913

 

manages to say more in the process. When poets become popular (e.g. Mary Oliver), some people tend to see them as superficial. Instead, they are often strong poets who have found a way to connect their art with the public. Frost did this.

“Mowing” and “Reluctance” are two of the better-known poems hers. There are many recordings of Frost’s own straightforward style of reading. Here is a recording of him reading “Mowing.”

Personally, I returned several times to:

“Storm Fear”

When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
The beast,
‘Come out! Come out!’–
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
Ah, no!
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,–
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether ’tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings

[A full disclaimer is needed at the outset. Todd Billings is a friend and neighbor. In fact, at the time of his diagnosis he was our next door neighbor. It was a diagnosis that hit us hard, as at that time our youngest son was in the midst of treatment for the cancer that would eventually end his life. It is my son, Oliver, that Todd refers to at one point in the book. While this relationship would incline one to think I’ll find favor with the book, it actually creates more risk for me to be hurt by what he writes. If that had happened, I would have remained silent. Instead, I offer my reflections on a book that helps me to wrestle with the loss in my life.]

rejoicing in lamentI’ve read many books and articles dealing with loss and the Christian faith. While some of these have addressed core questions, most offer glib advice and cliches. A notable exception is Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Revealed, which combines his own grief with his faith in a way that is both authentic and enlightening. Add to the list of essential works on grief and our faith, Todd Billings’ new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Billings uses the Psalms as the basis for exploring his own diagnosis of multiple myeloma at the age of 39, and the result is a call to believers to embrace lament as part of their faith. Well, it says much more than that. Still, finding someone who shows how scripture gives us permission to mourn, rage, cry, and beg to our God, in the midst of the covenant relationship, is inspiring.

I’m not a theologian, so I’ll leave the deep theological arguments to those better equipped for such a discussion. I approach the book as a Christian father who lost the youngest of his four children to neuroblastoma cancer. A father who watched helplessly for nearly three years as the disease killed his little boy; a father seemingly helpless to help a family move forward after losing their son. Billings has my attention early on as he addresses the question of evil in the world. So much of what we think revolves around the question, how could this happen? How could God allow my little boy to die? How could God allow a young father to develop an incurable cancer? Any explanation of this that I have seen falls dreadfully short of a satisfactory answer. Personally, I expect no answer and have to come to see my lack of understanding as my inability to comprehend God.  Billings, I was thrilled to see, agrees.

“…in my view the biblical ‘answer’ to the speculative problem of evil is this (drum roll, please): we don’t have an answer. It’s not that the Bible hasn’t addressed the question so that we as humans are left with a shoulder-shrugging ‘I don’t know.’ The Bible has addressed the question, and God’s response–as in the book of Job–is that humans don’t have an answer to the problem of evil, and we shouldn’t claim that we have one. It should remain an open question, one that we continue to ask in prayer and in our lives in response to the world’s suffering”(21). [Although I will not go into detail here, Billing’s exploration of Job in Chap. 2 should not be missed].

Billings sees this question laid bare at my son’s funeral. Our priest, Billings writes, repeatedly said “God has called Oliver to himself,” and “God has chosen to call Oliver at this time.” Billings response to this is honest and insightful. “Wow. A part of my heart cried, ‘Surely not!’ …The priest was confessing that God is sovereign King even in the suffering and death of Oliver. There was sting to this–implicating God in the struggle with Oliver’s cancer and his death at a young age–but also a reassurance. The sting is the theodicy question as an open question. It hurts. The death of a child is not the way things are supposed to be–why did God allow this to happen? Yet the reassurance is that Oliver did not just slip through God’s fingers. In life and death, Oliver was in God’s hands…We trust in the goodness and power of the Almighty, even though the reasons for the suffering are beyond human wisdom”(66).

Note that Billings does not say we should joyfully accept it as “God’s will” or just say “trust in God.” Instead, he challenges us to continue to bring the question to God in prayer. We must not ignore the question, but faithfully approach God for understanding in the midst of suffering. Billings refuses to let us retreat to a fatalistic approach to life. “We protest, lament, and act with compassion even when we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem”(76). We are called to compassionate action in the midst of an evil world. We do this not because we can change the world, but because our faith calls for action in the midst of evil. “As our lips say ‘They kingdom come,’ we pray–and act–as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4)”(76).

Of course, such prayer may not touch those in crisis. How do we respond to people who face evil, indeed horror, when tragedy strikes their family? Billings points us back to scripture.
“Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
        my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
        my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
        and my years by groaning;
        my strength fails because of my affliction,

        and my bones grow weak” (Ps. 31:9-10)

Billings says that since his diagnosis, “I’ve found that my Christians know how to rejoice about answered prayer and also how to petition God for help, but many don’t know what to do when I express sorrow and loss or talk about death”(41). This is difficult for people in general, but as Christians it shows the limits of our faith. Are we afraid to acknowledge our inability to respond to grief with anything but lament? As someone who struggled through his son’s illness and death,  I didn’t want assurances of his happiness in Heaven or God’s love. It is preciously because I love and worship God that I can cry out to him, and I want others to join me in that lament. That is difficult to do, and prior to my son’s illness, I failed others in that area.

