Poems of Devotion.
Luke Hankins, ed.
Eugene, Oregon: WIPF and STOCK, 2012.
$24.98 (paper)

Composing Piety: Luke Hankins’ Poems of Devotion
Reviewed by Claire Bateman

In this fine anthology’s introductory essay “The Poem as Devotional Practice” as well as in the poems Hankins chose to include, it is clear that he sees devotional poetry as a high-stakes, indeterminate, and radically embodied enterprise—thus, it is important for readers to recognize the gap between the way Hankins defines devotional poetry and the way Dave Harrity, Martha Serpas, and Claire Miller Colombo define it in their essay “The Theopoetics of Literature.” According to Harrity, Serpas, and Colombo, “much of that genre misses the embodiment it desperately—but perhaps unknowingly—desires. Theopoetic poetry…in many ways, moves oppositely…In the aesthetics of theopoetic poetry, the being, world, and divinity conceive one another in inexactitude and are rooted in the complexity of their relationships, the negotiations of their dominance, and the compromise of assertive visions.” Nothing in this volume represents the “flaccid spirituality let loose in language” that Harrity, Serpas, and Colombo associate with the devotional mode—indeed, it is Hankins’ emphasis on the necessarily process-oriented nature of the anthology’s poetry that marks it as what Harrity et al would categorize as theopoetic.

We have long recognized, of course, that this kind of poem is by nature a paradoxical entity: there’s something secret, even unutterable, about our struggles and encounters with the Holy, yet many of them possess an innate centrifugal impulse, demanding to be communicated, if even in whispers.

But Hankins transcends that paradox by asserting that some of these experiences seem to emerge inseparably from, rather than prior to, the writing process itself. He attributes this to the influence of those 17th-century Metaphysical works he sees as “exploratory poems—begun in uncertainty of mind and spirit, and themselves representing the devotional process (or at least part of it) though which resolution, or clarity, or simply articulation was achieved.” As an example, he cites Herbert’s “The Search”: “It is doubtful…that a poem as effective as this…could have been written toward a foreknown conclusion.” While acknowledging that what he describes as devotional poetry “can usefully be thought of as a spectrum,” he theorizes that “a poem whose composition was itself part of the devotional practice would be the quintessential devotional poem, and a poem that re-enacts devotional practice, while remaining in the devotional mode, would fall on the periphery of the category.”

Hankins informs us in a note following the Introduction that he makes no pretense of having been exhaustive in his selection process, and that his choices demonstrate his own sensibility. On the one hand, we experience quite a diversity of voices: Leonard Cohen, Sufijan Stevens, and the youngest writer, Anna Connors, still an undergraduate at the time of the book’s publication, are given equal time with the great moderns such as T.S. Eliot and Theodore Roethke. We are fed with psalm, prayer, diatribe, lamentation, midrashic speculation, parable, meditative lyric, ekphrasis, and re-imagined legend of origin. We overhear the projected voices of a fallen angel, the Mother of God, a visitor to “The Home for the Incurables,” and a field hand. And while free verse prevails, we are treated to, for instance, a selection from a crown of sonnets by Malachi Black, and some “’dub versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets” by Michael Schiavo. On the other hand, Hankins’ stated focus is primarily on recent writers from the United States, though he includes several others such as Yehuda Amichai and Patrice de la Tour du Pin. And aside from a few exceptions (most notably, the stunning excerpts from Amit Majmudar’s “Azazil,” based on a Sufi-Islamic rendering of the Fall), the poems’ affinities come from within, or more or less in shouting distance of, the Judeo-Christian tradition. The anthology contains 128 pieces by 77 poets.

The prevailing disposition of the anthology is apophatic—appropriate to our postmodern era, some might say, but more accurately, appropriate to the subject at hand. As Scott Cairns points out in “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Hairesis,” “…it’s not as if any of us/ ever had anything like an adequate view.” And Hankins’ predilection for devotional poems “composed in uncertainty” is evident, as with Milosz’s speaker in “An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven”:

Because my heart desires you,
though I do not believe you would cure me.

And so it must be, that those who suffer will continue to suffer,
praising your name.

Often, what seem to be contradictory experiences are inextricably intertwined. In the selection from “Bucolics,” Maurice Manning’s speaker knows God as both stone and feather.

What I wanted then was to break God’s heart,

C. Dale Young confesses, and then in the next line:

I wanted Him to snap my neck, break my back.

