Released in November 2013, Tania Runyan’s third full-length collection, Second Sky, is the tenth book in the Poeima Poetry Series by Cascade Books. Arranged in one continuous section, the fifty-seven poems bring together a contemporary woman’s experiences with the narrative of Paul’s life (including his pre-conversion days) and with the words and ideas contained in his New Testament letters. With subject matter that touches on the seemingly mundane and everyday, the global, the spiritual, and the miraculous, Second Sky doesn’t flinch from the difficulties inherent in living a life of faith in the twenty-first century.
Just as in her prior work, this collection contains exceptionally convincing persona poems including such characters as Onesimus (referred to in Philemon), a Philippian prison guard, and Ananias, but these three voices are connected with the book’s primary individual, Paul. Runyan recounts and reimagines Paul’s experiences in such poems as “Paul Discusses His Healings at Ephesus,” “Paul Proclaims in the Synagogue,” and “Paul Insists He is Not a God,” among others. One of the more intriguing Paul persona poems is one that is actually pre-Paul: “Saul Complains About the Way.” In it, he growls, “As I bind their wrists, they pray for me— / a Hebrew of Hebrews needing prayer!” We see his frustration, anger, arrogance, and most tellingly, his religious pride.
Second Sky, in some respects, represents a departure of sorts for Runyan. For one, its cast of characters is smaller than the cast of biblical women of A Thousand Vessels (Word Farm, 2011) and the cast of biblical and historical figures in Simple Weight (FutureCycle, 2010). The polyvocality so evident in those prior collections yields to a more tightly sustained trajectory in this book. As a result, it gives the impression of an even greater cohesiveness, a more challenging vision and mission. This smaller cast of characters demonstrates an ambition that speaks to Runyan’s growth as a poet: creating and arranging a sustained vision less dependent upon those varied voices.
The collection derives its name from the poem “Approach with Boldness,” a twenty-line poem that focuses on the geothermal pools of Yellowstone National Park and the horrific deaths of those individuals who were ignorant of the pools’ destructive powers. The poem’s closing moments find Runyan pondering how “the first hunter to wander” into the area “thousands of years ago”:
must have thought he discovered a second sky
breaking through the ground, a miracle of sorts,
if he knew about those, radiating in the snow.
He laughed, bent his face over the rising steam,
and thought nothing of reaching in.
Much of the book deals with death, in both physical and spiritual senses. And on a related note, these poems address the quandary of suffering and the horrors associated with it, and on occasion the suffering and its horrors as experienced by those most vulnerable.
Her ambition is exhibited not only as she incorporates the words and ideas of Paul into her poems but also as she wrestles with them. “Man is Without Excuse” begins with the biting wit characteristic of her poetry: “Perhaps you could say that in Rome, Paul, / where the olive trees of the Seven Hills // string their pearls of rain against the sky.” The remainder of the poem follows a refugee fighting for survival in a conflict-laden region not known for its belief-compelling scenery and environment.
Second Sky explores various elements of the Christian experience and teases out their significance. For example, baptism (despite its various understandings, both theologically and practically) symbolizes renewal. So “Buried With Him In His Death” (the phrase from Paul’s letter to the Romans) depicts this idea in a literal way. The speaker has in fact been crucified with Christ (to use Paul’s terms), buried with him in his death: “Then there was the mess of prying us loose: / wailing women and splintered lumber, / flesh stubbornly sticking to the nails.” Note the us. Then there is the haunting last stanza, the speaker in the tomb with Christ:
I lay in the cave and wanted to touch you,
but my hands were no longer mine.
They closed in on themselves like daylilies.
The stone rumbled over the window of light,
and then our difficult rising began.
Note also the complication implied by the word “difficult.” This is faith that resists quick and easy acceptance.
A pronounced structural element of the collection is the inclusion of scriptural references adjacent to each poem’s title. These references, along with the scripture index, might turn away potential readers hostile or perhaps even indifferent toward Christianity, those unwilling to engage the poems and their potential implications. Yet the reading of the poems and their respective references creates a conversation, one that is rich and complex in the way that good literature is. The effect is to showcase the intertextuality of Runyan’s work, and especially, her engagement with biblical ideas.
As has been the case in her prior collections, these poems are accessible in the most positive senses of that word. Still, the more one knows of the biblical narratives involving Paul, the better. I would even go so far as to suggest readers take in the collection with Bible in hand, reading each poem, reading the relevant scripture reference, and then rereading the poem. Beyond encountering and appreciating the intertextuality of each poem, there is also the delight resulting from the cumulative intertextuality occurring as readers make their way from the first poem to the last one.
We also see Runyan stretching herself in two long poems, “The Road to Damascus” and “Pilgrimage.” These multi-sectional poems are also multi-vocal, and they are some of my favorites for many reasons, a main reason being their sense of ambition. “The Road to Damascus” comingles the speaker’s own conversion with that of Paul. Readers witness her trademark humor in the opening stanza:
Mine is not a sin-tacular story
of stumbling up the steps to the heroin clinic,
prostituting my way through prom night
or mangling my children in the slot machine—
no crazy here—
Indeed, this poem is one of several that describe the speaker’s own spiritual journey, the tensions present within Christian faith. Whether describing spiritual unease, the terror of flying, the thrill of a roller coaster, or the outcome of health problems, the speaker does so with a vulnerability and openness that feels genuine without wandering into the trappings of self-pity.
As the title hints, the ideas of perception and renewal play a role in shaping the book. “Ananias Speaks to Saul” ends with these two moving unrhymed couplets:
This healing is not easy. Something silver
falls from your eyes. Brother, something
like the scales of a struggling fish
scatter at my feet.
Here we see Runyan’s skill with figurative language and her skill in fleshing out the poignant scene mentioned only in passing in Acts 9. The Second of the title implies the opportunity for something new to be done, something new to be experienced, all via the senses. For as Paul proclaims in “Paul Speaks After Blinding Elymas,” “Sometimes you must do out of love / what devastates the senses.”
Arguably, one of the most famous passages in the Bible, and in particular in Paul’s writings, is the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, often called the “Love” chapter. So how does the poet write about such a familiar passage? She takes the phrase “The Greatest of These” and provides the reader with a listing of all that we should love, the list containing the unexpected: Love “Sends a gift to the wall-punching uncle” and “Yields the last word on the Facebook fight.” It also “Embraces the woman whose child screams / on the floor of the cereal aisle.” She concludes the poem fittingly, noting that love “Echoes long after the cymbals have died.” Here again is the weaving of poetry and scripture.
Tania Runyan’s poetry does not offer readers uncomplicated, unthinking faith. There is no kind of “easy believism” to be found within the pages. Rather these poems reveal the paradoxical and complicated avenues of faith. Readers will be challenged by these poems, not only by the content, but also by the implications they create in their own journey of faith, whatever the progress of that journey.
Nathaniel Lee Hansen is the author of the chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian: Poems (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2014). He teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor where he also serves as editor of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and director of the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival.