Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems, by Jeanne Murray Walker

by Guest Blogger April 26, 2016

Helping the Morning reviewed by Benjamin Myers Jeanne Murray Walker’s Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems (Wordfarm, 2014) is a very welcome overview of the career of a major Christian poet. Walker, along with other poets of her generation, such as Scott Cairns and Paul Mariani—whose selected works were published in 2006 and 2012, respectively—has done much to bring together Christian literary pursuits and the mainstream of American poetry. She is a writer both deeply spiritual and thoroughly contemporary, and her poems have shown many younger Christian writers a path for pursuing their work with both religious and literary integrity. In the first section of Helping the Morning, she offers new poems that live up to her reputation for vivid, fresh images in poems that call us to view the world as sacred. At the end of “Miniature Song of Complaint,” for instance, she says, “I can almost see us from the road, our tiny house, / hanging like one last gold leaf in the oak tree.” This sense of beauty and fragility in precarious balance imparts to her work a wisdom far beyond the mere didacticism which tempts many Christian writers. One of the pleasures of a selected works, especially one as well edited as Helping the Morning, is watching a poet come into her own as a writer. In Walker’s case, this includes a growth in wisdom that is closely aligned with a growth in craft and art. To put it in slightly clichéd terms, the reader watches her find her voice. One sees in Walker’s early poems much promise and talent, but it is often overshadowed by obvious influences. Walker seems to begin her career, like many poets of her generation, in the shadow of Sylvia Plath. Take, for instance, these lines from “Praying for Father on All Saints’ Day”:                       But I am done with you,           my dodge, my fleet dead. I have come to give           you up, my strong ghost, my sweet parent           long since pushed into the ground as into an oven. Apostrophe to a dead father isn’t necessarily a signal of confessional allegiance, but the nature of the address, the atmosphere of an exorcism, is distinctly Plathian. “I am done with you” is nearly quotation from Plath’s “Daddy,” and the allusion in the image of the oven is unmistakable. Although the father/daughter relationship in this poem doesn’t seem as fraught as in Ariel, Plath’s dramatic and violent imagery seems to dominate the poem, as when she evokes Plath’s jackbooted “panzer man”: “Burn / until not a button is left, not the sound / of a boot stamping in autumn air.” Coming to this volume with an awareness of Walker’s later achievement, one gets great pleasure in watching the younger poet struggle to assimilate the strong voices that influenced so many writers of her generation. By the time of 1985’s Fugitive Angels, Walker seems to be following the general movement of mainstream American poetry toward a mild surrealism under the influence of John Ashbery, who had recently added the Bollingen to his Pulitzer and National Book Award. Walker, better than many of Ashbery’s many imitators, picks up the emotional possibilities of surrealism, the sad, soft music of Ashbery’s best poems, and foregrounds it in poems like “For my Daughter’s Twenty-First Birthday”:           I stroked her cheek with my finger,           and she began to suck for dear life,           like a fish in the last stages of suffocation above water.           When I poured my voice down to revive her,           she grinned and graduated from college           summa cum laude, schools of minnows parting before her.           “You are not a fish,” I said to her.           “You are my daughter, and just born, too.” This is not quite the subtle and resonant voice Walker will bring to her finest poems, but it is an effective and moving piece. Surrealism will not, ultimately, be the path Walker takes in her best work, but she will absorb from it a penchant for striking and dramatic images, for seeing the world afresh. Arguably Walker’s own voice, one quieter and perhaps more subtle than either Plath or Ashbery, arrives with 1990’s Coming into History, in which striking images bring movement and color to the surface of poems that, through the exercise of great restraint, convey a sense of profound depth. A good example of this quality is “The Shawl.” The poem begins simply and compellingly:           Somewhere on Ellis Island           my mother’s mother lost the shawl           the women of the town crocheted for her           out of mauves and purples,           old tunes twisted in the strands,           and clever plots           woven, woven in the pattern. The poem then accelerates through history, creating through the propulsion of the verse—short lines dominated by stressed syllables, as in “whose leaves clinked down / like foreign coins”—a sense of inevitable progression as the family moves west and as each generation gives way to the next. Near the end of the poem