CATEGORY: Book Review

Still Blood for Forgiveness: A Review of Shann Ray’s “Balefire”

Sandpoint, ID: Lost Horse, 2014. 84 pp. ISBN 978-0-9911465-1-2.

Reviewed by Aaron Brown (Windhover contributor 2013, 2014, 2015)

A few years ago, poet and fiction writer Shann Ray entered my life at a moment when my creative juices seemed at a crossroads. I was somewhere in the middle of a long summer between my undergrad and MFA program, when I was starting to realize just what I had signed myself up for as a writer and whether I would be able to continue to channel these energies both as a poet and a writer of faith. That summer, I kept on coming back to American Masculine, Ray’s wonderful collection of short stories coming out of the northwest (winner of the 2010 Bakeless Prize). Here, I first encountered the grounded and muscular writing of Shann Ray, his prose poetic and his themes cutting quick to the core. Stories of the disenfranchised. Narratives of the forgotten fighting for life. Writing wholly tied to place and its people’s experiences: Native American, small-town poor, big-city businessmen. Shann Ray’s impact on me led me to do a few quick searches online, and after a brief email exchange, I was on the phone with a writer I had never met, whom I have yet to meet, and yet a person I feel I know so well through the honesty and heartfelt nature of his work.

Shann Ray’s poetic debut Balefire (Lost Horse Press, 2014) is a collection that embodies its title—growing from bright glowing embers into raging poetic explorations of human depravity, the longing for human relationship, and the flickering brilliance of forgiveness. Shann Ray customarily sets up the scene (just as he does in his deft fiction) with intricate stories of human struggle, failure, and redemption. He then upsets our expectations through deft line breaks and suspended syntax, ending the poem in a place wholly unanticipated. Take his poem “My Dad, In America” which first appeared in Poetry. Here, in few words, Ray traces the narrative of his father journeying to take to “the old Highwalker woman… two deer, a gopher, and a magpie.” A journey his father takes with both strength and gentleness, a paradoxical conception of masculinity so essential to Shann Ray’s work:

Your hand on my jaw

but gently

and that picture

of you punching through snow…

Ultimately, the father’s humble offering should remind us “there is still blood for forgiveness” in a day and age where racial misunderstandings and injustices abound.

Elsewhere, Ray utilizes sections in his book to craft longer narratives centered around the power of human relationships within the family structure—the pain that separates the individual parts and the love that joins the broken fragments together again. In “East of the Bear’s Paw Mountains, North of Milk River,” Ray presents us with a series of poems (individual poems or a long poem in sections? I haven’t yet decided) that unfold the narrative of a father who shoots himself in the woods, a mother who raises her son with words of Scripture, and the son who is left to make sense of the loss and love that lingers with him:

he falls toward sleep

as one who has come from the earth

and shaped it with his hands,

and here

he hears his mother’s voice…

Ultimately, the voices linger with us, providing us with some sort of meaning when faced with death, when faced with landscapes that are as physical and geographical as they are reflective of the human psyche. This is the experience of Balefire and everything that Shann Ray throws himself headlong into.

If there’s one thing Ray thoroughly embraces, it is the intimacy and celebration of marriage. In poems such as “Night Over the Sapphire Range East of Missoula,” “Invocation,” and “A Quiet Poem About Marital Sex,” the poet burns with Donnean ecstasy where “in the quiet of our bedroom / silver birds fly / from your mouth / and break me all the way down.” This intimacy traced throughout the collection serves as a kind of glue and yet another layer to be added to his conception of geography as love. John Donne really would be proud.

We see Ray’s desire for new poetic territory as evidenced in his long, flowing titles that act as road maps of a larger map of human experience: “Mystic Lake, the Beartooth Range” and “Up Going to the Sun Road”—all wonderful poems in their own right. It’s as if the poet through his titles is attempting to direct both speaker and reader, to provide some semblance of orientation within seeming disorientation.

