Losing Your Religion

Prayershreds by Bruce Beasley. Orison Books. 2023. Paperback. 72pp. $16.

Religious poetry is almost a contradiction in terms because it attempts to describe the unknowable. The great religious poets of the past, such as Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins, give their readers an oblique sense of their religious experiences through such techniques as the music of meter and rhyme, jarring metaphors, lush language, calculated ambiguities, and echoes of the King James Bible.

Modernism did not immediately rob religious poetry of these techniques. In fact, T.S. Eliot’s fusion of imagistic and traditional verse liberated his mystical impulses. The balance that Eliot struck, however, proved to be too difficult for most later modernist poets to embrace, and so for decades the impoverished language of William Carlos Williams became the dominant style of modernist poetry. This evolution resembled moving from an ornate medieval cathedral to a misshapen Brutalist chapel, and it effectively kept religious poetry out of the literary mainstream.

As Ezra Pound’s modernist charge to “make it new” began to undermine his own brand of modernism, postmodernism made religious poetry even more difficult to write because the dominant styles became more solipsistic, glibly ideological, and cryptic. To a large extent, the successful religious poets of our time have either been formalists, such as Dana Gioia, Jane Greer, and Malcolm Guite, or, as with Jane Kenyon and Christian Wiman, they have struck the kind of balance that made Eliot’s religious verse successful.

Bruce Beasley, who has received many awards for the poetry of his previous eight books, has chosen with his new book, Prayershreds, to travel the hard road of writing religious poetry in contemporary modernist and postmodernist styles. An admirer of the book, poet Lisa Russ Spaar, has called Prayershreds “Hopkins on psilocybin,” but fortunately that assessment is only intermittently accurate. More frequently, and unfortunately, Beasley relies on the techniques of “L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry,” which produce Wittgensteinian language games played by literary insiders for each other, and which almost invariably stifle meaningful communication of emotions, serious ideas, and images.

Beasley’s opening poem, “Self-Portrait,” is the strongest poem of the book because it is the most Eliotic in its approach. In its opening line (“I am words in a language I don’t speak”) he identifies the difficulty of his enterprise. He returns to this metaphor twice by describing himself as “translating into English” and asking how to translate into “this dead language.”

“Self-Portrait” has touches of Hopkins’ language:

Never heard 
that throat-trill
anywhere else

fricative like the spill
of candle wax over ice

The compound noun “throat-trill” uses a classic Hopkins technique, and Hopkins almost surely would have admired the sonic texture of “fricative,” the unexpected chime of the “trill/spill” rhyme, and the striking metaphor of wax spilling on ice.

The problem with “Self-Portrait” is that it cannot sustain its channeling of Hopkins. These stanzas from the poem illustrate the problem:

They even words? I’ve never seen
them carved on any stele unearthed

slashes scorch marks red
ochre months-dried reed

The inversion of “stele unearthed” feels like an affectation and it complicates syntax that is on the verge of becoming incomprehensible. The uncertainty as to whether “scorch” and “marks” are verbs or nouns creates frustration, not an invitation to meditation. Moreover, the compound adjective “months-dried’ is as uninspired compared to “throat-trill” as the dull “red/reed” rim rhyme is to the “trill/spill” rhyme.

The next poem, “Rite,” relies on the strange conceit of substituting the name “It” for “God,” and the best thing I can say about it is that it is unintentionally slightly funny because the conclusion feels as if it were composed by ChatGPT:

Sickles, scrolls, censers, scales. 
For a time, and a time (Art
wast shall
be) and time

no more. Shall we
drape our faces, rend our garments, and inquire,

as several seals remain yet intact,
what might be—to our avail—still

This section has none of the strengths of the previous poem—just pointless alliteration, pointless anachronistic language, a pointless question, and a silly final word.

The next two poems, “Loathsome Repetitions” and “Outside the Realm of Unconcealment,” have the same flaws as “Rite,” but are longer and more tedious despite flashes of wit in “Loathsome Repetitions.” The six poems that follow become increasingly trippy, and thus make an honest poet out of Lisa Russ Spaar. Wordplay becomes particularly hard work in the last of these poems, “Disconnected Limbs”:

mur mur der mur          der or der cry chi di 
es chasm                          clysm clit 
or al lit                           tor al tore all pha phi 
lo so phy so phi               a mons ven 
er is mon                          ster 

vir a                               gin ous 
mens                           is mind 
mar                                 ry vir 
gin vag                           in 
a scen                             si on scion 
ac sea                             dent more birth mor dent 
her o ni                       hi lo gy no 
airsearthrueruth birth er upting earthsurge a rose a rose 

Urnburn, alit. Spurn        birth. Bear 
all, bur                            I al. 

Lines such as these betray the poet’s readers because, however much they amuse the poet, they fail to communicate anything meaningful about the declared goal of the book.

In the last third of the book, the psilocybin seems to subside a bit. The poem “Will” has some fine echoes of Hopkins (e.g. “surge-shake/and downheave”), but not enough of them to salvage the poem. “Dogstarred” is densely alliterative with just a single recurring sound, an experiment that undoubtedly seemed intriguing in the abstract, but in practice leaves the reader crying for Christian mercy.

The final section of the final poem is called “To a Reader,” and it begins as if it might be a mea culpa:

Whoever found your way here, go 
on, go on,

However, no sign of regret follows, only a cascade of abstractions and tropes ending in an incoherent sentence fragment:

           this is no place to dwell 
among syllables and obfuscatory 
wants that lurch and halt and fight
all unambiguous naming. Like a creek 
self-purifying over stones 
whose smoothness it creates  
and then commends. Does
meaning sometimes disgust you, 
its indefatigable advancement, 
swerving around boulders and stormdowned 
trunks toward the closural 
opening of the mouth? Ambition’s 
background-running and obsessively 
secretly self-correcting preoccupied 
at every moment by all the ways we may 
have accidentally and embarrassingly erred. 

Prayershreds indeed errs despite the best of intentions; God gets lost in its linguistic pyrotechnics.

A.M. Juster is the poetry editor of Plough and his work has appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review, The Paris Review and other journals. In 2024 W.W. Norton will publish his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere and Paul Dry Books will publish his first children’s book, Girlatee.


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