Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Book Review: Paper Cathedrals (2001) by Morri Creech

Since my undergraduate college days, I’ve been enamored by intersections between art/literature and Christianity. It’s especially powerful when, whatever the medium, the artist/writer avoids being preachy or maudlin and succeeds in engaging Christian motifs in a strikingly thought provoking way. In Morri Creech’s poetry collection Paper Cathedrals, I discovered exactly that kind of stimulating engagement with biblical materials.

In “Honey and John the Baptist,” Creech imagines an internal monologue for John the Baptist. John has completed his preordained purpose of preparing the way for Lord and simply waits in a state of purposelessness:

. . . the crowds had gone,
what work was I left to do,
having set it all in motion, . . .

No longer the chosen . . .

Creech’s poems often probe those afterward and in-between moments of New Testament events, the Bible’s “deleted scenes.” These are shown to be moments of weakness, sorrow, and/or regrets.

In his impotency, John the Baptist reflects not only on his own coming death, but also on the temptations and coming death of Jesus:

And weren’t the long beams of the cross
already hewn from the tree,
Salome’s young thighs
ripening toward the dance
as I ate of the honey,
as I tasted the scald of bees
drowned in the chambered sweetness
of their own making?

Not all the poems here are biblically based. Several are responses to photographs and a few seem to be familial poems. However, the most stirring and even somewhat disturbing poems are those written from the point of view of Judas, the betrayer.

Creech’s poems give us a hugely sympathetic Judas, a disciple in love with his master, devoted, and intimately a part of the inner circle. Vividly the poems retell familiar scenes which are made new through showing them from Judas’ point of view alone. There’s an added dimension of pain when we know in advance that the speaker is headed toward betrayal and destruction.

Without a doubt, the most striking poem of the collection is one entitled, “The Room Reserved for Judas” where Creech imagines in acute detail the living quarters that were set aside for Judas in heaven but were never claimed.

There are no pictures arranged
on the mantelpiece, no flowers pressed
in the pages of the a family Bible. The door
remains numberless. . .

Yet even there, in the far corner of the kingdom,
one can still hear God’s loud voice
and the trumpets of mercy . . .

As the heavenly sounds penetrate this empty room, the poem conveys a haunting sadness of loss and disappointment. One of God’s children, chosen by Jesus to be his disciple has fallen away. He will never come into his inheritance. It’s a chilling poem.

Paper Cathedrals is an astounding collection.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Review: Barnstomer in Oz (1982) by Philip Jose Farmer

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a World War I veteran accidentally found himself in the land of Oz just as Oz was entering a major war itself? I doubt you ever have, but if you had this book (set in 1923) answers that question with much bloody gusto. In addition to the quite unexpected violence, there’s decidedly adult sexual situations as well, establishing this Oz book as “for grown-ups only.”

The main character, war veteran and pilot, Hank Stover is the son of Dorothy. He knows of Oz through his mother’s stories and the books of L. Frank Baum. But we quickly learn that Baum took liberties with the story he was told by young Dorothy and that all the books following the Wizard of Oz were entirely fabricated from Baum’s imagination. Through Hank, Farmer takes the pose that he is giving us the ‘real’ Oz, including speculations on how Oz and our Earth were once linked.

There’s the suggestion that much like the land bridge that once connected Asia to Alaska, allowing people to walk across to the yet to be called ‘new world’, humans and animals from our world crossed over to Oz and were forever changed.

Hank is also shown to be philosophical about how inanimate forms could take on life. Where did the ‘life’ come from? How does it sustain itself in the Scarecrow or the Tin Woodsman?

What was the thing that made the Scarecrow a living continuum? He believed that there was something that made up the Scarecrow and which inhabited his clothes, boots, and head-sack. Was it some kind of energy configuration? A tightly contained invisible complex of electromagnetism? Or some other kind of energy? A combination of e.m. energy and some unknown energy? (85)

Overall, I found this book to be a swift, adventure filled read. The familiar characters were re-made in fresh and surprising ways, particularly Glinda, and the new characters were oddly fascinating. I especially enjoyed the conflict between isolationistic Glinda and the colonistic U.S. government. In particular, I found her mystical attack and assassination of President Harding to be weirdly imaginative and captivating.

My only complaint is that the last quarter of the book felt awfully rushed. In the “Author’s Notes,” Farmer mentions cuts he had to make due to length considerations. I wasn’t surprised to learn of this. It felt as if scenes were missing or deleted, and the pace gave the impression of huge time gaps in the narrative. If Farmer’s original intentions had been included, I’m sure this book would’ve benefited. Maybe I just didn’t want it to end so soon.