Poets on the Psalms
edited by Lynn Domina
San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2008.
Reviewed by Linda Williams
“At some point, I realized that the book I really wanted to read was a collection of responses to the Psalms by poets writing today,” Lynn Domina said in an interview with her publisher. “But that book didn’t exist. So I just did it. I invited a group of poets to contribute . . .”
Domina says that she was astonished by the responses she received, and for good reason. The anthology that resulted, Poets on the Psalms, is a rich and varied set of challenging essays by 14 poets speaking from unexpected and illuminating perspectives. In the words of 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, each voice “speaks and spells” itself. Each writer takes a unique path to explore the complex and compelling world of the Psalms.
The poets—including Domina herself—are, of course, artists, and so it is in that capacity that they respond to the poetry of the Psalms. As modern poets, they acknowledge the structure and beauty of these ancient writings, their power to influence a writer’s own work, their mystery, their living presence in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and their speaking to the human condition in times past and in our own time.
But these poets also prod the Psalms, wrestle with them, test them, argue with them, embrace them. They speak of the personal and intimate qualities of the Psalms that nurture and sustain. They confront the contradictions, violence, and despair. They posit questions about the God of the Psalms, a God who sometimes showers compassion and love on his people and sometimes deals in vengeance and brutality and abandons his people. They celebrate the Psalms of praise and thanksgiving, take comfort in a favorite Psalm, encounter the intimate God of the Psalms as a lover.
These generalizations do not begin to convey the sharp and revealing angles of the individual essays, however. Some spring from personal memories and experience, moving from childhood to adulthood; some focus on a single Psalm; some are analytic; some use experimental forms; some weave in their own poetry; one explores the “landscape” of the Psalms on a long, solitary road trip.
Words from the poets themselves give some sense of their voices:
The Psalms are glorious. No, the Psalms are terrible. No, the Psalms are both glorious
and terrible, both attractive and repulsive emotionally and theologically. (p. 20)
The emotions of the Psalms surge and collapse like breaking waves, as they do
in our own emotional lives. There is joy and despair and hope and frustration
and fear and anger and grief and sorrow, and then the desperation breaks like a
wave into trust and joy again. (p. 24)
[The Psalms] serve as nothing less than an honest record of human faith, complete with its flaws, its tendency to sway and buckle, to yield as easily to fear and anger as (when things go well) to joy, praise, and appreciation. I call the record honest, because it seems to me that this muddled kind of faith is the only kind of which a vulnerable, flawed creature such as a human being is capable. (p. 12)
In our own garden, my partner, Sandra, and I have raised zucchini and pattipan squash, spaghetti squash (miniature and regular), butternut and delicata. Praise God you squashes and you beans, you tomato and you cucumber. Praise God you grubs and you slugs, even, you leaf-eating beetles, you foraging deer and rabbit. (p. 116)
Like all great poetry of suffering and mutability, the psalms of lament ground themselves in the physical details of life in order to express and ultimately dramatize an encounter with life’s insignificance before forces that exceed our control. (p. 167)
The Psalms are personal in an intense way that is not characteristic of much of the Bible. The pleading, pain, rejoicing, and praise come from a voice that is immediate, merging with the reader’s interior voice; the reader cannot get away from it. (p. 155)
So many of the Psalms are gentle reminders to God, pushes, pulls, and tugs at the divine conscience, lyrical requests to him to get busy. (p. 99)
The titles of some of the essays also give some idea of the varied directions the poets take:
The Secret Life of Poetry and the Psalms (Madeline DeFrees)
Psalm and Anti-Psalm: A Personal Interlude (Alicia Ostriker)
Lover, Dark and Dangerous (Jill Alexander Essbaum)
Psalm 22 and the Gospels: A Midrashic Moment and a Hope for Connection (Enid Dame)
Want (Angie Estes)
“The Devices and Desires of Our Own Hearts”: Reflections on Blessing and Curse in the Songs of Ascent (Robert A. Ayres)
Lamentation, Poetry, and the Double Life (Daniel Tobin)
Domina provides an introduction, in which she explains her arrangement of the 14 essays. She has also included a list of contributors, a general index, and an Index of Psalms Cited. This latter index lists all the Psalms (87) referred to in the essays and all the places where each Psalm appears. This index could be very useful in comparing ideas in the essays or in organizing a discussion.
I do have two minor cautions regarding the use of Poets on the Psalms. In the interview referred to earlier, Domina suggests that the book could “definitely” be used in Bible study classes. It would have to be used with thorough and careful preparation, however. These essays are not light reading, and some require rigorous analysis. That said, interpreting the authors’ ideas and comparing the viewpoints in the essays could generate exciting discussions.
My second caution is in regard to the study questions provided by the publisher. Most of these questions use the essays as springboards to connections with the readers’ lives (“When have the Psalms been influential in your life?”), to readers’ general opinions (“Why is Psalm 23 so popular?”) or to an extension of some aspect of the essay (“Using any Psalm as your originating impulse, what stories could you tell?”). While these suggestions and many of the others could generate interesting and lively discussion, I think that there should also be analytic questions that would help readers probe and understand some of the more complex ideas in the essays.
The imaginative writing and challenging thinking in Poets on the Psalms yield rich rewards. I was drawn into every piece, and I have already re-read some—a single reading only begins to reveal all the ideas, images, questions, and surprises that are to be encountered. Poets on the Psalms engages heart and mind and opens many windows into the ancient treasure house that is the Psalms. May these essays be given the attention that they so richly deserve.
Linda Williams is a retired book editor and longtime member of EEWC and has presented poetry workshops at several EEWC national conferences and elsewhere. She currently tutors international students in English. You can read Linda’s further reflections on poetry in the winter, 2008 issue of Christian Feminism Today, where she reviewed Sweetness and Light, a book of poems by Mary Cartledgehayes.
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