Grace Like Water, Poems by Merrijane Rice

Two of my favorite poems in the English language are Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen” and GK Chesterton’s “The Donkey.” Both are poems about the New Testament, and both are about domesticated animals, but they are still very different poems. “The Oxen” is a poem by an agnostic who yearns for the story of the Nativity and yearns for it to be true. “The Donkey” is by a deeply religious poet who writes from the perspective of the Donkey that Christ rode triumphantly through Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But they are both acts of deep private devotion.

Both Hardy and Chesterton wrote spiritual poems by inserting themselves inside of the New Testament narrative, both at the center of the story (the origins of both Christmas and Easter) and the margins (with parts of the story that people rarely think about). The margins give these poems the insights that make them great, and the center gives them the spiritual power that makes them important. These poems are also sacred texts that infuse the scripture with the power of inspiration.

So, too, are the 56 delightful poems in Merrijane Rice’s new collection, Grace Like Water. As Rice describes in the introduction, the project began in 2018, as a response to the two-hour block and the First Presidency’s invitation deepen our own study of the scriptures. Rice committed to read the New Testament over the course of the year and write at least one poem a week in response to her devotional reading.

Reader, she pulled it off. And the poems, in the tradition of Hardy and Chesterton, are the sort of rich, imaginative, insightful works of art that come when a powerful mind thinks seriously about a sacred work.

Many of the poems are dramatic monologues from the perspective of characters (major and minor), interlocutors, and the people in the parables whose actions are usually fixed by the didactic nature of the genre. In Rice’s poems, we see and feel the perspectives of John the Baptist, Peter, and the Apostle Paul; but also of characters in parables: the people who first saw and interacted with the Christ Child, the widow who offers the mites and the woman who searches her house from top to bottom for a coin.

In portraying these characters, Rice finds surprising insights in every poem. Consider the poem “Saul, Saul,” which interprets Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:

Saul, Saul I was born with purpose,
a firm desire to serve God 
whatever the sacrifice or suffering. 
I raged at blasphemy, 
pitched body and soul into battle, 
knew with every sinew I was right, 

but I was mistaken. 
Over-sure and blind, 
I sacrificed others for my own sins. 

A thorn in my heart 
pricks me forward now 
to rectify and rescue 
those whose eyes in earlier life 
I wouldn’t deign to meet, 

for God had mercy on me— 
or on my victims. 
Who can tell? (50)

I love how the insight creeps up on the reader in this poem. In one devastating line, Rice reminds us that Saul’s conversion did a number of things at once. It spread the gospel, but it also prevented persecuted people from being persecuted. And it didn’t do this by turning Saul into a Christian, but by forcing him to abandon a sense of certainty that caused him to discount other people. This is beautiful poetry, but it is also an important act of interpretation that shifts the focus of the scripture. Under the poet’s gaze, Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus is reframed from the story of someone who needed to learn a theologcal truth to the story of someone who needed to stop treating people badly.

Epiphanies and inisghts like this happen throughout Grace Like Water. I will give one more example, perhaps my favorite poem in the book, titled simply “Saints,” and it is drawn from 1 Corinthians 12:12: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ”:

I cannot escape this body 
of Christ and all its earthy, 
imperfect parts: 

arthritic hands slow to grasp, 
unshod feet unwilling to move, 
spindly limbs too weak to lift, 
eternally underfed stomach, 
cloudy eyes always squinting 
and considering. 

What would I be on my own? 
Kneecap, single follicle, 
unattached tip of little finger. 

Together we can inch forward, 
reach out again and again, 
touch just the hem of His robe 
to be healed. (64)

What a marvelous meditation on the essence of the New Testament: the Body of Christ, in which broken and weak people join together, not to do anything by themselves, but to collectively reach out and touch the hem of Christ’s garment, where grace flows to us (as the title of the collection suggests) like water.

Grace Like Water is the second publication of the Mormon Lit Lab, which does the admirable work of helping authors turn their entries in the annual Mormon Lit Blitz competition into books. The 56 poems are divided into four sections: The Gospels, The Acts of the Apostles, The Epistles, and The Apocalypse. It is illustrated by Merrijane’s son, Nathan Rice.

Buy it now, and read it the way that you read the scriptures themselves: slowly, thoughtfully, prayerfully, and prepared for unexpected insights and quiet moments of grace.

Comments

  1. Thanks. Not only have you convinced me to buy Rice’s book, you have also made me want to go back and reread Hardy and Chesterton. Well done!

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