Mending a Tattered Faith

by Guest Blogger December 02, 2011

Review of Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson, by Susan VanZanten (Cascade Books, 2011)
Reviewed by Paul Delaney This review first appeared in Issue 22: Up in the Air. [W]riting to family and friends, Emily Dickinson would often copy out by hand one of her poems, sometimes adapted just for that occasion. The poem enclosed with a letter (sometimes accompanied by a flower or a loaf of bread) was offered as a word of solace or delight. The poet who shunned publication as “the Auction / Of the Mind” nevertheless remained active in correspondence, circulating her poems as “a vital part of the commerce of friendship” as one biographer puts it. Over the past century Dickinson has been hailed one of the greatest poetic voices of all time, and her work is now the subject of countless critical studies and scholarly tomes. In Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson, Susan VanZanten returns the poems to the realm of the personal. VanZanten is a formidable scholar in her three volumes—and many critical articles—on South African literature. But this slender volume seems more like a gift. I could imagine including it with a flower or a loaf of bread for a frayed friend who might be mended as much by words or meditation as by other forms of nourishment. Out of Dickinson’s astounding output of some 1,800 poems, VanZanten chooses just twenty-nine that she invites her reader to ponder. Some are well-known, frequently anthologized choices and some, at least to me, are wholly new. In a twenty-page introduction to Dickinson’s cultural and religious context, VanZanten invites you to first read the Dickinson poem aloud, then read it silently, sit with the poem and think about it, and perhaps even write about the questions it raises and the way it speaks to you. In effect VanZanten encourages readers to take a lectio divina approach, allowing the poem to bud and blossom not just in the imagination but in the spirit, letting deep speak to deep. VanZanten certainly does not treat Dickinson’s poetry as holy writ, or even seek to minimize Dickinson’s vacillation between belief and doubt. But Dickinson pondered the biggest questions of faith, and VanZanten repeatedly shows how the poems offer occasions for readers to meditate on matters that touch eternity. After giving the full text of the poem, she includes an italicized question for mental or written reflection “if you wish to use it,” and then offers a page or two of her own illuminating commentary or meditation on the poem. VanZanten’s approach is disarmingly casual, bracingly direct, yet shot through with discerning wisdom. Even her one-sentence prompts are incisive. When I first read “An altered look about the hills—,” I didn’t see that the poem was about spring or understand how Dickinson’s capitalized reference to “Nicodemus’ Mystery” pertained to the rest of the poem. VanZanten’s prompt gets right to the heart of the matter: “What is the relationship of the coming of spring and Nicodemus’ question in John 3, ‘How can a person be born again?’” The poem points to a number of signs of spring and says we would recognize many more. VanZanten regards the poet as courteously implying “that I know this as well as she does, but if I am honest, I must admit that I need her assistance.” Well, if I am honest, I must acknowledge my gratitude not just for VanZanten’s explanation of obscure references to “Tyrian purple” but for showing how the mystery of natural regeneration points the way toward the mystery of spiritual regeneration. After reading VanZanten, I’ll never encounter a Dickinson line about an “altered look” without considering how an echo of “altar” resonates in Dickinson’s use of “alter.” VanZanten is so insightful that I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt when occasionally an analogy seems a bit tenuous. According to VanZanten, the “axe shrill singing in the woods” must be a woodpecker because the roads are “untravelled.” That’s what she says—no human can be in a forest that has “untravelled roads.” Of course, that same line of reasoning would mean that Dickinson herself could not be present (except perhaps telepathically) to smell the “Fern odors on untravelled roads—.” As a literary scholar, VanZanten has examined Dickinson’s handwritten versions of poems on microfilm and microfiche and can vouch that Dickinson wrote an “e” rather than an “a” in a word that might be “spacious” or “specious.” She explains what it means to “con” a subject or to be “unshriven,” words that might have been familiar to a Shakespearean audience but are less so today. And she has a keen ear for biblical allusion. When Dickinson puts single words such as “consider” or “sparrow” in quotation marks, VanZanten unerringly points us to the scriptural passage the poet invokes. She shows how frequently Dickinson goes back to