Additionally, Ray explores new landscapes of form. His prose poem “In the New Country” operates within a different formal space as his other work—grounding the material within a block paragraph more akin to his short stories than his long-line (and sometimes short), free-flowing verse. Still, however, we experience his writing in as poetic and charged a way as we see in whatever genre he chooses to operate in: “The sun has gone and there is near silence… and the faint word, like a child’s, of those whose breath, impatient…. takes leave to await them in spirit.”

And it is this sense of lingering spirit that a reader comes away from Balefire with: a writer’s spirit of such vitality and strength, a searching voice that in the depths of human struggle demands forgiveness, and it is this voice that should remain with us. Shann Ray is a voice we should be paying attention to—in his poetry and prose—a writer who upsets current trends of abstraction, who stands tall on the shoulders of his influences, and a poet who will relentlessly leave you with a bit of his strength as you continue on life’s journey.

Review: “Love’s Labors” by Brent Newsom

reviewed by Nathaniel L. Hansen, editor of Windhover

Fort Lee, NJ: Cavan Kerry, 2015. 78 pp. ISBN 978-1-9338800-52-5

At the 2014 Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature, it was my great pleasure to chair a creative writing panel that included Brent Newsom, who read from his then-accepted poetry manuscript, Love’s Labors. Published by Cavan Kerry Press in early March of this year, Love’s Labors features poems in the voices of Smyrna’s residents, interspersing their stories with those from Newsom’s life. Consider the closing lines of the first poem, “Smyrna,”:

                    At the edge of town, by the caution light,
a metal sign, green, lettered in white:
WELCOME–riddled with steel shot.

In this town with such a distinctive sign, readers will encounter characters just as distinctive in Claudia Blackwood, Floyd Fontenot, Esther Green, and Pfc. Mason Buxton, among others. While the collection (with its generous offering of dramatic monologues) will certainly remind readers of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, Newsom allows his characters several poems in which to speak their minds, resulting in a rich characterization akin to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, (to name but one prose comparison). It is no small feat for a collection of verse to read like an excellent short-story cycle.

Part of the book’s strength also derives from the ways in which Newsom portrays these individuals, as well as himself: complex, naunced, three-dimensional. The people who populate Smyrna are not caricatures, but are individualized human beings. There is, to put it another way, a generosity in the portrayal. Claudia Blackwood, in the first poem of the sonnet half-crown “Claudia Blackwood has Her Doubts” expresses the entrapment she feels:

It’s unbecoming of a preacher’s wife,
these thoughts that worm their way into my brain
like hairline cracks in ancient porcelain,
then cobwebs into chinks.

And as the book continues, we listen while she shares her fears and frustrations, empathizing with her in what could be rightly labeled her “plight.” This poem, along with the others, counter the notion that “not much life happens in a small town.”

As I mentioned earlier, one thread of the book traces the progress of Newsom and his wife as they await the birth of their son, several poems tagged with a “time stamp” as an epigraph. Take for example, part of the opening stanza of “Christmas Day” (with the tag, “twenty-six weeks”):

In bed this morning, I finally felt the kick
your mother’s described for weeks to my dumb smile.
With your aunt expecting, too, we constitute
unwitting, incomplete nativities
around the den: two Marys in recliners,
your uncle and I two Josephs awaiting the blessed
events.

What a wonderful parallel to draw, the way in which the two fathers-to-be, along with the expectant mothers, are these as-yet unfinished nativities.

Love’s Labors possesses a formalistic skill and grace, and if you are, as I am, a lover of more “traditional” poetic elements and forms, then this a great collection for you.  There are several sonnets, much metrical verse, and even a sestina. Other than the partial sonnet crown, the collection’s most ambitious poem is “Cut,” in which Newsom’s son is finally born. The concluding lines (and those of the book) contain a final, startling image (in a collection already replete with well-crafted images) :

Your mother waits for you.
In my left hand a clamp,
scissors in my right. The blades
bite down.

Because the collection possess such interesting people, you might might pass it on for the friend who enjoys fiction but who is timid around poetry. His work has made such an impression on me that when I began considering writers for the festival that I direct, I immediately thought of him. After all, as editor of Windhover, I published two of these poems in the 2015 issue. Finally, given this strong debut, readers can hope that Brent Newsom’s future poems will continue to develop more of these individuals (and himself), focusing on the confusing and confounding wonder of the human condition(s).

