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Books February 2015

A Quaker Courtship: A Love Story in Discovered Letters and Photos of Two Young Friends in 1922

Written and edited by Ann Trueblood Raper. Gwynedd Lane Publishing, 2014. 252 pages. $34/paperback.

Reviewed by Amy Whiffen

This collection of love letters between two young adult Friends is both a heartwarming story and a beautiful glimpse into the life of early twentieth‐century Quakers. The correspondence is between Paul J. Furnas, an Orthodox Quaker from Fairfield, Ind., and Elizabeth Ann Walter (Betty), a Hicksite Friend from Swarthmore, Pa (the maternal grandparents of author and editor Ann Trueblood Raper). While they may not be very well‐known among Friends, Paul and Betty worked on reunification of the two main branches of Quakers in North America, given their coming out of the Orthodox and Hicksite branches respectively.

In 1922, Betty had just started working as the executive secretary of the Young Friends Movement of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite). Three weeks into her new position, she attended the Young Friends General Conference in July at Earlham College, where she met Paul Furnas, a leader in the Young Friends Movement. The two fell in love there and immediately began their almost daily correspondence between Paul in New York City and Betty in Swarthmore.

Their love and exuberance for each other is overwhelmingly apparent in the letters. Every letter is written with tenderness and love, which only grows over time. As they continue to get to know each other, the letters become more honest as well as more loving. Their writing shows great appreciation for one another’s spirituality.

In addition to their charming love story, their deep connection to and work with Quakers is evident. They often wrote of attending monthly and quarterly meetings in the area as well as conferences and Friends gatherings. Both traveled often for Friends gatherings and were active in speaking at Friends meetings. Paul was the director of Civilian Public Service camps for conscientious objectors and then was the vice president and comptroller at Earlham College. It is interesting to read of Betty’s work in organizing conferences or connecting with older Friends. Though Paul and Betty came from different branches of Quakerism, they were very aligned in their religious views. They comfortably wrote about God, prayer, and Quaker values. In closing letters, Paul wrote, “My love to thee Sweetheart, and a deep sense of God’s presence be with thee always.”

The beautiful layout of the book, the pictures, and Raper’s notes about the couple add to the rich story. The letters don’t provide much action, but underneath their daily details is a rich love story and growing connection between two young Friends. After a year of writing, Paul and Betty married on September 15, 1923, at Swarthmore Meeting. They had six children and remained happily married for 37 years, until Paul’s death in 1960. The family spent many happy years living at Earlham College, the place they met and fell in love and where Paul worked from 1946 to 1958.

Their letters illustrate the unique connection people can have when they share the same spiritual values. Their Quaker roots, though from different branches, provided a strong foundation between Paul and Betty as well as a unique perspective on their work on reunification. It is a treasure to share in the early days of their relationship as they navigated their new partnership.

Amy Whiffen lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is a member of Brooklyn Meeting. She grew up attending Gwynedd (Pa.) Meeting.

 

Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism and Helped Save America

By Chuck Fager. Kimo Press, 2014. 248 pages. $11.95/paperback; $4.99/eBook.

Reviewed by Mitchell Santine Gould

In this interpretive volume, Chuck Fager uses the historical documents in Angels of Progress (reviewed in FJ Aug. 2014) to show how Liberal (Hicksite) Friends were “remade” following a nineteenth‐century schism, called the movement of Progressive Friends. Progressive Friends were something of a universalist, free‐wheeling, nearly anarchistic forum, open to social reformers of all stripes, who “plead their case: preaching, lecturing, writing,” as Fager describes it in Angels of Progress.

Amazingly, this crucial history was almost entirely dismissed by twentieth‐century historians, even though it is common knowledge that it served as a cradle of the women’s rights movement. After absorbing Remaking Friends and Angels of Progress, readers should be in a position to judge for themselves the degree to which Fager’s dark hints about systemic failures in the study of Quaker history ring true.

