A Longing toward Action
By Jeffrey Johnson
In a 1992 interview, the poet Jorie Graham said that poets today need to “recover the big hunger.” Literary scholars might have heard this as a formal ambition: a call to match the scope of the art of the giants of previous generations. But readers of her most recent book, Overlord, might well decide that what Graham means by “big hunger” is the kind that Jesus had in mind when he said to his disciples, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . .” (Matthew 5:6)
These poems by Graham—a preface relates that the title recalls Operation Overlord, which included the D-Day landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944—face and stir questions of old wars and new, of distance and immediacy, of withdrawal and engagement, and of carelessness and concern between nations and between peoples, and between God and nations and peoples. Her lines are infused with spirituality, and seem to be oriented toward an ethic of principled action in the world, an ethic that would close the distance between confession and service.
The first line of the book’s first poem, “Other,” contemplates a fully awake, engaged attention to things, an immediacy of experience, a situation in which religious praise and poetry can flow forth: “For a long time I used to love the word now.” The problem set in this first poem, though, is the fact of drifting from a sharp, clear existence in the now. As God “retreats,” moral vision and ethical vigor wane. Walls of one kind or another fence us in, along with our kind and our God, and fence others out; ethical conduct, loving stewardship, attention to the now of existence is reduced.
But the “Praying” poems, each with an accompanying date, are also records of attempts at being present as a citizen of the United States with a remembered European history and a felt responsibility to be actively involved in the events of life. This struggle for engagement with God and with the world means, among other things, being aware of one’s body (the poems record the prayer’s body positions and times of day) and of one’s own pain at being alive in a bro-ken world. The “Praying” poems are ecclesiastically unrefined and emotionally raw. They are, however, personal records of straining for integration along lines that the Christian faith should properly promote: forgiveness, healing of the body and heart, and justice.
Jeffrey Johnson is a Lutheran pastor in Wayland, Massachusetts, and a Harvard Divinity School field-work supervisor. He is the author of Acquainted with the Night: The Shadow of Death in Contemporary Poetry (Cowley), and the forthcoming Harbors of Heaven: The Places We Love.