she describes the grandmother figure in these simple but breathtaking lines:           finally carrying           her children’s           children on her hip           while she stirred the soup,           their breath soft as moss,           their tiny feet stuttering against her. Much matter of great importance is captured here with a few well-chosen words. The visual repetition figured in the “stuttering feet,” for instance, beautifully reinforces the suggestion of repetition with difference in “children’s / children,” which is, by the way, a great example of a meaningful line break in the way it dramatizes continuity and change. This kind of serious craft and deep art is abundant throughout Walker’s four books leading up to this collected edition. I would particularly point the reader to “Nursing,” “Talking to the Baby about Taking the Bus,” “So Far, So Good,” and “Making the Move.” At the center of Walker’s best work is an exploration of empathy. This exploration first comes to the foreground of her poetics in Stranger than Fiction (1992), a collection of dramatic monologues giving voice to various characters inhabiting the pages of supermarket tabloids. Walker poetically inhabits the lives of, for instance, an invisible girl, a man whose thumb bleeds for three years, an heiress who starves to death, and a beauty queen who gives birth to a monster. These poems are interesting—by turns amusing and poignant—and always well-executed. Yet, even in the hands of a master like Robert Browning, the dramatic monologue is inherently limited in its ability to generate empathy. Even when the monologue is most sympathetic to its subject, it is still very conspicuously an act of ventriloquism. The monologue form thus undermines the act of empathy by offering the illusion of leaping over the distance between two people, poet and character, rather than engaging in the hard work of crossing that distance. While the effort is noble, the poetic strategy in Stranger than Fiction ultimately points to the inherent limits of literary empathy. The monologue offers only a cardboard cutout of the empathetic imagination. In her best, later poems, Walker turns this limitation into a powerful virtue in poems that enact the difficult, but crucial, struggle to wade across—with no shortcuts—the gulf between any two people. In “The Failing Student” a teacher says to herself, in response to the student, “You begin picking your way toward her / through a whole vocabulary / of wildflowers and thorns.” The poem, in its halting rhythms and thorny images, dramatizes that effort toward connection. In my favorite of her poems, “Gesture Upwards,” Walker begins, again simply, with “I have promised to pray for a friend / the way one promises when there are no solutions.” The rest of this poem, full of vivid and emotionally effective images, is occupied with the poet attempting to find her way to that prayer, attempting to connect with her friend and with God despite how “Here in Vermont the cold is slowing things down / the way a squad car parked along the shoulder / slows traffic.” That is, despite how the world goes on in a beautiful and heartless indifference. At the poem’s end, we are given this stunning glimpse: “Like the sole of a foot, a yellow leaf / steps on the windshield, then another, / and another, like feet, walking on water.” In this powerful image, the poet seems to find connection with Christ, and thus presumably achieve at least silent prayer for the friend. In the image of the natural world, however, this connection is a mediated, an ambiguous or limited connection. It is an honest connection and sacramental in its orientation. Speaking of sacrament, reading these poems from Walker’s last four collections, along with the new poems included at the beginning of Helping the Morning, I am constantly reminded of Allen Tate’s neglected but brilliant essay “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” in which he distinguishes between the mere “communication” that abounds in our consumer culture and the real “communion” that is at the heart of true literature. Tate writes, “Perhaps it is not too grandiose a conception to suggest that works of literature, from the short lyric to the long epic, are the recurrent discovery of the human communion as experience, in a definite place and at a definite time.” Walker, in her carefully crafted and vivid poems, fulfills that challenging call to a renewed, ever contemporary and specific communion as well as any poet writing today. ----------- Benjamin Myers is the 2015-2016 Oklahoma Poet Laureate and the author of two books of poetry: Lapse Americana (New York Quarterly Books 2013) and Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010). His poems may be read in Image, 32 Poems, the Yale Review, and many other journals, and his prose appears in World Literature Today, Books and Culture, and First Things. He teaches literature and creative writing at Oklahoma Baptist University, where he is the Crouch-Mathis Professor of Literature

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