David in the Psalms, or to the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount, and other words of Jesus. But VanZanten also cites Dickinson’s allusions to Paul and Silas in Philippi and other scriptural passages from Genesis to The Revelation of St. John the Divine. More surprising to me is her ability to quote the precise Isaac Watts hymn that Dickinson appropriates in “Where bells no more affright the morn—.” She even has a wealth of biographical details which she deploys concisely and precisely. If Dickinson conceives of heaven as a place where “Not Father’s bells—nor Factories— / Could scare us any more!” VanZanten can tell us when steam whistles at straw-hat factories in Amherst would roust workers—and other sleepers—out of bed each morning. But VanZanten wears her learning lightly. Her meditations are replete with details that are far more personal than scholarly. We learn that she’s a night owl who likes to get up after ten, that she’s self-conscious about freckles, that as a child in the early 60’s she was fascinated by Queen for a Day on daytime television, that she grew up on an azalea nursery where she had first-hand experience of the destructive power of frost. But what comes through even more forcefully is VanZanten’s acknowledgment that she identifies with the questions Dickinson asks, even when they spring from anguish, from anger, from affliction. She journeys with Dickinson, asking the hard questions where the answers are not assured. She even—and this, to my mind, reveals the most telling humility—writes about poems she confesses she does not understand. After bringing Matthew and Psalms to bear on “I think just how my shape will rise—,” after explaining the theological point that in Jesus’ account of the sparrow “God does not stop the bird from falling on the ground; rather God is with the bird as it falls,” after wistfully telling us she doesn’t just want assurance of God’s knowledge but wants God to intervene to prevent her from falling, VanZanten confesses: “I can’t ultimately figure out this poem and read it in such a way as to make consistent sense.” When did you last hear a scholar offer such a frank admission of not being able to figure something out? “But,” VanZanten continues, “I do know that some of its painful questions echo questions I have felt. I understand the anguish and the anger.” VanZanten’s brutal honesty about the limits of her insight inspires my confidence in all that she reports that she can see. If she says the “axe shrill singing in the woods” “has to be a bird!” well, maybe it is. But Mending a Tattered Faith is not ultimately about figuring out poems. The poems just provide an occasion for figuring out our lives, our anguish, our anger, our response to the questions that will endure as long as “This World is not conclusion.” VanZanten’s unvarnished acknowledgment of anguish and anger makes her book a safe place to go beyond platitudes and examine painful places in ourselves. She has the wisdom to acknowledge that such mystery “puzzles scholars.” But when she finds “testimony of faith” in some poems, I believe her. VanZanten is even willing to dispute with a poem, to take Dickinson to task on occasion. She finds the voice in “To lose One’s faith” to be “too rigid, too simplistic” and she’s not afraid to say so. The point, over and over again, is not just to figure out poems but to ponder the hard questions. So who is this book for? Well, it’s for anyone who finds in words a means of approaching the Word. It’s for anyone who cares about Dickinson’s poetry—or who has been intimidated or baffled by Dickinson—and wants to journey with her. It’s a book for anyone wrestling with doubts or enduring tough times. It’s a book for people of faith and a book for people of doubt. Reading this book I thought multiple times about a former student who reluctantly confessed to her community of faith her sense of isolation, her fear of death, her doubts regarding the divine. Mending a Tattered Faith offers a voice I think that former student might be able to hear. So I commend the book not just as one you will want to have for yourself, but as one you might wish to give to someone you know. Send it with a flower or a loaf of bread. --- Read Issue 22: Up in the Air. At Westmont College, Paul Delaney teaches American literature, contemporary drama, Irish literature and Shakespeare. He takes Westmont students to plays throughout southern California and (every other year or so) the British Isles. He is the author of Tom Stoppard: the Moral Vision of the Major Plays (London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s Press). Tom Stoppard in Conversation, which he edited, was the first of several volumes of interviews with playwrights published by the University of Michigan Press, a series to which he has also contributed Brian Friel in Conversation.


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