Review of “Twisted Shapes of Light,” by William Jolliff

Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015. ISBN: 9781498208406

Reviewed by Jeffrey Bilbro (Windhover 2015 contributor) @jeff_bilbro

[Note: William Jolliff has served as a Contributing Editor for Windhover since 2012.]

“Jesus, I am old and academic, and I have much to learn. / I would like to read the rest of them, the rest of their stories.” Thus concludes the narrator of “Lunch with the Lord’s Anarchists” after describing the motley assortment of people attending a Jesus Radicals Conference. This desire to learn the stories of others, particularly those on the margins of society, motivates William Jolliff’s new collection of poems, Twisted Shapes of Light. As a former student of Jolliff’s, I’ve long enjoyed finding his work in periodicals, but this volume gathers many of his best poems and should gain him the wider reading he deserves. His work certainly merits attention, not only for the poetic gifts it exhibits, but even more so because his poems teach readers to see the light of grace in neglected places.

In one poem, this old academic realizes that the girl who “slumped / in the back row” of his class while he tried to make The Scarlet Letter interesting was herself pregnant. During finals week, she married the child’s father, another former student, and now, some dozen years later, they still live nearby. The poet apologizes all these years later, finally putting the dates together and imagining the difficulties that made this student struggle in his class: “But when I click the years it all makes sense: // You were sick. Your last semester was your first / trimester. I’m sorry.” As the internal rhymes in these three lines indicate, Jolliff pieces together these stories with great tenderness and nuance; his attention to poetic detail matches his care for the narratives he relates and ponders in these pages, finding glimpses of the divine in lives twisted by difficulties and pain.

Many of the stories Jolliff tells are unsettling; he overturns traditional notions of success and heroism by focusing on those at the bottom of our social hierarchies. Jolliff’s Quaker background certainly informs his understanding of the gospel, and he writes in the biblical tradition of the prophets who railed against the oppression of the rich, Hannah who praised God for raising “the poor out of the dust,” and Mary who proclaimed that God had “put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” Over the course of this collection, “this old Friend”—as Jolliff describes himself in one poem—strives to welcome the stories of everyone: the aging hippies protesting war on the street corner and the angry teens who drive by shouting obscenities; the old and broken residents of a local nursing home and the homeless who gather at the Union Gospel Mission; the children who pour out of the evangelical school during recess and a pair of Mormon elders who come to his door.

In one section, Jolliff reads a series of biblical stories from this same bottom-up perspective. He considers the five foolish virgins who were locked out of the wedding feast, or the people and animals lost in the flood while Noah and his family survived, or Ananias and Sapphira whose natural feelings led to their costly lie. In one such poem, Jolliff recollects a Sunday school teacher telling the story of Elisha and the she-bears. The teacher uses this narrative to enjoin his students to respect and honor their authorities, but of course Jolliff imagines another side of the story:

I wonder

if it pays to fill the twisted story in:
the forty-two mothers and forty-two
fathers and forty-two acts of love,

all brought to deadly naught by a pair
of divinely directed beasts
and God’s overly sensitive prophet.

Such questions necessarily arise
whenever we try to believe in grace
or bank off its angles, so bloody and transient.

These are the twisted shapes that reveal grace’s rougher side. By reading these stories “slant,” as Emily Dickinson might say, Jolliff fingers their bloody edges, seeking to extend Christ’s grace further than we might like.

After all, Christians often specialize in prescribing boundaries to grace or co-opting the Bible to reinforce our fondly-held beliefs. When his five-year-old neighbor asks him “What’s your favorite Bible story, Bill?” he lies and says he likes them all. But after recounting the ways his holiness upbringing gave him a warped view of God—“I grew up with a healthy fear of tent stakes, / and I can’t swim in whale-infested waters”—he concludes on a softer note: “But listen, little one, yours was a good question: / I have always loved spring, and every empty tomb.” Somehow, God’s voice still speaks, despite all the ways that we manage to screw up the good news.

