The Price of Grace

March 27, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Peter Kline on “How the Light Is Spent” by Adam Giannelli

The title reference of Adam Giannelli’s sonically gorgeous and finely wrought meditation on light is, of course, Milton’s famous sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” In that poem, Milton’s speaker despairs as to how he can prove his worthiness to God when he has been robbed of his eyesight. Milton’s great feat is to persuasively rebut these fears with words of universal consolation, culminating in the famous final line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” In these words, Milton gives us sinners a lot of rope to hang ourselves with—how many hours of Final Fantasy XV might be justified under the idea of “standing and waiting”?—but his essential theme is grace. He argues, as Paul proclaimed to the Ephesians, that we do not earn God’s favor through our actions, however great or small they are; God gives it to the faithful at his discretion, gratuitously.

Giannelli’s poem presents a much more modern and secular version of the world, yet it too searches for signs of grace in a difficult world. Giannelli pivots deftly from Milton’s poem by taking a small piece of it—“light”—and giving it center stage in his own poem. The light here is not the radiant-angel sort, but rather the more ordinary sun-generated kind, subject to the laws of physics and the imperfection of the world it inhabits. Graceful personification brings the light to life—in the dapple of sun and shade on a leaf it shows “ambivalences”; it “concedes” the earth under a stand of maples as off-limits to it. Yet it also has real power, a power that starts to take on almost supernatural qualities. In the midst of our humdrum lives, it flares, it conjures, it raises temples:

In the spokes of a bicycle, it
pulsates, and between the loiterers

by the taco stand,
                                 erects pillars.

Before we are quite aware, light has become an almost God-like figure in the poem, an idea reinforced by the associations with Milton’s sonnet. It “accepts the trespasses / against it,” meekly taking on the sins of shadow and darkness. That it can undergo this transformation so effortlessly is a testament to the delicacy of Giannelli’s touch. This subtle transformation culminates in the moving final lines, which deserve quotation here in full:

Like a visitor in a hospital

it waits, warming the spot off
to one side––and it takes such lengths

to leave the room, lingering at
the bedside,
                       the far wall, the doorjamb.

In our time of need, inexplicably, the light is there for us. It is a blessing. Despite its limitations, despite the fact that we shut parts of our lives away from it—“the ingot of shadow / in a drawer”—the light attends on us in our suffering, and will not leave until it must. Four centuries after Milton, in an age that demands superheroes and supervillains, apocalypse and happy ending, this is a god—restrained, semi-effectual, yet deeply compassionate—I can believe in.

Peter Kline teaches writing at the University of San Francisco and Stanford University. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he has also received residency fellowships from the Amy Clampitt House and James Merrill House. His poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, and many other journals, as well as the Best New Poets series, the Verse Daily website, and the 2015 Random House anthology, Measure for Measure. Since 2012 he has directed the San Francisco literary reading series Bazaar Writers Salon. His first collection of poetry, Deviants, was published by SFASU Press in 2013.

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Contributor’s Marginalia: V. Penelope Pelizzon on “That Much Further West” by John Fenlon Hogan

Skeptic though I am, I find it hard to resist John Fenlon Hogan’s teasing with paradoxes of belief. His speaker moves through a psychic landscape triggered by words his father likes to point to, an apothegm originally from G.K Chesterton. And it seems important that readers are not certain in what spirit the father has offered the paradox; “tender” is one of those words that can mean nearly opposite things. Has the father’s life softened into gently-tolerant belief? Or, as in an older usage of “tender,” has it flamed into a judgment? The “others” who “tender no sentence at all” are like the speaker, people who can offer no statement of faith, whether orthodox or qualified.

Yet even we unbelievers feel “the insatiable inside // of us.” One of my favorite things about this poem is Hogan’s expansion of the simile in stanza four. For two lines, it seems we’re simply being given a visual description to ground that abstract “insatiable.” Yet like belief (and unbelief), the simile shifts shape. From a few frames snipped out of a cliché western it expands into a tangible and desolating landscape, a scene out of The Searchers, maybe, in which the rest of the poem’s action unfolds. Imagine John Wayne’s damaged Ethan Edwards entering the scene across the desert, only to exit alone into the desert at the drama’s end. Endless sky, endless canyon, world without end.

Given the poem’s title, once Hogan establishes that there are western riders in stanzas six and seven, I want to make some connection between its spiritual stance and Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward.” There, Donne’s physical person is moving toward the nightfall even as his soul “bends toward the East,” scene of the crucifixion. Were he to turn eastward, he would see a seeming-paradox, “a Sunne, by rising set” that will “by that setting endless day beget.” Donne dramatizes love and memory drawing the believer’s soul toward Christ even as his physical being is turned away, and Hogan perhaps asks us to consider the kinds of turning an unbeliever’s love and memory might inspire. Certainly Hogan’s speaker seems inspired by Donne’s rhetorical turns, even if his quest is unorthodox.

I love Hogan’s wordplay about the cowboy’s ontological status. Possibly we’re invited to reframe this question as “What’s a believer when you take away his belief?” He’s a child, one whose heavily-shouldered saddle packs might remind us of the baggage Bunyan’s Christian carries on his back. Christian carries his bundle, filled with the knowledge of his sins, through the Slough of Despond, until he’s freed from it at Christ’s sepulcher. For the unbeliever, there is no sepulcher, no easy unpacking of wrongs.

Wondering if Hogan was alluding to another historical paradox about salvation through unbelief, I turned to the oracle that knows all and typed in the last line. Up popped Mark 9:24, in which Christ meets a father whose child is beset by a demon. Asked by Christ how long the child has been afflicted, the father replies “ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him.” Here we are back among human fathers who worry over the dangers to their sons, and perhaps tender them advice the sons are unlikely to take. Christ insists that all things are possible to those who believe, and the father, weeping, replies, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.” While I can hardly call Hogan’s poem “devotional,” I’m impressed by the intelligence with which it’s moved me to consider a landscape where unbelief and belief might meet.

V. Penelope Pelizzon’s second poetry collection, Whose Flesh Is Flame, Whose Bone Is Time, was published in 2014 (Waywiser Press). Her first book, Nostos (Ohio University Press, 2000), won the Hollis Summers Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. She is also the co-author of Tabloid, Inc: Crimes, Newspapers, Narratives (Ohio State University Press, 2010) a study of the relations among American sensation journalism, photography, and film from 1927-1958. Pelizzon’s awards include a 2012 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, the 2012 Center for Book Arts chapbook award, and the “Discovery”/ The Nation Award.

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Across the Slippery Tabletop: An Interview with Keetje Kuipers by Cate Lycurgus

March 13, 2017

Keetje Kuipers has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, and a Bread Loaf Fellow. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, her poems have appeared in such publications as American Poetry Review, Orion, West Branch, and Prairie Schooner. In 2007 Keetje completed her tenure as the Margery […]

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I Forgot

March 6, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Juliana Gray on “Concourse” by Maryann Corbett Probably I should never be allowed to teach poetry again. There are lots of reasons for this. Just ask my students. But I shouldn’t be fired because I dislike descriptions of things running up or down or across various spines. It’s not, as the students might say, because […]

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Dumb Luck & Divine Inspiration

February 27, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Ashley Anna McHugh on “Kyrie for the Gut” by David Wright David Wright’s “Kyrie for the Gut” is a striking poem—not only in its handling of the double exposure form, which can sometimes feel more like a parlor trick, less like a poem—but in the way it leverages its full weight against the fulcrum of […]

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