There is no resolution here—how could there be when, as Roethke says, “[t]he edge is what I have”?

And the man who’s afraid of the dark
and the man who loves the dark
are the same man

sings Li-Young Lee—the darkness is death, of course, but at the deepest level, it is the darkness of God, so brilliant that we can catch only glimpses of it:

…I say God and mean more
than the bright abyss that opens in that word.
I say world and mean less
than the abstract oblivion of atoms
out of which every intact thing emerges,
into which every intact thing finally goes.

(Christian Wiman, “One Time”)

In these poems, the space for the encounter can be found anywhere and anytime. Andrew Hudgins’ speaker prays drunk; in “Hanging,” Anna Connors tells us that

feet hooked over the monkey-bars,
I used to listen for the Lord.

Madeline DeFrees exults over

Morphic river-
tongues in thousands, whose meaning
no one knows

and Anthony Hecht summons up for us the prayer of an old man in a concentration camp gas chamber. Jane Hirschfield remarks simply and astringently,

There is something out in the dark that wants to correct us.

But whatever the circumstances of the encounter (or the possibility of encounter), instead of reassurance or anything so facile as “closure,” we get glory, and a singular kind of intimacy:

I stood once again
in this world, the garden
ark and vacant
tomb of what
I can’t imagine,
between twin eternities,
some sort of wings,
more or less equidistantly
exiled from both,
hovering in the dreaming called
being awake, where
You gave me
in secret one thing
to perceive, the
tall blue starry
strangeness of being
here at all.

You gave us each in secret something to perceive.

Furless now, upright, My banished
and experimental

You said, though your own heart condemn you
I do not condemn you.

(Franz Wright, “The Only Animal”)

Throughout many of the poems, intimacy with God is indistinguishable from a painful sense of penitence. In “Psalm 41,” Patrice de la Tour du Pin’s wonders:

On that day when you judge
the taste of my joy with your lips,
my sorrow at your Passion,

will you be able to say: “Here is a man
who valued me
over thirty radiant ideas”?

Yet one thing the poets generally do not feel guilty for is their love of this complex, broken, and yet cherishable world in which they cannot find rest, for in most of the poems, that love heightens rather than competes with the desire for God. The authors are driven to communicate their sense of connection with/displacement from the world; however, it is the created-Uncreated encounter, and not so much the flesh-spirit paradox, which serves as the pearl-producing irritant since, after all, flesh is meant to be illumined rather than discarded by spirit.

Thinking about poetry and desire as I read, I couldn’t help but remember Stevie Smith’s “Mrs. Arbuthnot” (not anthologized here), in which the character Mrs. Arbuthnot, formerly “a poet of high degree,” moves to a cottage by the sea to mourn her lost talent:

Crying: I should write a poem,
Can I look a wave in the face 
If I do not write a poem about a sea-wave,
Putting the words in place.

In the last two stanzas, however, her situation is altogether different:

Mrs. Arbuthnot has died,
She has gone to heaven,
She is one with the heavenly combers now
And need not write about them.

Cry: she is a heavenly comber,
she runs with a comb of fire,
Nobody writes or wishes to 
Who is one with their desire.

Whether that closing statement is true we cannot know, of course (it’s as intriguing to ponder as it is disturbing!) but in the anthology’s most joyful moments we do see lyric and love flowing together into silence:

When I had a spirit
When I was on fire
When this valley was
Made out of fresh air
You spoke my name
In naming Your silence:
O sweet, irrational worship!

(Thomas Merton, “O Sweet, Irrational Worship”)

Even though the boundaries between God and poet are syntactically blurred, as if to create ambiguity about whether it is God or the poet who names the silence, we get the sense that the purer the soul’s atmosphere becomes, the less song and silence are experienced as contraries.

The volume closes with Justin Bigos’ American Literary Review interview with Hankins, in which Hankins speaks about his own spiritual journey and his first poetry collection, Weak Devotions, and points out that “we as humans do not come to what is holy at all…I see the opposite as true: the holy comes to us, and we can never be ready for it.” He also says, “We make because we are made…We are the result of the pleasureful work of the divine. And we sense this most, perhaps, when we are ourselves engaged in the pleasureful work of making art”—perhaps implying that humanity is God’s poetry, the author most intensely engaged when the material is most intransigent.