In his poems about life as a boy on an Ohio farm—a life hard and yet tinged with moments of beauty—Jolliff employs this same imaginative perspective, focusing on the poor and marginalized. He celebrates an “Uncle” who gave away all the crops he grew to the poor neighbors, in spite of his family’s protests. And he remembers an old sheep farmer who was kind to him as a boy, in spite of the difficulties that Jolliff now knows he suffered through. He concludes this poem by honoring the sheep farmer for his efforts to make a whole life from the broken pieces he was given: “What good is memory, if it’s not / forgiving? Let me be the one to say your grace: / We thank thee, Lord, for life and the joy of living.” So although his faith now differs from the holiness tradition he was raised in, Jolliff finds value in the earnest desire that old country church cultivated:

I can think of far worse ways
to spend a summer evening, than kneeling
in the company of thirsty souls who want this:

to press their lips against the fleshy ear of God.

By practicing a forgiving memory, Jolliff discerns beauty and genuine holiness even in a faith tradition that he thinks falls short of the gospel’s call.

As readers journey through this book, they learn to listen for God’s voice in unexpected places. In “Dust of the Gods,” for instance, one sentence stretches across the poem’s fourteen lines, describing an interminable, hot day spent sitting on a tractor. Yet in the midst of the long, dusty work, beyond the migraine induced by diesel fumes, the boy driving the tractor sees a whirlwind approaching, breaking upon the monotony of the day. This whirlwind, like the one from which God spoke to Job or the one that took Elijah up to heaven, seems to indicate God’s personal interest in this lonely boy: “he waits for Elisha’s electric voice, / and although he doesn’t hear it, he learns the way light / can shine through pain, and he learns to keep listening.” Jolliff’s poems likewise teach their readers to keep listening, even when God doesn’t speak according to our expectations.

In “The Labyrinth Speaks,” Jolliff writes from the perspective of a concrete prayer labyrinth as it recounts the prayers of those pilgrims who walk its slow spiral:

I serve them all, and on my concrete way
they learn as much as their steps will let me say.
Like any winter road, I’ve felt the burn of salt,

the throb of loss, when the heart’s a vault
without a key. But sometimes doors fall open.
I’m only the stone, but I help that happen.

By speaking for the labyrinth, the poem itself becomes a sort of prayer walk; readers tread its lines, turn at the verge of each, and murmur the prayers this concrete way remembers. While such prayers may not make anything happen, the final line suggests that this labyrinth is, as Auden might say, a “way of happening,” a way of following the one who rolls away the stone, leaving an “empty tomb.”

The image of pilgrimage returns in one of the final poems, in which the poet imagines seeking solace in Walmart’s “pale blue labyrinth of cheap plastic / and cellophane cupcakes.” Traversing this consumer maze—an unlikely place to find God’s presence—he comes upon “polyester angels” pointing the way. Remembering his own pilgrimages to unlikely shrines, he thinks of his daughter, walking El Camino de Santiago:

I pray she finds her way, that in the ache
of her back, in the blisters she breaks today,
she’ll find her reasons for walking, or at least
the twisted shapes of light our Lord can take.

While Jolliff admits he doesn’t know whether his daughter’s pilgrimage will be successful, readers of this book can find “the twisted shapes of light our Lord can take” by listening to the stories recorded here. These poems invite us on a pilgrimage where we might learn to see the divine light that illuminates dark margins, weedy verges, and forgotten fringes.

“Go and Make Disciples”: A Review of L.S. Klatt’s “Sunshine Wound”

Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-60235-585-9

reviewed by Nathaniel A. Schmidt

Augustinian hermeneutics dictate that all language, life, and existence signify to some extent the reality of God’s being; that despite human limitation and perversion, the almost cliché “thumbprint of God” can be witnessed throughout the world with careful discernment. It professes that the heavens truly do “declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). A simple understanding of this philosophy might presume that one merely needs an open eye to encounter the divine, revelation an inevitable end, but even a rudimentary observation of our world refutes such a narrow perspective on Augustine. Things remain unnoticed. We do not see God everywhere. Furthermore, Christian doctrine dictates that humanity is limited and fallen. We cannot comprehend all while possessing a propensity for deception and error. Thus, our very existence necessitates a prophet, a truth-teller, who speaks corrective words that diagnose, heal, and restore our perception of the world. However, this prophet is also human, and therefore just as susceptible to misinterpretation as those to whom he speaks. How then can we discover true significance in a predicament so full of quagmires? Can we find hope and meaning in a world where epistemology fails?

