An Anthology You May Actually Reread
A Review of The Paraclete Poetry Anthology
Brad Fruhauff

With the Right Branding, The Paraclete Poetry Anthology could be one of those unique anthologies that you may actually want to return to and spend time with, devotional style. And that’s how I’m going to recommend you approach it. Alas, Paraclete presents the book somewhat plainly as simply an anthology of recently published poets. If you know who Paraclete is, of course, this will work for you, and you will get just what you would hope for from it. If you do not, well, then you may skip it and miss what is actually a fine little book that offers real spiritual and poetic returns.

The Paraclete Poetry Anthologyattempts something different from a conventional anthology. Instead of one poem by each of 100 poets, we get closer to a dozen poems by each of thirteen poets whom Paraclete has published in the last ten years.

It’s not exactly a deep dive, but it does give you time to get to know the poet much better than your average collection. Consider this: when I think about my favorite anthologies, I have impressions of the whole or I remember specific poems. When I think about this anthology, I think about specific poets, like Paul Mariani or Rainer Maria Rilke or Anna Kamieńska.

Admittedly, I knew those names already, but it’s notable that I now associate them with this book (and with Paraclete as publisher). I also think about some of the names that are newer to me and were pleasant to encounter, like SAID (an Iranian-born exile who uses his first name only) and Rami Shapiro. But right there, that’s already more names than I could list from most of my other anthologies.

So, from the writer’s point of view, this anthology works really well. It also works well from the reader’s perspective. That is, it offers the reader a satisfying and rich experience of poetry and poetic voices in the Christian tradition.

Rereading Mariani, for instance, I remember again my fondness for his working-class gruffness and sensitivity. He writes poems such as I’d expect my grandfather, who was a foreman for a concrete company in the city, would write: direct but with a sparkle in the eye. Full of the city’s concrete and steel, but grounded by a profound love of family. Rooted to the past through stories of a world that no longer exists:

So much to do, the father’s hands say. So much to care
for, so much to fix.
And oh cries the boy, and oh
cries the little toy train, which will soon disappear.

You might notice there’s nothing explicitly religious here. But over the course of several poems you’ll see that for Mariani recuperating memory is a means of orienting the self toward its source, “As the parched sunflower turns toward the sun.” Like the sun, this source is outside of oneself, and like its warmth this source is always “filling [the] self with itself” in a moment “where the timeless crosses with time.”

Rereading Rilke—newly translated by Mark Burrows, who also edited this anthology—I discover anew his sense of mystery, his difficult logical chasms, his reticence:

I love the dark hours of my being,
for they deepen my senses; [ . . . . ]
From them I’ve come to know that I have room
for a second life, timeless and wide.

I could spend a season meditating on that “second life,” it feels so evocative. It certainly suggests the modern gap between individual experience of the divine and our fragmented, atheistic social sphere. But it also puts me in mind of the infinitesimal distance neuroscience has found between sensation and perception, or the performative gap between my physical and my digital selves created by information technologies.

And yet how seldom I dwell in the dark hours of my being, there to feel my senses deepen, there to resolve the paradox that presence is not immediacy, that the infinite God uses finite means.

In SAID and Shapiro I find traces of Rilke’s influence—or perhaps simply the family resemblance to Persian and Jewish mysticism? In contrast to Scott Cairns, who begins this book with his blend of breezy, soft-spoken words and ironic awareness of his own limits, SAID and Shapiro crack language against the limits like a raw egg.

whoever evades the south
to endure the truth
will be startled by death
which dismantles the light
within fragments of ruins
and builds nests in the silence-keeping

SAID (quoted above) tends toward negation of familiar religious language in an attempt to “win back our wildness”:

look o lord
i don’t sing your praises
but i seek you
with my limbs

Or, more directly:

i refuse
to engage prayer as a weapon
i wish it to be like a river

Shapiro prefers gnomic paradoxes, as in his paraphrase of Psalm 42:

No one asks of the deer:
“Where is your stream?”
Yet everyone asks of me:
“Where is your God?”

The deer need not answer.
I cannot answer.

Bonnie Thurston, another new name for me, similarly strives for the poignancy of paradox:

Give me this life:
a center empty
of all but light

My inner cynic wants to resist such lines as all these as mere verbal trickery, but as Anna Kamieńska writes, “even when I don’t believe / there is a place in me / inaccessible to unbelief” that knows such words are chipped from the temple of Truth.

Not surprisingly for Paraclete, the poems in this volume tend to concern spiritual matters such as the presence or absence of God, how to speak about holy mysteries, and the relationship between the modern self and this ancient faith. I have focused on the more mystical thread, but there is also a very concrete thread, notably in poems by Phyllis Tickle and Greg Miller, in addition to Mariani. These poets are more likely to begin with nature, memory, or experience and find their way to God or the self—even if the self, as for Tickle, must die away, “The shell from around the life.”

Despite its lack of explicit theme, then, this anthology still coheres around Paraclete’s broader values like exploring mystery, embracing doubt, and re-orienting, psalm-like, to God. More specifically, however, I found myself placing each poet on a spectrum of presence-absence until a kind of collegial dialogue emerged. The effect was less poets arguing about whether God was more one or the other, but rather a performance of several voices saying, “With any luck, together we will help one another love God.”

Or you could say the poets each offer their own eminently sensible advice, which only appears to conflict. As Paul Quenon puts it:

In case you’re lost:
Streams go down.
Follow that.

Upwards trails go
towards the sun.—
Follow that.

This is how the devotional aspect takes form. One can dip into a single poet and spend a solid twenty minutes meditating on several poems. Perhaps they help you to attend to the simple graces of everyday. The next day a new poet will challenge you to remember God’s transcendence and, thus, grandeur, which is never contained or constrained by the everyday in which it manifests. Call it “Thirteen Ways of Speaking of God.”

For all that one can ruminate on so many of these poems, with their paradoxes and mysticism, it would be a mistake to expect that these poets hold you at arms length or make for difficult reading. Quite the opposite, in fact. This anthology could work quite well as a kind of intro to certain trends in recent Christian poetry, the kind of book you might gift to someone who “doesn’t read poetry” and they would find plenty to enjoy.

What Burrows has achieved, then, is an anthology that juggles many goals and achieves most of them well enough that there is something in it for most readers. My guess is that I will return to it for specific poets during certain seasons, while skipping other poets, whereas another reader may skip my poets in favor of those I prefer to skip.

We’d both be within our rights, and we’d both still find continuing enrichment in this varied but pleasant, if quiet, collection of poems.


Brad Fruhauff is a freelance writer living in Evanston, Illinois.

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