Wonder and Grief: Review of A Thousand Vessels, by Tania Runyan

Wonder and Grief: Review of A Thousand Vessels, by Tania Runyan

April 07, 2013

by Crystal Hadidian
Review of A Thousand Vessels, By Tania Runyan (WordFarm, 2012)
When I opened Tania Runyan's poetry collection A Thousand Vessels, I saw the table of contents and feared that organizing the manuscript around women in the Bible was just a structural gimmick. I could not have been more wrong. There is not a single thing in this collection of 46 poems that lacks intention, sincerity and care. It is possible that my jaw was hanging open throughout the entire experience of reading this book.

In A Thousand Vessels, the reader is introduced to women who are full of wonder and grief, who wrestle with wonder and grief—women who wait and persevere following the example of the natural world's persistence and struggle. Runyan combines carefully crafted narratives and powerful imagery with astonishing insight to create a cohesive collection that both questions and honors the ancient and contemporary female experience.

The book opens with a section titled “Eve” and a poem titled “Genesis.”  However, in the first line we learn that the setting is “the burbs.” Alliteration never felt so lovely as when the speaker observes, "Sunlight spills across slick granite signs." She reflects on the intersection of nature and manmade constructions, acknowledging,

Yes, I have been fooled.

My heart believes something wild

will come of this freshly dug pond.

But what if this place became itself again –

tangle of switch grass, cattails, and blazing star

hissing and bellowing with edge?

Could I survive the terror of waking first?

Could I touch, cut a path, and name?

Here the speaker expresses a desire to return to an original, more authentic state – both more pure and wild – elevating the idea of an untouched environment. She questions her capacity for bravery and courage, alluding to an imagined role reversal with Adam and his experience of being the first human. The literary tradition of naming our experiences is connected back to Genesis, as if it were rooted in the task of naming the animals.

This first poem sets up the tone towards men that is maintained throughout the text. Men are not necessarily blamed as the victimizing Other any more than the Self or God is accused. There are few men in this book, but although some are perpetrators, others allow themselves to be silenced by the presence of a courageous woman, as in "After the Well."  This poem describes the transformation of the infamous Woman at the Well:

And her hair was no longer

just a tangle of steamy pleasure,

but spread across her back

like a stand of cedar trees.

The men couldn't speak.

The transformation is reflected in the description of her hair which transitions from the vulnerable confusion of “tangle” to the solid clarity and confidence of "cedar trees." The men in the community are silenced. The Woman at the Well is described in physical detail, but her body and her body language reek of purity and strength as she reclaims her beauty and gathers the other outcast women. They follow her and watch “her faded blue dress / swept before them / like the holy sky.” Instead of being only a sexual object in the male gaze, she becomes a symbol of hope for the other women.

This is not a retelling of biblical stories that hinges on shock or rebellion, but instead it is grounded in the power of insight and subtlety. Women from the past and present experience the conflict of both a consuming ache for the sacred and a keen desire to hide from the divine light that accompanies such intimacy. The language bubbles, alternating between tenderness, intensity and restraint. Runyan effectively does something in A Thousand Vessels that is very hard to do well, something I deeply admire: to question God and history in the context of faith, fearlessness and intimacy.

Women are depicted as both desperate and resilient as a thread of longing weaves through each poem. The concluding poem, “The Empty Tomb,” describes the moments just after Jesus’ resurrection in John 20. Both the angels and the reader are surprised by language, surprised by the honoring of a woman. The book ends confirming the power of words and the power of naming by connecting the resurrection of Jesus to a shift in the role of women.

It is as if this poem is a response to an earlier poem that states resentfully, “God creates women for no reason / but grief. He can’t cry himself / and needs a thousand vessels for his tears.” But, here, one women’s grief is honored as purposeful and powerful, as Jesus speaks to her, she “who for a moment / held the souls of the nations like a basket of figs.”

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