My band, Mining for Rain, has released a new song ostensibly inspired by the great American naturalist, essayist, and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau.
Barbara Egel at Light poetry magazine has written an absolutely delightful review of my 2020 chapbook of poems, The Misuse of Scripture, in the latest Winter/Spring edition of the publication. Light was founded in 1992 by John Mella under the name Light Quarterly, it’s America’s oldest and best-known journal of light verse and they continue to build on John’s mission to “restore humor, clarity, and pleasure to the reading of poems.”
The Review by Barbara Egel
It’s pretty obvious that Daniel Klawitter, a religious brother in the order of St. Luke, does not fit the clerical stereotype. His book fails spectacularly (and I mean that in a good way) at modesty, abstemiousness, overt piety, and the kind of performative humility that masks intellectual laziness or lack of imagination. The poems here—each inspired by a specific Bible verse—use humor as a form of agape, painting the Bible’s authors as humans with a sense of the absurd and with faith that God can take a joke. Certainly, the poems don’t always—or often—go in the direction their epigraphical scriptures might suggest. “Red Stuff” harks back to Genesis: “And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint.” What follows is a list of red things in rhymed couplets, including a “socialist padre” and “that sweater for Christmas with its horrid design.” Klawitter’s irreverence surfaces midway through the poem when he rhymes “precious red rubies” with “some people’s boobies.” That womanizer Jacob might have been a fan, but it’s certainly not what the reader expects. Similarly, the verse from Mark, chapter 14 about taking up serpents and drinking poison results in “The Small-Town Drunk Goes Church Shopping,” which ends with the lines,
But them Pentecostals take their religion
The way I often make my whisky:
Volatile, risky, and hard.
The rhyme technique Klawitter uses in those last two lines—an end-rhyme matching a word midway through an adjacent line—appears throughout the book and is surprisingly not disruptive. The reading ear places the words easily while the eye plunges forward.
Part of the pleasure of this book is realizing how bizarre some Bible quotes are when taken out of context. Klawitter does treat some of the more famous verses, as in “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” but often his attention is captured by verses that, in the Bible, feel like exposition on the way to a revelatory plot point, or that are simply not in the stories that permeate our culture. For example, the verse from Ezekiel about the prostitute, Oholibah, lusting after men “whose genitals were like those of donkeys” isn’t in the Sunday School curriculum, but it yields a wonderful poem, “Yes, But Does He Write You Poetry?” whose speaker feels a bit insecure about his endowments.
The more serious poems in the book are striking, especially in contrast to their lighter mates. Inspired by Proverbs, the sonnet “In Sickness and in Health” depicts its speaker’s longing to take away a loved one’s pain.
But love, though under duress, is never destitute.
Even in the face of hell it hopes for paradise.
Even in purgatory it yearns for heaven:
Even in this hospital, that burns like Armageddon.
Theologically, The Misuse of Scripture lies somewhere between the Talmud scholars and Chesterton’s Father Brown. Poetically, it is a rewarding book: engaging light verse that makes you think about what the Bible’s many authors might have really meant.
First published in 1995, Imperial Leather by professor Anne McClintock has become a modern classic in feminist and postcolonial studies. I first read it in 2001 and still find her analysis of the race-gender-class “triplet” to be highly convincing and informative. She characterizes these social categories as being in a relationship of “intimate interdependence” (p. 61), and at the same time denies that they are “structurally equivalent of each other.” (ibid). Rather than granting any one category of the triplet a general primacy, she provides evidence that they influence each other in ways that are not always obvious. McClintock dishes up an illuminating amount of data to prove her thesis that: “A triangulated, switchboard analogy thus emerged between race, class and gender deviance as a critical element in the formation of the modern, imperial imagination.” (p. 56). Reading her book, one has the impression that some mystical event is going on before your very eyes…so magically does she strip away the layers of imperial discourse that you are left feeling that you have just experienced an epiphany of revelation. I would like to look first at some of McClintock’s examples of the connections between gender, race and class. I will conclude, however, with one particular criticism concerning her historical example of one person’s cross-dressing as a subversive activity.
