Review: Sydney Lea's Six Sundays Toward a Seventh

Review: Sydney Lea's Six Sundays Toward a Seventh

February 24, 2015




Ever since I strayed from my non-denominational roots, yearning for a Christian identity that didn’t begin with negation, I’ve looked to Lent as a time for growth and reflection. In Lent I can lose myself in tradition and ritual. I can enter an accountability that liberates rather than restricts, that shakes me from my dailyness. Sydney Lea’s collection of spiritual poems Six Sundays Toward a Seventh (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), which is comprised of poems written over the course of four decades, provides a meditative space for such reflection and growth. Through its pages one can enact the ritual and sanctity of Lent, and more broadly speaking, of life (for the reading of this collection shouldn’t be restricted to Lent). Divided into four sections—“Doubt, Despond, Defiance,” “Midway,” “Wonder,” and “Six Sundays Toward a Seventh”—the poems in this collection encompass and enact the leaning articulated in the title. This is a collection of towardness, expectation, and revelation.

Interestingly enough, the opening poem in the collection resists this revelation and the inevitable pain it entails. “Incantation against Revelation” is organized by a series of imperatives that parallel and thus question those used in Genesis to call the world into being. The poem opens:

Let it not be.

Let winter-clipped day

rush to dark

and insufficient clarity

of partial light from impartial moons.

And in a world weary from the failures of false expectations,

Let prophecy of the day the fall

foliage will turn

remain inept,


their cascades of yellow needless a sign,

and nothing to signify.

Rather than living a life that interprets everything as a sign, that seeks only the answers (which will inevitably fall short), this poem affirms a life shrouded in mystery and wonder. The poem itself, and every good poem, I think, enacts this mystery as it leads the reader into deeper meditation and questioning without providing any simple (and surely reductive) answers. To begin a collection of spiritual poems with this acknowledgement is to resist many popular connotations of “Christian” or “spiritual” writing—pithy lessons and concrete solutions about how to pursue God in forty days or less. As with the other poems in this collection, Lea encourages readers to instead seek the indefinable complexity present in both word and world.

Another poem in the “Doubt” section, “Marking Sense,” pursues a similar vein of mystery. This poem reveals this collection’s own awareness of the dangers of idolizing meditation as a pure and clean form of existence. This poem reminds us of our senses, of the unavoidable fact that we are bodies situated in time and place. Here, the speaker is lost hopelessly in thought and turns to sounds and smells and sights in order to ground himself in image and body:

his recall

now of an odd flavor like charcoal

in the scarred skin over his late wife’s

late left breast.

As the poem unravels, however, it is evident that sense and thought cannot be separated into an easy dichotomy, that the mind cannot be detached from the body or its inevitable decay. And returning to the reaching suggested in the collection’s title, the speaker here stretches toward what he cannot yet understand but knows deep inside his body: “But see the hand / tense, like something that wants to take flight.” In the culmination of Lent it is the body, after all, that makes a world of difference.

Other than the spiritual themes for which this collection was gathered, location serves as an important and grounding force throughout these poems. If this book is to help one traverse the difficulties of Lent, then the physical journey in these poems is inextricable from this spiritual transformation. Each of these poems is a landscape. They are concerned with the relationship between people and place, time and terrain, and ultimately how this relationship reflects and complicates one’s relationship with God.

“Barnet Hill Brook” treats the land as a text: “Here’s what to read in mud by the brook after last night’s storm, / Which inscribed itself on sky as light, now here, now gone—” The speaker in this poem views the earth not as a blank slate in need of transcription, but as a text that has already been inscribed. The recognition of this wonder (this poem is aptly included in the “Wonder” section) elicits a response that can only be described as worship. The speaker leans into the mud, toward the “water striders” who “stand on themselves, feet balanced on feet in mirroring water,” realizing that this doubleness is as good as infinite when compared to his short life. He asks for a life long enough to count the countless pine needles, invoking the constant and cyclical anticipation of Jesus’s resurrection that we experience in the Lenten season: “To tally them up would take me a lifetime. And more would keep coming. / A lifetime at least. And more would keep coming, please God, keep / coming.”

This is a collection that leaves the reader in a different state of mind and body, that unifies them as the Lenten journey does. You must trust these poems. Only in leaning into their questions, in inhabiting their place, can you fully experience the final moment of fulfilled expectation alongside the speaker amidst “our hymn of grateful praise.”



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