The poetry of L.S. Klatt preoccupies itself with these questions, compelling its readers to wonder about the nature of truth as we strive to construct meaning in our lives. We see this in Klatt’s first collection, where after describing Darwinian evolution in his poem “Blunders,” using the language, tone, and verse-numeration of Genesis, the poet questions “How then do we prophecy?” In Klatt’s third and newest book, Sunshine Wound, this question grows in intensity, not a facetious spiral into despair or sophistry, but a genuine petition to language, humanity, and God for revelation. In this quest, Klatt’s syntax borders on the absurd. “My eyes are on the see-through cows standing in a petticoat of moonshine” (Night, Idaho, Faraway Meadow) and “This is a good day. No 8, with her honeysuckle / machine gun, has mowed down the avalanche” (No 8 Strafes the White-Out). Though these lines strike us as incredibly bizarre, by intentionally working with elastic and opaque imagery, Klatt’s poems suggest to our imaginations the validity of the Christian mythos. His work operates from the principle that if truth does exist, no matter how elusive, then it can be found. He demands something of the word (Word?), thereby granting his verse vivacity.

Sunshine Wound’s epigram from Emily Dickinson frames expertly the collection’s ethos: “not admitting of the wound/ until it grew so wide…”. The poems both imaginatively and empirically demand their audience confront the darker, more painful, attributes of life (Suicide, self-righteousness, exploitation, greed) until, desiring some respite, we recall another of Emily Dickinson’s maxims to “dwell in possibility.” In their particular situations, the poems suggest various options: light as viable as dark, life as real as death. Such possibilities allow the verses to grow from clinical observations into prophetic injunctions. Poems like “The Hydrangea,” which sees a dying woman reflect on her youth while being compared to a wilting plant beside her hospital bed, and “The Physician,” a wild lyric juxtaposing the trauma of an aneurism with a curious fox seeking “the blank check / of the prescription pad,” simultaneously affirm the tangible pain of death and the beautiful perception of life, making the heart groan to see these two realities brought into harmony. The emotional impacts of these poems stimulate our imaginations and prod the mind to discover fresh, redemptive, possibilities.

The poems themselves are hardly dogmatic, for so strange is their language, that though they are incredibly self-aware, none would criticize them for being preachy. The collection’s first poem, “Intrepid Pilot,” proves a legend for Klatt’s poetic. Utilizing a highly-referential style (lovers of Eliot and Pound will be comfortable here), Klatt opens with the words “Dear Stranger,” mirroring Charlotte Bronte’s famous “Dear Reader” from the final chapter of Jane Eyre. Whereas Bronte’s direct address reflects familiarity, acknowledging a persistent companion through her narrator’s sufferings, joys, and ultimate satisfaction, Klatt’s “stranger” professes a stark lack of knowledge regarding his readers. He knows almost nothing of us, and we know almost nothing of him, and yet, despite this alien quality, Klatt speaks to us. Remembering the title, we are not two ships passing in the night, but pilots hailing each other. Though bound by the laws of nature, we wield a power to direct our existence, and thus while we undertake our journeys through life, Klatt’s words encourage us to be “intrepid,” to adventure further into what we encounter. Unlike Bronte, whose readers are familiar with Jane Eyre’s particular odyssey by the end of her book, we are unaware of whom or what we will meet in Sunshine Wound. Thus, Klatt calls us as “stranger” and provides guidance for the various circumstances we might encounter in our time together.

Despite the discrepancy between their works, these two writers, like their vocabulary, are not completely dissimilar. As we move through “Intrepid Pilot,” we realize that both demonstrate steps that lead to a place of community, harmony, and peace. Neither narrator is lost, both having found a personal type of home. Dwelling in possibility, Klatt advises on how to find this home with a hypothetical:

If a lark chased by birdshot
seeks asylum where things are hidden, go
to it with armloads of chameleons &
armadillos.

