by Nicola Slee
from Signs of the Times No. 68 - Jan 2018

This is a blockbuster of an anthology of contemporary poems about the quest for God. Some 460 pages long, the range of authors, topics, poetic styles and approaches is vast.

It has been an exhausting as well as eclectic read, full of surprises as well as some frustrations (the lack of any kind of editorial organisation of the material is a major limitation to its usefulness).

Whilst it is not strictly true that this anthology is ‘the first of its kind’ (I have an entire shelf of anthologies of religious/spiritual verse), this does not mean there is not room for another. Many of the poets who appear in this volume are new, younger writers who do not appear in previous anthologies. They sit alongside well-established poets such as Philip Gross, Mimi Khalvati, Michael Schmidt, Myra Schneider and Michael Symmons Roberts, as well as poet-priests David Scott and Rowan Williams.

Perhaps what is distinctive about this collection, in contrast to earlier anthologies of religious verse, is its dominant tone. There is an avowedly agnostic, secular and questioning stance which is very far from traditional piety. If these are poems of faith, it is faith of a dark, apophatic kind, celebrating unknowing and denial (there are poems ‘For the atheist’, ‘An atheist’s prayer’ as well as ‘Agnostic evensong’ and, simply, ‘I do not know’). If God is present, S/he largely hides herself in absence or in multiple degrees of strangeness. This is a god of the fissures and edges, a god of the cultural wilderness made of discarded certainties, whether of the self, the state or metaphysical systems.

Could God be silence, after all?

muses Murray Bodo (p. 74),

the one with the message I cannot hear

as Kathryn Maris puts it (p. 278), whilst Stephanie Bolster wonders (p. 76) if home is

the place you long for just before you leave

Charlene Fix (p. 159) suggests:

You can forget about
the Big Man, but there are lots
of Lesser Authorities

Ewan Fernie’s introduction surveys this spiritual landscape well.  There is widespread cynicism about institutional religion, with its liturgy and creeds:

Every true religion is bound to fail

as the title of Charles Bernstein’s poem has it. Where the poems describe mystical or religious experience (and some do), they affirm a decidedly this-worldly spirituality of the flesh, of the mundane and even banal everyday encounter. Thus, instead of Christ, the poet Shaindel Beers chooses ‘the mountains, the rivers’ (p. 58), whilst Carmen Calatayud asserts in a rare tone of certitude (p. 98):

Everybody’s baptized
by the sun and that is all

Sally Ito (p. 220) will have nothing of

the silly, fool emotions
a god is said to inspire

yet will offer

praise for the creature,
whole and without blemish,
praise for the one who needs no sacrifice.

Above all, poetry itself is affirmed as the locus of faith, the site of endlessly renewed epiphany, where symbols are broken open and new meanings revealed, where the covenant with language is refreshed. Thus, Cal Freeman’s ‘Epistle to Donne’ (p. 167) ends:

Poems do not decay like harrowed
congregants; they are disembodied
agues at rapture

Dora E. McQuid’s narrative poem tells of how the poet is forbidden by the Catholic priest to speak at her father’s funeral mass:

You are not a practicing Catholic.
You may not speak in the house of God.

Instead, she reads the poem she has written for her father at his graveside, two days’ later. The poem ends with words which celebrate the work of poetry and may sum up what this weighty, unwieldy anthology offers its readers (p. 298):

To this, I say:
I am the house of god.
We all are, each one of us.
And my speaking, using this voice
 that God gave me, is memory of that.

Nicola Slee is a poet and theologian, and a lay Anglican. She is Director of Research at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, and Professor of Feminist Practical Theology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.