We ask our contributing authors to consider the role of faith in their work, or in the pieces in our issue. It adds some depth to what is often just of list of accomplishments that lacks any real sense of who wrote a particular poem or essay or story.
Here is a selection of what our authors had to say:
About the role of faith in these poems, Cathy begins by noting that she suffers from schizophrenia. “When I asked God once why He gave me poetry, He said, ‘Your mind has given you much pain over the years; I want it to give you pleasure.’” She adds that “When I write, as when I pray, I feel most like I’m made in His image.” Cathy adds that God “is the most difficult of subjects, and I’ve written many more bad poems about God than good ones. But when He helps, then I am driven like a feather going over Victoria Falls.”
“The poem, ‘Judas Tree’ was started as I drove from Pennsylvania to Virginia, where I had a writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. It began with the literal, redbud trees in full bloom lining the highway, and then tapped into other sources: hymns (‘Prepare the Royal Highway’), memory (that underground highway), and my own complicated feelings about Judas.”
Jeffrey G. Dodd
“You too, I’m sure, have noticed the prominence of conjunctions in the Bible, those little ligaments holding the hulking architecture in place. Turning to any page, a good reader sees the connective tissue between exhortation and story, between rebuke and grace. I’m interested in that movement, in its speed, in its ox-bowed line from garden to wilderness, from covenant to cross. You know what I mean. You too, I’m sure, have wondered what the first thief must have thought about the second.”
These Paleolithic poems are a result of my research and imagination into what those cave painters were doing way back then. I’m also wondering if any progress has been made in art since then. (Probably not.) I am also trying to understand who we are today by looking back to those artworks. And, finally, I’m trying to revive the lyric poem for two reasons: one, the narrative poem seems to dominate today’s poetry, so it needs a counterbalance; and two, since almost all of the Paleolithic cave paintings have no narrative, I chose to use the lyric poem to reflect that narrativeless art.
The matter of how faith might relate to any given poem is thorny, and not liable to swift and simple treatment. “Abide with Me” is the title of an old hymn, a standby at funerals. It expresses a longing for completion, for an end to the isolation that is, for the most part, our lot in life. And for most of human history, what has answered that need most surely and completely has been faith in the ineffable. My mother’s death left me alone in a way I hadn’t been prepared for, but I used the faith she taught me to understand death as an end to her isolation, and my believing that, then, lessened my own. I’m not sure I can be clearer. In fact, the poem, I hope, is clearer than anything I might say about it. She did seem to hover there at the end, as though savoring something, waiting for dawn.
About “Cloudscape with Heron.” I recall that as a high school student, I read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl” with admiration. The latter was probably the first poem I came across that seemed to express matters of faith with a beauty of expression and without sentimentality: “He who…/ Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight…/ Will lead my steps aright.” Since then—my faith tested repeatedly and rocked a few times—I came to realize that these seeming verities are not as certain as I once thought. Yet when I cross the Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta, as I do most workdays, I sometimes see a great blue heron fishing in the rocky waters or flying upriver against the wind, and I think that even if faith is not quite the QED matter that Bryant believed, the rugged beauty of this big bird and its tough environment (especially on gray winter evenings) convinces me that faith, though rough and tenuous as the heron’s world often seems, is durable, too, and has the same hard-edged beauty, the same survivor spirit. Faith is often just a fleeting vision that can soften those heavens of brass.
Jessie van Eerden
“Raised Up, Wet-Headed” is bound up with her youth and with the people of Beatty Church in West Virginia. The essay evokes baptism—baptism into Love and into the human experience of drought, loss, need. Beatty blurred the holy with the mundane: the church had no indoor plumbing, just an outhouse with a lattice entryway; everybody signed up to clean it once a week, just like everybody got a call on the Prayer Chain about someone needing salvation or a load of coal; everybody knelt at the oak altar, and everybody voted to give a love-offering to the foster mother who would spend it at Pizza Hut. This blur has imbued plain things with a kind of light; in writing, everything’s got a shot at being holy and being prayed. Perhaps, at its best, literature is all prayer.