Klatt revels in making strange the familiar, and familiar, the strange. Here we encounter a lark (itself a type of pilot) fleeing from a hunter’s birdshot. Like this bird, we are naïve about death (the wages of sin from a Christian perspective) and are afraid it might crash into our lives like birdshot. Seeking salvation, the lark then takes to the sky, revealing a latent hope that something, somewhere, hidden, mysterious, will provide both peace and sanctuary. Klatt’s word for sanctuary, “asylum,” proves incredibly telling. The fear of death that can drive one person to sanctuary can drive another insane. This renders the poem’s setting anxious, the lark’s separation from its exaltation (the extremely significant name for a group of larks) leading the creature into birdshot just as easily as refuge.

Now if we encounter such a situation, Klatt advises we

                                                                go
to it with an armload of chameleons &
armadillos.

Not exactly the council we expected to hear. Like the lark, these creatures are intensely metaphoric. The lark seeks asylum where things are hidden, believing there is a special place where life can be kept safe. Instead of producing a map to some safe-haven, Klatt presents a creature that can hide itself, the chameleon, and one that encases itself in armor, the armadillo. For the lark to find refuge, it must first learn to be like the chameleon, present but unseen, or the armadillo, slow-moving but steadfast. With death closing in, presumably the lark, and by association we as humans, do not desire Klatt’s generous “armload” of animals. We desire something more pragmatic than foreign creatures (or the bizarre verse that conveys them), and yet, by accepting these creatures and their lessons, a lifetime of sanctuary, not momentary shelter, can be found according to Klatt.

To experience this peace, however, the lark must be transfigured, converted, from one type of creature into another. For such evolution to occur, an outside entity must remake the lark, rebirthing it into a chameleon or armadillo. Thus, we move to a baptismal image:

And if, in the flooded glades
of the Orinoco, you discover a woman
bathing a panther with lilac oils, go to her.

Transported to a climate as strange to the lark as the chameleon or armadillo, we witness another animal, a panther, not under human threat, but human care. A woman, who does not hide her whereabouts to bathe an animal in blood, enters the panther’s presence to wash this hunter with water and perfume. This image resonates with Isaiah 11:6’s “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb” and its famous paraphrase, the “lion shall lie down with the lamb.” The woman’s actions are both nurturing and preparatory, intimating for the panther not a violent, but luxurious, existence. A life more tranquil and plentiful than what it (and definitely the lark) could have imagined awaits this creature, if it but permits the woman to do her work. Thus, Klatt recommends we go to this woman (Mother Church? Klatt’s second collection Cloud of Ink mentions the “female Christ”). While seeking shelter, if we “discover” a person who will take us out of our violent climate, and prepare us for some sort of peaceful valley, Klatt encourages us to be “intrepid.” We should show no fear and go to this woman. Her subtly erotic nature reinforces this idea. She enraptures us, and we should enjoy her embrace, submitting our very bodies to her.

In this environment, altogether different from where we first encountered the lark

if you eavesdrop on certain light
bearing insects, take a bicycle that will wheel
you into dark space.

Notice the word “eavesdrop.” These are words intended for others, overheard. Upon recalling the “Dear Strangers” from Klatt’s opening line, we realize we are the eavesdroppers encouraged to listen and respond despite our alien-ness. Despite the subjectivity of interpretation, words can maintain their relevance even when their audience changes, a subtle endorsement for objective truth. Following the poem’s syntax to the line-break, we learn what makes this possible, a “certain light:” a particular, assured, revelation. This illuminating essence, either spoken directly or overheard “slant” (in the words of Emily Dickinson), is what an Augustinian hermeneutic would call God, and more specifically, the Holy Spirit. Language’s revelatory characteristic enables this possibility for divinity.

