The title of Dave Harrity’s new book initially reminded me of another book of poems in Cascade’s Poiema Series: Julie L. Moore’s Particular Scandals (2013). Both titles suggest an attention to particularity or the details of material life, and both books deliver on their titles’ promises in their authors’ distinct voices, suggesting and demonstrating the very plenitude of particularity. For my money, the Poiema series has been a welcome contribution to the Protestant turn to the physical of the last decade or so. Particularity should scandalize us. Intricacies should interest us. As humans but also as Christians: if Christ is just a hero-figure cobbled together from other faiths, then he is interesting and perhaps poetic, but he is no more powerful than Harry Potter. If he is the creator God who showed up in an obscure corner of the world as a homeless laborer and, in dying, created a pathway to eternal life with the Father, well, then, he is both a big deal and a big problem. An incarnate Christ means we can’t just imagine the world the way we want it; we have to be responsive to the way it is.
Harrity’s first book, Making Manifest (2013), lays out his theory of the imagination and poetry in workbook form. That is, he takes the reader through concrete practices of observation and writing designed to connect the mind to the world. These Intricacies reads like the poetic version of this project.
Criticism itself moves between the particularity of a voice and a larger or more general context comprised of similar works against which that voice stands out (one hopes). Put Harrity up against a Julie L. Moore and he will sound more cerebral (which is not the same as “more intellectual”) and workmanlike, but put him up against much of the work in, say, Best American Poetry and he will sound more intimate and earnest, more personal. His method is to watch the world closely, but he is an inveterate thinker, a Socrates wondering “about the shadows made by fire, / dancing on the dark walls of a cave.” He follows thought to its vanishing point in ignorance but remains unable not to think just as he is unable not to believe.
could say of many of the Poiema authors that they are more intimate, earnest,
and personal than much contemporary poetry (which is one reason why this
collection suits the series), but placing Harrity on this ad hoc spectrum
between Moore and BAP also helps situate the way these poems engage with
Christian faith. The Poiema line features poets “who take Christian faith
seriously,” whereas Best American Poetry has no presumption of any
faith; in fact, they are as likely to see faith as something that only people
from another time or culture can really hold authentically (To be clear, the
choice of BAP to stand for contemporary poetry is somewhat arbitrary and only meant to serve as a general guidepost rather than any specific commentary about the series). So while Moore wrestles less with faith itself than with understanding the world in light of God’s promises, and the BAP poets struggle to find something worth believing in, Harrity in These Intricacies circles the center of faith looking for a way in. He believes, but he needs help with his unbelief; or rather, he has a theory of how to get to a stronger faith, and this book charts some of that journey.
We can take the two opening poems, “Naming the Stars” and “In January” as something like blueprints for the inquiry. The first opens, “To know that there is room enough for dusk in the body / step out in open air and breathe.” That is, to know that the body is not the physical limit it sometimes feels, move it into the world. Doing so won’t guarantee epiphany, but in the dialogue between the body’s movement and the poet’s words he hopes at least to find contact with something true, if broken: “There’s a word to say for each imperfection we possess.”
In the second poem, his hope in language becomes almost obsessive, repeating words three times in only seventeen lines. Speaking perhaps to his wife, he remarks that there “are words I seem to only say with you,” and contrasts them to his own prayers (words of love? adoration? devotion? trust?) and to “the words you use to talk to God.” If he can’t find shining words for his prayers, he considers it may be enough “to have good words / to say to you when I come home,” though even here he feels his inadequacy. But just as stepping into the open air expands his body, so speaking itself expands his soul. To speak presumes not just the intention to communicate but the belief that it is possible to connect with an audience. Thus when he says “what finds its way to voice / with us hopes for more than... the ceaseless, steady thaw of my belief,” it is possible to read the ambivalent “more than” as both “more than my thawing belief hopes” as well as “for more faith than in my currently icy belief.”
The centerpiece of the collection consists of the nine-part prayer cycle, “Novena,” which contains some of Harrity’s most direct and rawest language of faith. The short, spare verses alternate between intellectual angst and richly visual praise and petition, thus demarcating the horizon of the speaker’s faith. Consider the tortured logic of the lines:
faith is hard
when every part of you
in the water
of one freighted word: believe.
It reads at first as if the poet, speaking in second person, is confessing to drowning in the word believe, as many of us have for probably a handful of similar reasons. But the poem goes on in the first person, which recasts the “you” as God. How does God drown in belief? Perhaps because of the paucity of our intentions. Perhaps because of the failure of our words. Yet later in the cycle he sings, “Let my voice grow into prayer / with my face against the soil” and later still he announces confidently:
...You should know that I will learn
to find you, that I’m gathering
your images together, all the scattered pieces
of your face...
It is perhaps the most praiseworthy moment in his faith as expressed in these poems, the lover’s promise to pursue the beloved, to quest after the best things.
I am always interested in poetic expressions of faith, but I do not wish to neglect Harrity’s interest in matters of family, personal history, our social fabric, and the violence both “out there” and within. In his search for the right words he considers his father, his father’s father, a man showing his son how to clean a gun, a childhood memory of a carnival and a crush, and even a trip to a gun shop. These do not all serve to help form identity so much as to become modes of entry into reflection on the real. A trip next door for some baking flour leads him to reflect on what he does and doesn’t know about his neighbors: the rumors, the suppositions, and what might be the reality of their daily desiring and surviving.
Harrity is also full of little gnomic sayings like, “the day may be beginning / where belief will end” or “You can’t escape your blood / or all the sins that flow from it.” Often, he offers them ambivalently; they come from a place of authoritative experience and yet he presents them warily, as if for our approval. “Contemplating the Egg” begins, “If it’s blamelessness you want, stay in bed,” a statement most of us could readily assent to, but its corollary in the next line, “At the moment you crack an egg you’ve sinned” strikes me as melodramatic and reminds me that the whole poem is something of an experiment in a form of natural theology more typical of the Middle Ages than of the present. Whether or not Harrity intends the melodrama of the second line, he clearly signals the poem’s irony when, by poem’s end, after considering the thoughtless ways we destroy while blithely presuming our own invulnerability, the speaker breaks open the egg to prepare his breakfast. Vehicle (the egg) and tenor (something like total depravity) dally with one another briefly and part ways, so that the egg remains an egg and good to eat, but the speaker is guilty whether he breaks it or not—because, having risen from bed, he has already broken it.
In the interests of transparency, I will admit to being friends with Dave, so of course I am going to read his book with more charity than I might a stranger’s. But I can feel comfortable recommending the book as an honest and creative engagement with the world through the lens of faith. Even as his friend, I found some of his gnomic tidbits a little ponderous, and some of the attempts at ponderousness take liberties with grammar and syntax that irked the editor in me. There are more than a few lines that smack of the kind of obscurity often associated with contemporary poetry that might turn off some readers, though with some effort most people should be able to see what work they do for the poem. This is a strong, admirable entry from an author who can often surprise you, sometimes irk you, but never bore you.
Brad Fruhauff is Communications Specialist at Trinity International University, Contributing Editor of Sapientia: A Journal of the Henry Center, and Senior Editor of Relief: A Christian Literary Express. His work has appeared in Books & Culture, Every Day Poems, Relief, Rock & Sling, and the books Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader and How to Write a Poem.