Friends will benefit from Remaking Friends in three ways. First, it will give them pause to consider how some of the social reforms championed by Quakers went from being considered ultra‐radical to becoming foundations of today’s far more liberal society and political truths that we largely take for granted. Second, following the myth‐busting theme of my review of Angels of Progress, it will present readers with sobering views of Quaker do‐goodism gone wrong, sometimes horribly wrong. The failure of Prohibition is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but, unfortunately, a more nagging and persistent example is the abandonment by some Friends of their peace testimony with the onset of “just” wars, such as the Civil War and World War I. (Fager, by the way, devotes far too much of his book to this one theme.) On the other hand, the most chilling story is an all‐too‐brief account of a World War I era witch‐hunt led by a weighty Friend named A. Mitchell Palmer (he addressed Friends General Conference in 1910), in cahoots with his protégé, J. Edgar Hoover. This led to the infamous Palmer Raids, a program of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the arrests and deportation of radical leftists in 1919 and 1920. It is a characteristic and serious flaw of Fager’s approach that pages are devoted to exposés of fads and follies, such as spiritualism, while the fascism of the Palmer Raids are treated less thoroughly. Third, Remaking Friends shows the liberal impulse that caused Progressive Friends to rebel against the control of wealthy, élite, manipulative, “select” Hicksite overseers eventually returned to utterly “remake” the polity of yearly meetings, giving rise to unprogrammed Quakerism as we know it today.

Essentially, the problems with the book are its failure to present a coherent case for various assertions, and its unclear basis for prioritization of content. Fager’s history is anecdotal, when it needs to be thematic and deductive—it’s more of a quirky collage than a rational flow chart. Also significant is the absence of one of the greatest triumphs of the Progressive Friends: their advocacy for women’s rights.

The greatest value I find in Fager’s work is that it confirms my views about “just where Quakerism went,” as its proportion of the American faith marketplace shrank so dramatically. In my opinion, the dwindling numbers of Quakers signal the triumph rather than the failure of our values. Fewer of us retreated inside the cultural fence around Friends meetings as more and more of us found the great Quaker testimonies remaking America itself, until the “ultra” positions once unique to our faith became embedded in the fabric of society.

The author seems to accept that this book is not everything that, in a better world, he would have wanted but nonetheless insists that it provides a unique foundation for profoundly improving our understanding of Quaker history in future research. I unite with this view.

Mitchell Santine Gould enables financial advisors to collect data for use in emergencies. Curator of Leavesofgrass​.org, he is the leading authority on Walt Whitman’s rise among “sailors, lovers, and Quakers.” Together with the LGBT Religious Archives Network, he documents the historical intersection between Quakers and gay people.

 

Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians

By John Paul Lederach. Herald Press, 2014. 191 pages. $14.99/paperback; $12.99/eBook.

Reviewed by Brad Sheeks

What would you do if your service as a peacemaker placed your child in harm’s way?

John Paul Lederach was working as a reconciler in the Miskito‐Sandinista conflict when he got the phone call from a Miskito leader, “John Paul, there is a plan to take your daughter. They want you out.”

Lederach is professor of international peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and concurrently distinguished scholar at Eastern Mennonite University.

Reconcile is a treasure of stories about seeking reconciliation between enemies in many of the world’s hot spots, including Colombia, the Philippines, Nepal, and countries in East and West Africa. Lederach has helped design and conduct training programs in 25 countries across five continents.

Perhaps of special interest to Friends is his understanding of the spiritual basis of peacemaking. Most of us live with the challenge of needing a spiritual basis for our actions in the world. In September 2014, along with 400,000 others, I was at the People’s Climate March in New York City. We were in the city block filled with folks from many different religious groups. Why are we here? What is the spiritual basis for what we are doing?

After that dreaded phone call when he learned that his child was in danger, Lederach asked himself, is pursuing peace in Nicaragua worth the threat to my own child?

Much later, he reflected on the opening line of John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” He now understood that the sacrificial choice suggested in John 3:16 was to show the nature of God’s love. Lederach writes, “I can no longer take John 3:16 as a short formula for salvation. I can only understand it as a foundational principle of reconciliation. It is an ethic undergirded by and made possible only through the immeasurable love and grace of God.” We are able to help resolve conflicts because we are loved.

How do we do this: resolve our conflicts and help others to resolve theirs? Lederach frames it as a journey with a variety of stops along the way. He refers to the story of Jacob and Esau as a metaphor for the journey through conflict. Jacob steals his father’s blessing intended for Esau. The brothers separate and live many years apart as enemies. Then they meet again and are reconciled after each tells his own truth and hears his brother’s truth.

On another occasion, Lederach spoke of being with people who, after years and much loss (sometimes ultimate loss in violence), find a way to acknowledge each other and somehow locate the spark of humanity within each other. When we touch our deepest humanity we touch that of God within each of us.

Lederach finds a solid spiritual basis for peacemaking in his reading of Psalm 86, which is a prayer attributed to David. For Lederach, this prayer imagines peacemaking as movement, as a dance. There is a Spanish version of verse ten that reads, “Truth and Mercy have met together. Justice and Peace have kissed.”