On our journey through the poem, however, we do not encounter this light in its purest form. Instead, it is carried within an insect; a miniscule creature often deemed a pest, plague, or harbinger of disease. If light does denote the infinite divine, then scale alone permits us to interpret the insect as humanity, again referenced in bestial vocabulary like lark or panther. When considering humanity, we often can see ourselves as unwelcome and invasive neighbors, gluttonously, mindlessly, eating through house and home, and bringing death at our worst. Reflection on our race’s history should repulse us like a roach afraid of the light, bringing to mind T.S. Eliot’s famous quote from Burnt Norton: “human kind / cannot bear very much reality.” Like the lark fleeing birdshot, we try to hide from our situation, and, unexpectedly, Klatt encourages us to do so, urging us to utilize the inventions of our age by “tak[ing] a bicycle that will wheel / you into dark space.” It is good to experience the dark night of the soul for, by bearing even a sliver of reality before turning away, we gain knowledge of what is real, perhaps only by its absence. Our lives become more truthful. Yes, we can choose to remain in this darkness, but if we continue to grind the gears of our metaphysical bicycle, the machine that brought us here, then like a wheel this process will revolve, re-evolving us into a different creatures altogether. The lark can become a chameleon in the dark, hidden, places of the soul.

Acknowledging the Christological ramifications of this image (the Truth, Light, incarnated in a limited being), we realize we too are “light bearing insects,” tiny creatures housing an illuminating truth. In theological terms, this is the imago dei, the image of God. Like fireflies, we must not forget this truth, lest we dwell in darkness forever. Indeed, the poem continues to say we “must not / blot out, but rather imagine.” Klatt comments on how we often use our perception to darken what was once illumined. He calls us not to erase, but instead preserve, the light’s existence though our mind’s creative powers. One thinks of C.S. Lewis’s “baptized imagination.” Our imagined reality affects how we perceive the physical. We keep the light by imagining a world in which it exists, actions preventing the light from being blotted out. Internally perceiving a light enables us to behold it outside of ourselves.

To help preserve the light, Klatt instructs us to imagine “your cloak is a lifeboat.” Klatt is no Gnostic, rejecting the body for intellectual enlightenment, for immediately after commenting on the power of imagination, he endorses the body. We must imagine our “cloak,” what covers us, our flesh, is the vessel that transports us and protects us from the elements (darkness, blindness, birdshot, etc). It harbors the mind and its imagination, and can lead us down the Orinoco to the lady by its shore. As intrepid pilots, this vessel conveys us to safety and delivers us unto salvation. Through the flesh’s desire for sanctuary, we discover the lark’s hidden place existing already within us. Therefore, Klatt concludes,

Into midnight then fall backward
because, weightless there, you phosphoresce
in a slipstream of transit.

Like an ancient jeremiad, the poem advises we turn back into our soul’s hidden space, for here burdens will fall off, and weightless, we will be transformed into light, unbound from the animal; the lark free to travel where it may. Salvation is achieved by seeking after revelation.

Tragically, both in life and in this collection, not everyone beholds this light. Flames extinguish routinely. Throughout Sunshine Wound, various “larks” misperceive their condition and blot out their imagination, seeking “hidden places” that do not save them from death. Utilizing his avant-garde style, Klatt resonates with Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” His words, perhaps as strange as cherubim fire, stimulate our imaginations to discover the light. “Sanctuary,” the collection’s second poem, witnesses a man encounter a burning bush. Upon realizing a “Ulysses S. Grant is folded / in my wallet,” he turns “intrepidly into thicket; / for U.S has engulfed me / but not consumed me.” Though surrounded by American culture and its distractions, identified here by its pragmatic, war-hero-emblazoned currency, the consumer is not consumed. The poet finds another light to live by. He goes to the burning bush’s thicket, and not the marketplace of the world.

