Prophecy and Poetry–and Two New Books from BCC Press

twofer

At BCC Press, we believe that the line between poetry and prophecy is vanishingly thin and not really a line at all. Nearly all of the prophets in the Bible were also poets. Read correctly, the magnificent verses of Isaiah, the profound Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the stunning rebukes of Amos and Hosea are among the ancient world’s greatest poems.

The reverse is true as well: the poets of a culture are invariably its greatest prophets. Whether it is William Blake reconciling contraries through prophetic verse, or William Butler Yeats organizing history into self-annihilating gyres, or Walt Whitman telling Americans on the eve of the Civil War that “affection shall solve the problems of freedom”–poets warn us, challenge us, and reveal new and startling truths that complicate our lives.

thetreeatthecenterThus, when BCC Press releases a book of poetry, it is a cause for celebration. When we release two books of poetry, it is a cause for reverent awe and profound rejoicing. Today, we are releasing two books of poetry.

The first book, Kathryn Knight Sonntag’s The Tree at the Center, is an extended, beautiful, and at times deeply disturbing work of prophetic warning. And all of its poems cry out for the answer to two great questions: “Why have we erased the divine feminine from our theology and our understanding of God?” and “Why are we destroying the land that nurtures us and gives us life?”

The two questions, as Kathryn explains in the introduction, are actually the same, as she explains in the introduction (itself a work of magnificent prophecy):

The root of our ecological crisis lies in our separation from the Tree. Humankind’s large-scale environmental degradations prove that the forces of industrialization perceive that natural systems’ inherent value is inferior to extractable resources for immediate human consumption. The pride behind the wanton destruction of eternal networks in the physical and spiritual spheres of the wild is the same pride that removed the Divine Mother from Her temple throne, and attempts to accelerate the silencing of women.

But enough of the chatter. Let’s get to the poetry. Here are two poems that, we believe, will give you an idea of the kind of ecological and theological work that Kathryn is doing in this remarkable book:

Nüshu*
Once there was a language
of women. Once
there was script for
“world” and “womb” outside
the characters of men.

Ticks of thread pulled
through cloth, belts, straps,
passwords embroidered
into the hems of women
who worshiped birds. Stories
passed from mother
to daughter, murmurations
of sky and land.

It is their motion I feel—strokes
laid like insect tracks,
bodies embracing—whipped air.
Virgules and arcs stalk my shadow,
unbearable as wings
that will never touch down.

It is all I can do not
to reach out and feel blindly
for the apparitions
of bird women, to shout, desperate
for tongues, Teach me
how to break open
my lips.

Once there was a clan
of sworn sisters. Once
they were feared.

 *  “Women’s Script” of the rural villages of Jiangyong, China


The Tree at the Center
We talk often
of the Son’s surrender
His long suffering, His forever
atoning—the shards
of the universe, gathered
to reconcile all
the ways in which God
has been lost
to us.

I want to know
about the surrender
of the Mother, if it felt at all
like a body
laid flat
as creation writhed
shaking the bed
of Earth while Her mind
broke
into shards, into the wilderness
into the wolf. No word, no language
separate from the surging
womb.

I want to know
how death hit Her square
on the meatiest turn
of Her trunk, then dragged Her
from the forest—the embroidered branches
rent from Solomon’s temple—
to pierce Her stiff arms
with Her son’s.

I want to know
how a forest survives
without trees, how
we will welcome the Son
with the fires
still burning.

Can we get a “wow”? And there are 36 more poems where these came from–in the profound, life-changing pages of The Tree at the Center.homespunandangelfeathers

We are also beaming with pride as we present Darlene Young’s Homespun and Angel Feathers  a work of prophecy that, like the prophetic Book of Jonah includes irony and gentle humor as part of its prophetic repertoire. Prophets warn us and criticize us, and sometimes that includes getting us to laugh at ourselves, which, we suspect, is at the root of the following poem that (we also suspect) may be the funniest thing ever written by a Mormon writer about anything at all. Or any other writer for that matter:

Angels of Mercy
The Seventh Ward Relief Society
presidency argued long and soft
whether Janie Goodmansen deserved
to have the sisters bring her family meals.
It seemed that precedent was vague—
no one was sure if “boob job” qualified
as a legitimate call for aid.
Janie herself had never asked for help—
a fault they found harder to forgive
even than the vanity behind
the worldliness of D-cup ambition.
But in the end charity did not fail.
The sisters marched on in grim duty
each evening clutching covered casseroles
(for, after all, it wasn’t the children’s fault).
More than once, though, by some oversight
the dessert came out a little short, as if
by some consensus they all knew
that Janie’s husband, Jim, could do
without a piece of pie that night.

Homespun and Angel Feathers is chock-full of poems like these that use affectionate satire to examine spiritual questions. But it also includes a generous helping of breathtakingly beautiful spiritual nourishment delivered with grace and extraordinary craftsmanship. Like this:

Gethsemane
I want to tell the story. But—
there is no approaching this,
strange crux
of everything.

Come at it sideways.
Come at it from the edge.

Picture, then,
a hardscrabble patch of land.
Rocks. An olive tree. Sparse,
straggling desert grass. The rocks

have been waiting. The wind
has been waiting. The living souls nearby
sleep through the whole thing.
(This is important. I have slept
through many things.)

And then—
What

can be known? There has never been
any moment more private
nor more public.

So.
What I know: the screaming windy cliff
of unavoidable onus, the weight
of what must be done.
For me, it was the abyss
of being about to give birth. The way
the self shrinks
to a pinpoint in a vacuum, the way
one becomes lost, faceless,

the way
the thought that there is another soul depending on you
can pull you inside out and through
to a new place.

But of course
even in that, my most impossible moment,
he was already there,
having been there before me.

Oh, how is a human
to comprehend godly heartbreak?
Might as well teach a point on a line
about temples and spires,
about stars. It’s a matter of dimension:
impossible geometry.

What we know:
he went to a place.
He knew that ahead of him
was a pain yet unknown in the world,
extra-dimensional. That
seeing it, he, who had maybe
never known fear before this,
asked to be excused,
but not really.

We know:
the contemplation of that pain
was so terrible it required the ministration
of an angel before it could be approached.

We know:
at point zero
he was left alone
in a way no human can comprehend.

We know:
he came out on the other side
gentle, generous,
quieter.

Forever after,
he would say very little about it.
Only: shrink.
Only: nevertheless.

Percy Bysshe Shelly said that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Perhaps he was right, but we think it is time to acknowledge them–and to read, and understand, what the great prophets of our generation are telling us about ourselves. These two books are an excellent place to begin, or to continue, that journey.

Comments

  1. .

    I’ve read Darlene’s book and you won’t find a better this year.