The beginning of Imperial Leather brilliantly exposes the fascinating psychological conflicts exhibited by Europeans during the era of exploration and conquest and reveals the influence of science and sex fantasies on the European imagination during the time of first contact with indigenous peoples. For example, the dominant Western-scientific paradigm combined with patriarchy to view exploration and “discovery” as a highly sexualized endeavor. The interior of previously unknown lands were “penetrated” and their treasures “opened.” These new lands were also incorporated into what McClintock calls a “porno-tropic” tradition of map making in which “knowledge of the unknown world was mapped as a metaphysics of gender violence…In these fantasies, the world is feminized and spatially spread for male exploration, then reassembled and deployed in the interests of massive imperial power.” (p. 22-23). Thus, the connection between gender and economic/military imperialism is laid bare and made explicit. Using a drawing by Jan van Straet from 1575, McClintock proves how embedded the sexual discourse of imperialism was from the very beginning. Depicted in the drawing is the fully clothed explorer Vespucci, holding all the technical instruments of European power, and before him is a naked female extending her hand. In the background are native people engaged in cannibalism. McClintock deconstructs this drawing with great insight, remarking that:
As in many imperial scenes, the fear of engulfment expresses itself most acutely in the cannibal trope. In this familiar trope, the fear of being engulfed by the unknown is projected onto colonized people as their determination to devour the intruder whole…However, the implosive anxieties suggested by the cannibal trope were just as often warded off by fantastical rites of imperial violence. (p. 27)
We hear echoes at this point in the book of Freud’s “castration anxiety” theory being applied to European explorers in general. Indeed, it is the use of psychological concepts that, in no small measure, make McClintock’s book such a thought-provoking read. Thankfully though, MClintock does not suggest that it was a fear of cannibalism that caused the conquest of indigenous peoples! Although her focus is on women as “imperial boundary markers” in the male imagination, she explicitly states that: “the feminizing of terra incognita was, from the outset, a strategy of violent containment—belonging to the realm of psychoanalysis AND (emphasis mine) political economy.” (p. 24). I would have preferred she had made political economy a bit more primary as it relates to imperial conquest, but perhaps the fact is obvious enough. As Ward Churchill has said of another European explorer: “Columbus did not sally forth upon the Atlantic for reasons of ‘neutral science’ or altruism. He went, as his own diaries, reports, and letters make clear, fully expecting to encounter wealth belonging to others.” (Since Predator Came, p. 15). Yet, as McClintock demonstrates, the wealth of others including plundering the sexuality of native women as well.
Later in her book, McClintock teases out the instability of meaning around the concept of race by discussing the Irish. She writes:
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the term ‘race’ was used in shifting and unstable ways, sometimes synonymous with ‘species,’ sometimes with ‘culture,’sometimes with ‘nation,’ sometimes to denote biological ethnicity or sub-groups within national groupings: the English ‘race’ compared, say, with the ‘Irish’ race. (p. 52).
Again, McClintock presents us with a visual aid for analysis. We are shown a British cartoon in which the Irish are given ape-like features in order to suggest a comparison with Africans. Furthermore, the home of the Irish man and woman is depicted as being in a state of disarray. This becomes what McClintock labels “the iconography of domestic degeneracy.” The notion of “unclean” ethnic groups is used by the dominant classes to distinguish among whites who are of the same skin color as their oppressors. Thus, concludes McClintock, “The notion of race was used to invent distinctions between what we would now call classes.” (p. 54). In addition, as groups of male workers began to express proletarian consciousness and solidarity in the late nineteenth century, the Victorian ruling classes were forced to deal with their own fear of insurrection:
Images of female violence suffuse the image of the crowd, despite the fact that the unruly urban crowds were predominantly male. Male crowd behavior, it was held, mimicked social behavior that was typical of women. Tarde, for one, saw the crowd’s ‘fickleness,’ its revolting ‘docility,’ its ‘gullibility’ and its ‘nervousness’ as definitively female…By feminizing the masculine crowd, the language of gender became a regulatory discourse for the management of class. (p. 119).
I find these examples that McClintock employs to be quite supportive of her thesis that race, gender, and class all exist in a lascivious relationship with each other. That is, one may find all three in bed together at any one moment and in a variety of “positions.” Yet some clarity is needed here. Sometimes one part of the race-gender-class triplet initiates the circle of oppression with the other two as active co-participants. This does not mean that the other factors are less important, only that they may not be the primary origin of a particular historical circumstance. And it does seem to me that McClintock comes close to obscuring and confusing the nature of class power when she writes on the cross-dressing fetish of Hannah Cullwick.