Intimating Moses’s “Let my people go,” Klatt speaks into situations consumed by darkness throughout Sunshine Wound, literally applying with his lexicon color to places devoid of light. The poem “St. Francis” sees the evangelist conclude after meditating before a sermon that “there is always / the chance of a blue sky.” This “blue” sky, situated between the sun’s intensity and the night’s bleakness, becomes highly significant for Klatt. It becomes “a moral color.” Like Mary’s robes, it provides a glimpse of hope to a world suspended between heaven and hell. This blue imagery proves instrumental in one of Sunshine Wound’s most powerful poems, “The Interpreter,” a retelling of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Set in a Neanderthal’s cavern, the caveman’s existence is “insipid & flavorless,” predominantly because of his “forgone conclusion” (death?). Even his prehistoric paintings lack vigor because “Blue is not present to him.” As the poem identifies, the reason for this is “He does not yet dream,” his imagination stuck within his skull’s shadows. However, all is not hopeless, despite the Neanderthal’s bleak, myopic, vision. While he does not yet dream, there is the chance he might someday. Within the context of Plato’s allegory of the cave, the caveman can be freed from his colorless existence to learn how to paint with blue, a transfiguring, evolving, experience that can alter his worldview like a lark into a chameleon.

Klatt himself does not put himself beyond this need for transfiguration. Until this point, one could read Klatt as somewhat judgmental and self-righteous, but in the poem “Blowing My Horn,” we see Klatt following his own advice, turning introspective. “It was a time when Jesus wanted me to be more / than Little Boy Blue” he begins. Though good for “The Interpreter”’s caveman to dream in color, simply musing on blue keeps him a monochromatic child, shades of grey simply exchanged for a different hue. He still requires more growth to abandon the cave of his foregone conclusions. Klatt identifies himself with this unconscious caveman and his insipid and flavorless existence, saying,

I had an unfortunate middle-of-the-road
attitude that led me to sleepwalk
with an ax. A history

The caveman’s past is Klatt’s past, and thus both men require the same antidote. Klatt is aware of the color blue, and therefore is more developed than the Neanderthal, but like so many Christians, he becomes content with a simple understanding of the truth. He even celebrates himself by “Blowing” his own “horn.” (do not dismiss the fellatio imagery here, Klatt’s title a self-condemning jeremiad against the indulgently narcissistic behavior within the evangelical movement). This situation leaves the poet in just as much darkness as the caveman. Despite this situation, and because “Jesus wanted me to be more,” the poet beholds “a blur, the face of Christ, as I milked/ my horn.” Notice the name change. We first encountered the second person of the trinity by his personal name, Jesus, but after the poet goes astray, he appears to his suckling child under his messianic title, Christ. A savior, not a friend, is needed. Klatt comments on this situation by stating that both he and Christ were “– less moonbeam / than haymaker where the sun don’t shine.” In one sense, the lines reflect the poet’s current situation. His evangelical trumpet blowing does not shine light into the dark night of the soul, but brow-beats those whom, like himself, are in darkness. This accomplishes nothing. Inversely, the face of Christ is not the image of a mystical, comical, man in the moon, but of a potent farmer who comes down to work in the fields: one who makes “hay,” a food source, before the sun rises. Klatt acknowledges how he has not been radically, down to his roots, converted. He is interested only in the veneer, the blue paint, of faith, not genuine transformation. The Christ he sees, however, is a farmer who works in ground. The sun has not yet risen, but this does not prevent someone from preparing Klatt’s soil for the harvest. Klatt responds, desiring to be more than “Little Boy Blue,” by going “around the world in a combine / looking for Jesus.” Though he still searches the world, seeking him who came out of the ground, the poet has woken from his sleepwalk with an ax, the caveman’s foregone conclusion, to work in the fields, hoping to see a harvest. He continues his journey, the “slipstream of transit.”

Ultimately, Sunshine Wound challenges us to constantly seek after the light, until all the prism’s colors reveal themselves to us. Believing this action begins in the imagination, Klatt incarnates his ethic by stimulating our own imaginations with images both strange and bizarre. As we continue to entertain the possibility that Klatt’s language signifies meaning, that it is not nonsense, but instead a strange sense, a new sense, we realize that his words do what Augustine says all creation does: point to the Divine. Thus the collection ends with a “Magnificat,” a glorification of God, complete with “tigers, Maker’s / Mark,” and “ultraviolet stripes.” Sunshine Wound’s journey is a wild as Dante and as rewarding as Eliot, and I believe is, as a cohesive unit, L.S. Klatt’s most impressive work to date. For those desiring a challenge to their faith and what they think is possible with poetry, the avant-garde verse of L.S. Klatt will certainly reward.