Later in the book, he has written a delightful skit with five actors. Listen to the last lines of the skit:

Convener: “And what is this place called where you stand together?”

Truth, Mercy, Justice, and Peace (in unison and joining hands): “This place is called reconciliation.”

In this new book of stories and reflections, Lederach brings us up to date from his earlier book, The Journey Toward Reconciliation.

Brad Sheeks, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, is mostly retired as a hospice nurse. He and his wife, Patricia McBee, are also retired as leaders of couples retreats.

 

What’s in a Phrase? Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause

By Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014. 127 pages. $14/hardcover; $12.60/eBook.

Reviewed by Douglas Bennett

From when I was an attender at New Haven (Conn.) Meeting in the early 1970s, I remember an elderly gentleman, always in a three‐piece suit, who spoke often during worship. He would sit very still for much of the hour, rise suddenly and quote a Bible verse (usually one with which I was unfamiliar), then offer a short message about what had struck him that morning about the passage. Often he voiced some initial puzzlement followed by what his subsequent worship had brought him to understand.

After a few such occasions, I learned this was Roland Bainton, a distinguished emeritus professor of church history at Yale University. He knew the Bible by heart. Each First Day his worship would lead him silently in his mind through some portion until he paused upon a phrase that seemed to him worth deeper consideration. “Well, I’ve been thinking about Micah …” he might begin, naming some verse and then reciting it. Bainton would lead us to see more than we likely had before in the passage he quoted, likely more than he had seen. He knew the Bible better than any of us, and yet, for him, it always held greater depth than he had yet realized. That is what he conveyed week after week.

This recollection came forcefully to me reading Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s What’s in a Phrase? because she does something very similar. Taking 50 phrases from the Bible, by no means the ones most familiar, she offers a short meditation on each. She organizes these around three headings: Assurance, Invitation and Admonition, and Mystery and Surprise.

What leads her to pause is usually something quite personal: an incident from her childhood, a conversation with a friend, a chance encounter. Sometimes the occasion for the pause is an essay or a poem that has caught her attention in a special way and draws her back to a Bible verse. Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Naomi Shihab Nye, and others are all drawn into the conversations McEntyre has with the Bible and her reader.

McEntyre’s meditations are more idiosyncratic than what I remember of Bainton’s, but equally rich. What she aims to convey, or better, what she seeks, is wisdom. While a quarter of the phrases that give her pause come from the Christian Testament, about a quarter come from the Psalms alone.

“In parables, apocalyptic symbols and inconvenient silences, Scripture keeps inviting us: ‘Wrestle with this,’” she writes. She knows there are many odd and off‐putting verses in the Bible, but, she says, “When we wrestle with Scripture, we come into more intimate relationship with God.”

What’s in a Phrase? could be read from one end to the other in a single sitting. It is much better, however, as a book to pick up and put down frequently. She helps us find more in the Bible than we thought, no matter how much we thought was there in the first place.

Douglas Bennett is president emeritus of Earlham College. He is a member of First Friends Richmond in the New Association of Friends, the group recently set off from Indiana Yearly Meeting. He lives in Maine and worships at Brunswick Meeting.

 

Dialogues with the Divine

By Sondra Sula. Turning Stone Press, 2013. 266 pages. $23.95/paperback; $15.99/eBook.

Reviewed by William Shetter

We might be tempted to call this book Conversations with God if that hadn’t been the title of a similar book a few years ago, because it consists of chatty, personal conversations with a God who just happens to be the Creator of the universe. God here is a trusted and encouraging friend, but also a protector; when God addresses Sula as “my child” and “my daughter,” we feel that God is playing the role of the father she no longer has. Sula carries the conversational tone so far into familiarity that when God is reported as saying “Bingo,” “Aw shucks,” or “Cut the crap,” the dialogue seems in danger of losing the weightiness it needs to teach and guide.

But the intimacy of the tone is deliberate, as she comes to realize that God is an intensely personal part of herself. In her repeatedly having God use the word “so” in expressions like “there’s so much more” or “they taste so good,” she has God falling into a usage that is widely recognized as a feminine one. In the midst of her frequent expressions of love for her faithful conversational companion, Sula occasionally suspects God to be merely a side of herself and asks, “How do I know this isn’t just me talking to myself?” to which God answers, “You know my voice.” As he reminds her, she is engaged in nothing less than “cultivating the inner voice,” and as they converse, she comes to feel God to be her clear‐eyed perception of her best self.