This is not a pessimistic theology. Billings wants us to celebrate all that God has given us through praise and rejoicing. The Psalmists balance their laments with songs of praise. But they still lament. “A theology of the cross is not a joyless path but one with tears of joy and celebration as well as tears of lament” (177). In a wonderful passage, Billings shows how his moments of joy (his wedding, the arrival of a child) sometimes highlight times of lament. “You need to live as a mortal” (93). In doing so, we more fully recognize God’s sovereignty in all areas of our life.

Billings also explores the power of prayer in the midst of tragedy. He recalls that the prayers of healing for my young son were not granted. How could God allow this?

Again, this brings us back to the theodicy question, and Billings points us to Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. Jesus prays for the cup of suffering to be taken away. “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death”(Heb. 5:7). God could save Jesus, and he chooses not to. God could have saved my son’s life, but he did not. God could cure Todd, but still he suffers. What does this mean? “The problem is not God’s lack of power, nor a deficiency in God’s love. The denial of Jesus’ petition does not arise from a failure to ask for another way than the cross or a lack of faith in the God of power and love. Jesus presents his heart to the Father in Gethsemane as a way to bring his will into alignment with the God of power and love who wills and works in mysterious, hidden ways: through the cross” (127).

Those seeing God as a vending machine — insert the prayer and get what you paid for, are at a loss when their prayers are not answered as expected. Billings says such an approach misses the understanding of Christ crucified. “we can open our hearts before our loving Father in prayer, but as we pray, we pray on a path toward a particular end: ‘Thy will be done,’ like our Lord did in the garden”(128).

This book is important for many reasons, but what strikes me most is Billings call for an understanding of lament in our Christian faith. “Lamenting with the psalmists is a practice that is counter to our consumer culture. Lament fixes our eye’s on God’s promises and brings the cries of confusion and pain–our own and those of others–before the covenant Lord” (177). What Billings has given us here is the ability to cry out to God in lament, and know that we do so with the voices of all those before us. The psalmists show a people groaning in pain, but doing so with an understanding of God’s promise.

If you want to learn more about this important book, visit this blog and watch the video below.

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

mockingbird next doorFew authors have so captivated their readers that with a single book their reputation as a great writer is ensured for generations. So it is with Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird and, well, nothing else. The success of the book is well known, as 50 years after its publication it is still a cultural touchstone. The book’s story is just as well known through the excellent film of the same name, filmed in 1962, just two years after the book was published. Her book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, and the future was bright for the young author.

It is interesting that her childhood friend, Truman Capote, sought everything that Harper Lee came to avoid. While she helped him research his stunning “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, her novel was accepted for publication. He was already famous, and seeking more attention with every move in his life. Lee, although initially open to the public demands of an author, quickly retreated.

Although portrayed as a recluse, she is really someone who lives a quiet, private life. When her health was good, she made occasional public appearances. But she chose to split her time between Alabama and New York City, living with her older sister (a lawyer) when home in Alabama. She famously refused interview requests (sometimes with a “hell, no”) and kept to her close circle of friends.

In 2001, Chicago Tribune writer, Marja Mills, requested an interview since Chicago had chosen To Kill a Mockingbird, for their one book, one city campaign. Mills found Lee’s home and ended up speaking with Alice, her oldest sister and housemate who also served as a gatekeeper of sorts for her famous sister. Mills made an impression, and she was surprised to soon find herself speaking with the Harper Lee. The two sisters took to Mills and she was given permission to speak with close friends, who were in turn given permission by Lee to share some stories. As the relationship grew, Mills (on medical leave from her job), was “given permission” by the sisters to move next door in 2004. This book covers those 17 months of friendship.

Harper Lee - Old

Harper Lee

This is not a biography, but a memoir of Mills time with Harper Lee, known as Nelle (it is her first name) and her circle of friends. Some reviewers have bemoaned the “banal” conversations, but I like Mills style. Better than a biography, you get a feel for what Lee likes to do, say, and think. You learn she lives simply (e.g. laundry at the laundromat), reads voraciously (as does her sister), has a stinging intellect, and a fear of disappointing people who recognize her in public.

You get also get a taste of her relationship with Capote, takes on why she never wrote again (e.g. cannot top the first book, avoidance of the public), and her admiration for her father (the basis of Atticus Finch). Perhaps without intending to, Mills also gives us a look at the life of a someone struggling with lupus, which costs her a job and slows down her writing of this book.

If you are looking for a biography of Lee, you’ll have to pick on another book (and Lee hates them all). Considering that Lee would spend nearly half her time in New York, you get no idea of what she does there. If you want to get a glimpse of what it might be like to hang out with one of your favorite writers in her hometown, this is a great book. While not profound, it is insightful and will be valued in the coming years as we seek to learn more about the private person behind a book that has a hold on the public.

It should also be noted that Lee has also said she did not cooperate with this book, but it is clear that she and her sister invited Mills in and knew she was working on a book. There is little in here that Lee should not like. Mills writes as a friend more than a journalist, and refuses to get into guessing games on Lee’s sexual orientation, her mother’s emotional state, or any of the other “issues” surrounding the writer. For To Kill a Mockingbird fans, this will be a welcome treat.