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Revelation for Our Times:
Tania Runyan’s What Will Soon Take Place
Nathaniel Lee Hansen

While there is no shortage of admonitions for what poems should do and be, one essential goal of a poem surely is to help us readers see in new ways those things we know well or think we know well. Our vision is sharpened, our understanding expanded. This goal is no less daunting when the poem’s subject matter is familiar to us, and perhaps even more daunting when the poem overtly addresses the religious.

Poet Tania Runyan has cultivated a reputation of engaging with biblical texts and leading readers to view these rich gardens in new ways, noting all of the flowers and plants we couldn’t quite name before. Her first collection, Simple Weight, examines the Beatitudes. A Thousand Vessels gives voice to women of the Bible. Second Sky explores the life of St. Paul. In each of these works, she accomplishes the aforementioned goal.

Now, in her fourth collection, What Will Soon Take Place, Runyan coalesces the strengths of her earlier collections into her most compelling and well-crafted work to date. She writes with the confidence and skill of the accomplished poet taking on her biggest poetic challenge. If the biblical book of Revelation is a wild, imagistic, and complex work comparable to a cross-continental road trip, she is surely the poet/driver to lead us on its difficult and wonderful journey.

What Will Soon Take Place opens with a thoughtful foreword discussing Runyan’s own faith journey, as well as her apprehensions about Revelation. I must confess that I, too, have avoided reading Revelation much (if at all) for the reasons that Runyan identifies. I survived a period of rapture and “End-Times” hype in the evangelical subculture of the late 1990s and early ’00s. (I’m reminded of those charts neatly outlining the sequence of final events.) Nonetheless, the foreword effectively serves as a prelude, situating the poems and her own place with them.

The book, arranged in three sections, follows the sequence of the biblical text. “Angel over Patmos” introduces us to the beginning of Revelation and features poems addressed to each of the seven churches, among other topics. In “Locusts on the Earth,” the second section, destruction and violence become predominant. “And They Sang a New Song,” the last and briefest section, transitions to hopefulness being made manifest.

As might be expected, there are many allusions to biblical names, places, and images, and yet, as a reader who is moderately familiar with Revelation, I was still able to follow the individual poems and the book’s trajectory. Runyan’s approach is such that the poems aren’t so highly subtle and allusion-saturated to the point that a reader unfamiliar with Revelation will be confused. If anything, her book has the effect of driving me to that strange section of scripture.

Part of what makes the book accessible is that—just as in her earlier books—Runyan freely mingles elements of scriptural narratives with details from the contemporary world, including snippets and details from her life. In her vision, the past, the present, and the future mix and interplay with one another. In fact, this mingling of varied timelines and autobiographical details is one of the most distinctive characteristics of her poetry. Take, for instance, the first lines in the opening poem “Patmos,” whose name derives from the location where St. John received his visions: “No cave, cleft, or ocean shattering bluff. /
The only trumpet ‘Hot Cross Buns’ / / blatting from my daughter’s open window” (19).

What Will Soon Take Place is a dense collection, but dense in the best senses of the word. It possesses a depth of thought, a complexity that counters the oversimplification of “End Times” theology. It confronts violence, suffering, materialism, and, in sum, confronts the varieties of brokenness in a fallen world waiting for complete redemption. The first poem in the second section, “The First Horse of the Apocalypse,” features a speaker lamenting the violence and suffering in the world: “I am trying to believe that God / doesn’t will destruction, that out of love / he allows our terrible freedoms / / to gallop across the globe” (41). “The Sun Shall Not Strike Them” tackles sexual abuse, raising the perennial questions about suffering in a world created (and sustained) by a good God. Yet as Runyan writes in her foreword, Revelation was written to comfort believers in the early church who were enduring persecution. Despite the “darkness” of her book, the poems do not neglect hope; rather, the darkness never has the final say.

Part of the power of the book derives from Runyan’s wry humor, just as in her prior collections. For example, she uses one of the common End-Times’ bumper stickers as the epigraph for “Philadelphia” (one of the seven churches John addresses): “Warning: In Case of Rapture / This Car Will Be Unmanned” (32). The poem traces her unease with the pleasures of the moment coupled with the knowledge that Jesus might appear at any moment. Chronicling the nascent stages of her faith in that same poem, she writes, “Persecution was Charles Darwin on the bio study guide. / Depeche Mode. The Mapplethorpe exhibit in L.A.” (32). On a somewhat lighter note, “The Marriage Supper” opens with a comical couplet: “Ours tumbled from a bag / onto a hotel bed at one in the morning” (85). I would press further, moreover, and argue that her humor is often what makes the book’s subject matter bearable. (See the poem “A Premillennialist, Amillennialist, and Postmillennialist Walk Into a Bar.”)

 

As a further example, take the book’s shortest poem, “The Book of Life”:

Jesus saunters up to the mic,
opens the book, and stares at the audience.

Silence. Exactly how narrow was this road?

Too many to list, he says, and slams it closed.
Come on, guys.

Let’s get the hell out of here. (84)

One of the pleasures of the poem is the wordplay in the last line, the way it can be read as a statement of departure, but also read in a secondary meaning to remove hell from the lexicon.

Another major characteristic is poems written from the angles of other individuals, whether in the direct first-person persona poem, or the third-person version with the camera pointed at an individual. Runyan’s earlier collections exhibit this characteristic, and here, in the world of Revelation, she channels the voices of others, such as in the poem “A Road Worker Confronts the Third Horseman of the Apocalypse.” Or in the case of other poems, the focus is on particular “characters,” such as the church-nursery worker of Sardis, Runyan’s depiction of a committed and faithful person: “She sprays the nursery toys with water and bleach, / erasing snot and drool from stacking rings, / wiping board books crimped by toddlers’ teeth” (31). Then there is the stunning “The Great Harlot Takes a Selfie.”

From a more technical angle, Runyan structures the majority of her poems with regular stanza lengths: unrhymed tercets and quatrains. The book even features a few sonnets, those formal poems a brief return to the formal poetry in portions of Simple Weight. Regardless of the poems’ technical characteristics, they all exhibit mastery of the line and the well-placed line break. In addition, she is a poet whose work can be appreciated by dedicated poets and fans of poetry, as well as by readers perhaps not well-acquainted with the medium.

One of my favorite poems is the penultimate “The River of Life.” She imagines herself and her husband seeing one another once the world has been remade:

 

At the end of it all I find you on the street.
That you? I ask.
Yes, you too?
We touch His name on our foreheads.
Well.

You take my hand, but our fingers
slip like feathers.
No longer given in marriage, you say.
Oh, I smile. Right. (89)

That opening line drops us right into the new heavens and the new earth. Lines one and two of the second stanza show the sweet newness of the couple reunited, and in depicting this reunion, Runyan uses a straightforward but powerful simile—their fingers “slip like feathers.” This image captures the sweetness, but also the strangeness of this “new world.”

Finally, I’ll close with a brief anecdote from a recent conference. While I was browsing through books in the exhibit hall, a woman standing close by, who was also looking through the books, held up a copy of What Will Soon Take Place and said, “I just heard her read from this book. It was amazing.”  I told her that she was absolutely correct.

 

Nathaniel Lee Hansen’s chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian, was published by Spoon River Poetry Press (2014). His website is plainswriter.com.

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