Sula is in unsparingly honest dialogue with herself: God reminds her “you are a very negative person,” and this opens the door to raising many troublesome questions. They talk together about a wide variety of subjects; ranging from personal anxiety about catching a plane or applying for a job; through financial troubles or various levels of guilt, to the universal questions of suffering, self‐discipline, judging and power, grace, love and anger, relationships with others, conscious living, and dying.

Sula tells us that some years earlier in her journey, she carried on dialogues with God through the mediation of living things, such as a praying mantis (quiet waiting), a cicada exoskeleton (new perspectives), a hibiscus flower (gazing at the center), and even such things as a knot in some wood (the eye that sees all), a jar of lotion (pliability). She admits that she once needed these as “mediators” until the time came when she was able to talk with God directly. They are relegated here almost apologetically to Appendix I, but these 18 earlier dialogues with their special flavor could be said to deserve more prominence. We hear in their many unique voices the infinite ways in which God speaks to us through creation.

Appendix II consists of eight paintings. Each is prompted by one of Sula’s conversations; in fact, each painting is called a dialogue in visual form. In one of her verbal dialogues, God opens her mind to seeing the need for acts of compassion and reminds her of “the day when you extend your hand to include others … a time when your eye is in your hand … when you can see from that eye what you can give to the world.” This inspired the painting Integration, in which she is holding up her hands facing out, with an eye in the center of each palm. The paintings here are much reduced, black‐and‐white reproductions, but if the one chosen for the cover is typical, their impact, at least in part, comes from their vivid acrylic colors.

Sula identifies herself as a Quaker mystic; though except for her liking silence, the Quaker way seldom gets specific attention. Friends who feel comfortable with an occasional note of joviality (on one occasion she tells God, “you’re such a kidder”) will appreciate the unflinching honesty of these searching inner dialogues, and in their unmediated directness Friends will sense Sula’s Quaker identity.

William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. He recently published My Conversation with Sophia: Reflections on Wisdom’s Contemplative Path.

 

Traveling Sprinkler

By Nicholson Baker. Blue Rider Press, 2013. 291 pages. $26.95/hardcover; $11.99/eBook.

Reviewed by Karie Firoozmand

Traveling Sprinkler is about Paul Chowder, a writer having writer’s block. He feels “like a sprinkler that’s gotten off the hose.” He has the title, Misery Hat, picked out for his next book of poems, though his editor dryly observes that what he actually needs is the content.

To try to remove the writer’s block, Paul takes up smoking cigars (“a new tongue‐loosening addiction”), swears off whiskey (but it wasn’t working for him anyway), delivers occasional radio‐host monologues in his head, and buys musical instruments. This last is in order to learn songwriting, because it is like writing sad poems, but singing them makes them less sad.

The writing isn’t going well; his songs have names like, “Honk for Assistance,” and he stays up for hours trying to rhyme words with prescription medications in order to generate content for Misery Hat. It’s not that Paul has nothing to say, or lacks the urge to say it. It’s just … writer’s block, like when, “I have so much in my head that’s screaming to get out. Politely requesting passage. Sometimes knowing things and knowing that you’ll never unknow them, unless you say them, is really unbearable.”

And yet, in spite of the obvious frustration, there is a gentle sense of patience for the process, (lots of) humor and absurdity, and the ongoing sense that something creative is happening. Paul’s mind works all the time, going over words, reshaping thoughts, and opening him to interpretation. You can hear the writer’s mind at work when, although it’s all interior monologue, he changes cigar smoking from “this big brown thing sticking out of your face” to “wreathed in plumes of smoke.” Everything around him, from the singing of his tires turning on the road to a kid cracking his knuckles in a convenience store, feeds into Paul’s creative churn.

He also indulges in episodes of regret over giving up the bassoon, his family, and especially his ex‐girlfriend Roz, who helped him cure a hangover by drinking from a water fountain when they first met, and who now helps him with his songwriting. In fact, the songs that turn out the best are all for or about Roz. Paul had been a serious musician, but the life of a bassoonist exacted a heavy toll: the demands of practice damaged his jaw and stressed him out. Performance suffered, and it hurt his relationship with the bassoon, that “folded cylinder of maplewood with the metal u‐turn at the bottom.” In an interesting counterpoint, Paul remarks of the traveling sprinkler he owns that, “as long as you didn’t set the hose up so that there was too sharp a turn, the sprinkler would go anywhere.” The simple, heavy, dependable device came out of America’s twentieth‐century heyday of inventive creativity, often naïve, but forgivably so: “Everything about it is immediately understandable.”

