I plan to use David Wright’s poetry collection, A Liturgy for Stones, as a resource in the high school Sunday School class I teach this spring because I think people need literary analysis skills to survive and find nurture in the world of religion. As Wright acknowledges in his December 2001 Mennonite Life essay,
Poetry as Argued Seduction,
the language and vision poems might provide is needed, especially in a church afraid of indirect and sensual assertions of the truth (para. 1). He believes in the practice, through his poetry, of
argued seduction, which is
what it might be like to leave neither our senses nor our minds absent from the world (para. 5). He worries about how to help
poetry to matter more to the faith community, and [he] can’t figure out … how to make that happen. Though it’s made from the very stuff of daily speech, and though poetry works in part through a mingling of music and felt truth, its value still eludes many thoughtful people of faith. [And he] suspect[s] there’s little [he] can do about this (
A Few Worries About Being a Poet, Winter 2004 online issue of DreamSeeker Magazine, para. 25).
Yet, he says, he
continue[s] to read and write poems, hovering under the recognition that centuries worth of poets, including the prophets and psalmists and hymn writers, worried their particular combinations of words into forms that afflict and surprise [him] in necessary ways (para. 26). I do not wish affliction upon my students, but I hope Wright’s poems will surprise their minds and senses into a conversation that strengthens both.
I will talk to them about the way Wright pays as much attention to sounds and images—sensual knowledge—as to ideas—intellectual knowledge. The book is built with sonnets and other patterned rhymed forms as well as musical free verse. Wright delights in alliteration and in creative rhymes. Listen, for example, to the linked sounds building the final couplet of
Elegy (for David Erlanson):
I cannot return. No, I would rather rattle rougher words / to scare and scatter all these deaths, like starlings from the curb. Notice how he replicates the harshness of death with an almost literal
gr-r-r-r-r, then softens his tone with
s’s and with the sad, comic image of trying to rid the world of starlings by shouting. To rhyme
words—our highest form of intellectual truth-making—with
curb—the literal concrete boundary limiting a journey’s breadth, and linked to the image of
gutter, which carries refuse away—shows and seduces readers into feeling a mourner’s experience with death. The reader feels anger and futility, but also hears the way the words flow together. Maybe the reader will be comforted by pattern under girding form.
Wright is attentive to patterns of imagery. Two strong images in the book are rocks and voices, echoing Jesus’ juxtaposition of the two in Luke 19:40, the verse Wright uses as an epigraph to his title poem. Jesus said the stones will cry out if the people won’t; Wright, another master of inverted perceptions, of seeing the world inside out, asks what the stones would say if they started using their voices.
Our voices ride the blue flight of morning […] (line 1), he begins, and then describes the message given when a rock shatters a stained-glass window. The eight sections of this poem speak in languages of stone, bedrock, mud, dirt-devil, mountain, canyon, cathedral, rubble, brass, sculpture, concrete, brick, and crevice—a
Pentecost to free the long-staid tongues (line 11).
Many of the other poems in the book speak of and for voices that have been silent. Often these voices and languages are not expressed in
words (intellectual knowledge), but in images (sensual knowledge). In
Children’s Sermon, for example, the children are stunned by the image of God accidentally revealed in the powerful movement of one of their mothers acting like a mother. In
Electric Glossolalia (The Neighborhood Boys Speak in Tongues), the implied metaphor for the Holy Spirit is a nine-volt battery. The reader must consider how receiving power from on high might be like ten-year-olds tasting
power’s metal flavor and risking
how it felt to dare. In
The Prodigal Mother Suspects, the first line of the poem continues the thought the title begins:
No one, not even Jesus, will mention her […]. Wright seems to be asking his readers to continue thinking about the parable, to draw out the subtext, to let the silent, unmentioned characters speak.
A Liturgy for Stones is both thoughtful and musical. Wright’s mastery of form, his ability to hear and contribute to the conversation humming within sacred and secular literature, as well as within the physical and spiritual world, and his personal poetic vision make this a book worth examining. I recommend it for readers of many ages and stages of literary experience.