Review: Tania Runyan's Second Sky

Review: Tania Runyan's Second Sky

April 03, 2015

Reviewed by Katie Shara

In her book A Journey with Two Maps, Irish poet Eavan Boland asks, “When had poetry made that troublesome investment in separating the ordinary world—the small universe of the cup, the open door, the room—from the epic world of violence and civil struggle?” With Second Sky (Cascade Books, 2014), Tania Runyan joins the likes of Boland, Sylvia Plath, and other poets who affirm the power of the everyday in their work.

Runyan constructs a bridge from the ordinary world of family road trips and canker sores to the Apostle Paul’s world of journeys to Damascus, burying oneself with Christ, and bearing fruit in the midst of suffering. She endows every moment with potential for the events of Paul’s life and his writings to find a foothold in her own.

There is no separation between the world of Runyan’s thoughts and her exterior world. She delights in and shares with readers the moments when the sacred interrupts the profane and transforms it into something completely new. She sees something or reads about an event in the news and responds in prayer:

I try to fight my imagining mind:

. .  . . . .

I pray that I can unclench and love,

find the mysteries of the Spirit

in swaths of black ice, the arms

of Christ in the muscled mounds of snow. (“Setting My Mind”)

Another moment of happy interruption is in the final stanza of “No One Can Boast,” in which the speaker notices signs of spring after the hardships of winter. The speaker’s breath slows to sound like the syllables “Yah, weh,” and she reflects,

                                                 I didn’t work

at this joy. It just appeared in the splash

and shine of I-94, as suddenly as these Frisbees

and sand buckets in the roadside yards

laid bare by the shrinking snow.

In Second Sky, Runyan is more heavy-hearted than in her previous work. These poems reflect a deep sense of discontentment with living in a broken world. She recognizes the moments when prayers and words fail us. In “Groanings Too Deep For Words,” the speaker seeks solace from reading about a “newborn / found in the fast food dumpster,” overhearing her verbally abusive neighbor, and stepping on a Lego with bare feet—seeks it by digging in the garden. Rather than trying to find the right words to assuage her anger, she grabs a spade and plunges “the cold steel into the earth.”

This action is both a protest and a prayer. Even the seasons in which her poems are set—predominantly winter and spring—reflect a sense of desperation and longing for new life. Runyan’s ability to create a symbiosis between image or action and thought or prayer, however, keeps her melancholy in Second Sky from being hopeless. Poem after poem finds image and meaning fitting together like a key in a lock.

When I was asked to review Second Sky, I had just written my own poem about Paul and his conversion on the road to Damascus. This wasn’t a complete coincidence—I had just read Runyan’s second full book of poems, A Thousand Vessels, in which she intertwines her world with those of Eve, Sarah, Mary, and other women from the Bible.

I felt I had discovered a new genre: poetry that is both a spiritual and creative exercise. But I have never particularly identified with the women in the Bible. Paul, on the other hand, always seemed more available. He was like the kid from the wrong side of the tracks of the early church. But he became a minister to the Gentiles; he knew about being an unlikely recipient of grace and an unlikely messenger of truth. I have always wanted to have the kind of faith and courage Paul’s life required, to say, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” and to mean it.

Paul’s story is important for Runyan as well. But as beautifully as she imagines first-century Palestine, and as much as she finds Paul able to articulate feelings she cannot, she does not try to over-glorify her circumstances or over-romanticize Paul’s.

                  My body doesn’t cling

to Philippian prison bars

or risk martyrdom

but saunters through the valley

of the shadow of ease. (“The Road to Damascus”)

Thankfully, Runyan realizes that no one’s road to Damascus looks exactly the same and that, often, encountering God in the ease of the twenty-first century takes just as much guts and faith as it did amidst persecution in the first. Second Sky (Cascade Books, 2014)
  Katie Shara is a recent graduate of Westmont College where she studied English and completed a poetry tutorial her senior year. She was born and raised in Santa Barbara and transferred to Westmont after an attempted transplant to the Pacific Northwest for her freshman year of college. She has been here ever since. Katie is currently working at a preschool teaching two-year-olds, writing curriculum for toddlers, and growing overwhelmingly convinced that they have more figured out than she ever will.

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