But there’s no tortured artist upheaval here. Instead, you feel like you are accompanying a quirky friend who is going through something emotional, with or without any guaranteed visible outcome. His life could look disorganized from the outside, but this is a tale told from the inside. And there’s no irony in his tone. It’s the tone of a man who wears oft‐laundered t‐shirts that become the softest and most comfortable ones he owns. He is a person whose house would feel lived‐in rather than messy, and whose things would look well‐worn but not beat‐up.

Paul also goes to Quaker meeting, where he is happy to be an attender but feels dogged by a sense that he is an impostor. Still, he loves the silence, and “gets” that it is corporate worship. I wish that Paul, or maybe Baker, understood Quakerism as uncodified but organized rather than “disorganized and uncodified,” as Paul describes it. Also, I was surprised that Paul mentioned a collection basket, though he didn’t say whether it was passed around. My meeting has a collection box, but it is fixed to a wall outside the meeting room. Also, Paul might feel less like an impostor were he to get over the idea that you’re not supposed to tell people after meeting that you liked their message. In fact, the practice of doing just that is original to Friends.

But it was Paul’s acceptance of life as it is—complicated, unpredictable, poignant, and yet ordinary—that did feel familiarly Quakerly to me. “My role is to be here in the side yard when the moon is swimming in the deep end of the sky,” he muses. Paul describes a Tracy Chapman song, but he might as well be describing life: “it leaves it all up to you. It’s just a series of questions. It asks these questions and prompts you to try to answer them, just as the Quakers ask questions.” This is the ultimate trust in God, when the outcome that takes shape in the exterior world is in alignment with the reality that already exists inside.

Paul says, “I want it all to seem easier for me than it is. I want people to think that I’m a fountain of verbal energy. I’ve never really been a fountain.” No, dear Paul, you are a lot more like a traveling sprinkler. And being able to read along with Paul’s interior life is a great deal of fun indeed.

Karie Firoozmand is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md.

 

The Quaker Café

By Brenda Bevan Remmes. InkWell, 2014. 309 pages. $12.99/paperback; $3.99/eBook.

Reviewed by James W. Hood

When Liz Hoole, the central character in Brenda Bevan Remmes’s entertaining first novel, arrives at the beach house where her son Nathan’s wedding rehearsal dinner is about to take place, she discovers that two porta‐potties have been plopped down right at the front entrance, forming an arch through which all her guests will necessarily have to pass. Understandably, Liz is not at all happy about this, and she enlists Nathan’s Wake Forest fraternity brothers—the fellows pit‐roasting the pig for dinner under the careful tutelage of their groomsman ringleader, “Frogbelly”—to find a means of redirecting the entering guests away from the eyesore. The porta‐john fiasco is one of many a frenzied Liz confronts in getting the wedding to come off, but being the mother of the groom down in Charleston, S.C., an eight‐hour drive from home, is but a single strand in the great tangle of life matters she’s having to tug this way and that. Her best friend Maggie’s father, Judge Corbett Kendall, their town’s most prominent citizen, has just been buried; Maggie herself, a dyed‐deep‐in‐Carolina‐blue Tar Heel fan, has been hospitalized at, of all places, Duke; Liz has declared her intention to run for county commissioner, but has no time to campaign; her other son, Adam, and his wife are about to make her a grandmother for the first time; she never seems quite to live up to her Quaker mother-in-law’s expectations; and there’s a deep family secret surfacing in her hometown‐by‐marriage, Cedar Branch, N.C., one that threatens to further divide the place along racial lines.

The potty‐at‐the‐portico serves as a kind of analogy for this painful stain of secret Liz inadvertently uncovers that will, inevitably, come to the fore. Although she herself had no hand in the disastrous and hushed‐up events that took place in the small town more than 50 years ago, Liz lives at the center of their new eruption. Potential tragedy swirls around her best friend, Maggie; her husband’s Quaker family; and Cedar Branch, the Conservative meeting where her husband’s parents have been weighty Friends for many, many years and where she has been a member since her wedding there. Like all deep, unrevealed secrets, this one has exercised covert power in the community, and the novel spends its pages unraveling its strong influence.

