I was inspired by a couple of thought-provoking books of poetry I read this past week by fellow Oklahoma writer Nathan Brown and wanted to share them with you. I met Nathan Brown a few years ago while taking a summer extension course through the University of Oklahoma that was set in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a week long immersion course in the culture and writing of the Southwest. It was taught by Robert Con Davis-Undiano; Nathan was there helping teach the course. For the class, I was introduced to writers completely new to me like Rudolpho Anaya who wrote Bless Me Ultima and Elena Avila who wrote Woman Who Glows in the Dark and to E.A. (Tony) Mares who wrote the most amazing book of poetry With the Eyes of a Raptor after the death of his daughter that I found so moving I couldn’t stop gushing about it even when he was right there in front of our class. That’s right; our group was the only one that had to do their presentation in front of the actual author.
No pressure there.
Tony, as we were told to call him, was very generous with his critique of our presentation. We also had the pleasure of his company at dinner later that evening where we heard him read his own work. He did a much better job than we did. Not every day was spent in the classroom, we also went to museums, ate fantastic local food, and watched a great flamenco performance. I loved every minute of it.
I stumbled across Nathan’s website this past year and remembered that he wrote poetry, too. He’d read something of his during our week in Santa Fe. I got in touch with him and found out how to purchase his books. The first one I read, Not Exactly Job, is a sometimes irreverent but always sincere response to the Old Testament book of Job. From the preface of the book, Nathan says, “The very form and lyrical essence of the Book of Job is poetry. And this fact…this problem…lies at the core of the difficulties I’ve had over the years with conservative theology when it comes to the nature of interpretation. Poetry is, and has always been, ‘something else’ – a ‘something else’ that is filled with metaphor, idiom, double meaning, and hidden intent. To look at it literally…destroys it.”
After an intro like that, I had to read on. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Not Exactly Job:
But where can wisdom be found? 28:12
Where does understanding dwell?
That is the question…so much more so
than “To be…or not to be…”
Shakespeare missed other things as well.
But this -wisdom and understanding-
what Solomon prayed for over riches
and fame-what I prayed for,
because of Solomon, and am now
paying the price-this…thing
that Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin
were murdered for possessing-
this…thing we are told to seek, yet
when we do, it seldom brings peace-
the best among us…often…going
slowly insane from the incessant
rumble of its quiet thunder. 28:13-15
Heavy, heady stuff. And yet, haven’t we all had thoughts like this before? Maybe just me…
The second book, Suffer the Little Voices (which was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in 2006), is a little darker. We find our poet searching for answers and asking some tough questions, showing doubt in things he was raised to believe in, not afraid to say that he doesn’t know the answers himself. I found myself echoing many of those same doubts and questions. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the front pew of my church with the rest of my youth group – something I started us doing after hearing someone complain that we always sat in the back and never paid attention; I was a rebel even in church. I was looking around at the congregation one Sunday as we were all just vacantly repeating words back to the minister like autobots that should have been – in my opinion – shouted out with feeling and deep emotion. A big hairy doubt monster began to grow in my brain that day. I wondered what in the hell we were doing. What did all of this mindless rhetoric mean if no one was really paying attention? I started contemplating even scarier questions that I really didn’t know the answers to, that I was afraid to even say out loud.
Nathan Brown’s not afraid to ask those questions or let us peak into his imperfect thoughts. That is something I love about poetry. It can tap into the heart of any issue, get right down into the truth of the emotions, no matter how unpretty they may be. Real emotions make for great writing. We can all learn something from the poets.
Here is one of my favorite passages from Suffer the Little Voices:
I’ll write from the bottom,
stack letters and words-
maybe even enough punctuation-
around my feet at the base
of this dry well-
stepping up a layer at a time-
until piles of broken literature
raise my head to the surface.
There’s little light down here.
but I only need a little-
enough to be able to read
the piles of broken literature
written by others.
To see how they got out-
what they did when they
got back to the surface.
Have you ever had moments of doubt? Lost faith in something you believed in? Is this something you can use in your writing?