Remmes’s book might easily fall into what a friend of mine has termed “cult fiction,” a narrative overly enamored with the oddities of the community in which it sets the action. But this novel comes from an author with a well‐balanced insider/outsider perspective on Quakerism, a perspective not unlike Liz’s own. Remmes obviously admires Quaker testimonies as life guides, but she makes it clear that Quakers are human, too. The book deals tenderly with Quaker ways in the manner of Daisy Newman’s novels (I Take Thee, Serenity and Indian Summer of the Heart come to mind), giving us a realistic portrait (for the most part) of Conservative Friends in eastern North Carolina in the early 1990s. Refusing to caricature Friends and their practices, the novel fashions believable Quaker characters, like Liz’s husband, Chase, the local pharmacist, a quiet but resolute man not immune to hurt, as well as his parents, Euphrasia and Nathan Hoole, whose lives and stature figure prominently in the story. The book’s greatest strength lies in the way it teases out issues of integrity and honesty in the context of an intimate (for good and ill) Southern community, probing the inevitable strain we experience between the goals of being good and just and straightforward in life and the murk of all‐too‐human emotion and desire.

Had the secret that fuels the novel’s conflict been developed organically over the course of its narration instead of being parachuted in as a set‐piece from the distant past, the book itself would be more powerful. As it is, as readers we are relegated to Liz’s position, secondhand onlookers told these things rather than being wrung through the experience of them ourselves. Still, the novel has much to recommend it: a faithful rendering of and admiration for Quaker values, some quirky Southern characters the likes of whom I think I’ve met, moments of humor that turn us toward inward thought, and characters through whose strengths and failings we might just see ourselves.

James W. Hood teaches English and environmental studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. He is a member of Friendship Meeting of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

 

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

By Christian Wiman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 192 pages. $24/hardcover; $13/paperback; $9.27/eBook.

Once in the West

By Christian Wiman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 128 pages. $23/hardcover; $15/paperback; $10.99/eBook.

Two titles reviewed by Judith Favor

In My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman poses queries like a Quaker, raising pointed questions for himself and readers like me. “How do we answer this ‘burn of being’?” He seeks ways to capture both the fiery moments of inspiration and the “fireless life” in between, posing questions likely to intrigue people of doubt as well as people of faith. Wiman explores religious issues like a skeptic while challenging the doubting reader to doubt even his or her own doubt.

Part memoir, part meditation, My Bright Abyss is the author’s poetic and precise testament to his lived experience with illness, suffering, compassion, and grace. As death draws near, he resolves to live and love more fully, asking, “What might it mean for our lives—and for our deaths—if we acknowledge the ‘insistent, persistent ghost’ that some of us call God?” This slim volume is rich in literary and theological references. If you appreciate Simone Weil’s classic Gravity and Grace, as Wiman does, you are likely to appreciate My Bright Abyss.

Journalists tell. Novelists show. Poets reveal, conveying experience at the edge of the sayable. In Once in the West, Wiman’s fourth collection of poetry, he keeps all five senses at work translating intense emotions into images that haunt the memory:

Amid the rancid moonlight /

and mindlice of my insomnia

The poet Denise Levertov once observed that the pause at the end of a line of poetry is equal to a half‐comma. Wiman’s pauses give readers a brief respite from such intimate images as “Christ in diapers” and “aurora borealis blood.”

Pauses work particularly well in “After,” “Memory’s Mercies,” “Rest Home,” and “More Like the Stars,” casting fresh light on cancer, making love, and killing. The former editor of Poetry magazine, now teaching religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, confesses getting “so bored in church that I often recite poems to myself in my head.” In these pages the poet wrestles with the angel of death itself as he struggles with a rare and unpredictable cancer.

Dubbed “an atheist Christian,” Wiman struggles with doubt, faith, Christian language, and himself. “Faith is nothing more than a motion of the soul toward God. It may be God who moves and the soul that opens.” His poetic form is meticulous, his imagination refined, even severe. Reading his lines, the discerning reader may be opened to religious revelation in ways that seldom happen in church, for Wiman begins and ends with the still, small voice. My Bright Abyss and Once in the West both offer generous amounts of lucid stillness. “The soul at peace—the mystic, the poet working well—is not simply inclined to silence but inclined to valorize it.”

Varieties of quiet

there are many

friend

as many

as the dead

Judith Favor is a member of Claremont (Calif.) Meeting.

Correction

In the January issue Books column, the review of the DVD The Wisdom to Survive incorrectly described the cost options. Individual copies are for sale at $29.95. The community screenings are based on audience size and give you license to charge admission and keep the proceeds. For the free screening options, you can’t charge admission, but you can accept donations.

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