Hannah Cullwick was a Victorian-era domestic worker who enjoyed cross-dressing as a man. She caught the attention of Arthur Munby, a wealthy philanthropist and photographer, and they were secretly married in 1873. Undoubtedly, McClintock proves that Cullwick controlled her relationship with Mumby by determining when and where she would engage in erotic behavior. Furthermore, Cullwick seems to gain great pleasure from passing as an upper-class person. As McClintock notes: “Over the years, she revealed a remarkable capacity for adopting different social identities and costumes at will.” (p. 173). Psychic pleasure in cross-dressing is one thing, but McClintock seems to me to go a tad too far when she suggests that Cullwick’s cross-dressing “amounted to a sustained attempt to negotiate the perils attending the Victorian erasure of women’s work.” (p. 174). I mean, maybe? But besides Cullwick’s relationship with Mumby himself, I see no compelling evidence that members of the Victorian ruling class were interested in “negotiating” with Cullwick about her class or gender identity. Just because one dresses as a person of power or privilege does not change the material conditions of society. I am reminded here of the statement by Joanne Naiman who writes in “Left Feminism and The Return to Class” that: “Marxists see power as being centered in the external, material world, rather than simply in people’s heads. Therefore, the complete elimination of its internalized form will be impossible until power inequities within society are first removed.” (p. 17). Yet McClintock seems satisfied with the claim that “Cullwick celebrated the peculiar freedoms of ambiguity rather than one fixed identity.” (p. 175). Okay…but this reveling in ambiguity can easily become a particularly postmodern seduction that clouds certain necessary conclusions. I do not doubt that the case of Hannah Cullwick as put forth by McClintock presents us with many interesting contradictions regarding the nature of power and perception. Yet, my ultimate reaction is similar to that of the British literary critic Terry Eagleton who wrote regarding postmodernism in general that:
If someone actually believes that a squabble between two children over a ball is as important as the El Salvador liberation movement, then you simply have to ask whether or not they are joking…the level of food supplies in Mozambique is a weightier issue than the love life of Mick Mouse. To claim that one kind of conflict is more important than another involves, of course, arguing for this priority and being open to disapproval; but nobody actually believes that ‘power is everywhere’ in the sense that any manifestation of it as significant as any other. On this issue, as perhaps many others, nobody is in fact a relativist, whatever they may rhetorically assert.(Ideology, p. 8)
Hannah Cullwick was a working-class woman who surely transgressed role boundaries, but did she actually pose a significant threat to the dominant order of her day? I believe McClintock is right in highlighting Cullwick’s personal agency in her reactions to the Victorian capitalist order, but McClintock possibly goes too far when she suggests that this is something that “throws into question” that dominant order. If all the proletariat in the world today suddenly decided to cross-dress on a sustained basis, confusion might certainly ensue, but capitalism and imperialism would not be fundamentally threatened in the same way as, say, a world-wide general strike of the working classes would. As Mas’ud Zavaradeh puts it: “In the post-al scenario the proletariat is no longer a revolutionary vanguard, but a ‘shopper,’ who daringly consumes objects…deconstructs binaries…and experiences ‘guilty pleasures.’ Social relations of shopping thus replace social relations of production…and role violations, not class struggle, become a dynamic for social change.” (“Post-ality” in Marxism and Postmodernism, p. 46).
John W. May is an insightful, meticulous and careful reviewer of poetry, and he has done me a great honor by reviewing my latest chapbook, The Misuse of Scripture, at his blog Of Poetry, here. There is no satisfaction for a writer quite like a reviewer who illuminates certain aspects of your work that you yourself were barely conscious of when you were composing it.
When me and my band first released this song a few years ago, I was convinced Zooey herself would find out about it and we would be famous for a month or two. It never happened. Still a good song though.
I have never been to Poland, but whenever I think about Poland, two things immediately come to my mind: great sausages and even greater poets.
There are, apparently, four types of Polish sausage: biała kielbasa (white sausage), kiełbasa krakowska (usually served as a cold cut), the thin pork kabanos, and kiełbasa wiejska (farmhouse sausage).
There are also four prominent Polish poets whose works grace my bookshelves: Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, and Zbigniew Herbert. All four of them should be essential reading and they collectively share over 30 literary awards all together, including two Nobel prizes for literature.
Why Poland has been so unlucky in much of its political history from 1945 to 1989, but so very fortunate during the same time period in terms of producing quality sausage and quality poetry is an essay for another day perhaps. For now, let me simply say that just as a good sausage is delicious meat stuffed artfully into a casing, so is a poem delicious words stuffed into a literary form. Mmmmm.
Anyway, I’d like to focus now on just one of the great Polish poets mentioned above, Zbigniew Herbert, since I am currently reading his Collected Prose, 1948-1998. And by the way, if you haven’t read his Collected Poems, you need to, now! His poetry is both richly textured and gorgeously expansive: philosophical, ruminative, tragic and beautiful all at the same time.
But in the book of his Collected Prose, Herbert casually remarks in a conversation with the interviewer: “I think that writers who offer easy entertainment have contempt for their readers.”
Now, Herbert lived through a time of intense political oppression and artistic censorship, and he has a very classical/humanist outlook, so I get why poetry should mostly be a rather “serious” business for him. But I would want to stand up as well for all those writers of so-called “light verse” who yes, also seek to entertain their readers. I myself have been observed by one reviewer to come dangerously close to “riffing just for the sake of riffing” in some of my poems based on epigraphs. And I understand the danger. Light verse always runs the risk of “showing off” by being a mere rhyming performance or descending into vulgarity by courting easy laughs. However, if poetry is meant to be able to embrace any subject and any mood or condition of human experience, then surely it must be able to include humor and even frivolity on occasion.
All I’m saying is one can be a so-called “accessible” poet without having contempt for a reader’s intelligence. For me, accessibility in a poem is really about hospitality. I try to create an atmosphere of welcome so that most readers don’t stop reading before they’ve even started. And perhaps, were he still alive, Herbert would agree with me. Perhaps what he meant by “easy entertainment” is something more specific…a sin of poetic laziness where the promised flavor of the poem falls flat on the palate and ends up as nothing more than empty calories. And I’m sure I’ve written some of those poems too in my lifetime: poems that turn out to be ridiculous little corn dogs instead of a gourmet kiełbasa. But hey…who doesn’t like a good corn dog every now and then?
Thought I’d share my recent review of The Hanging God by poet and professor James Matthew Wilson. The review was originally published in the journal Sacramental Life, volume 32.1, 2020:
By James Matthew Wilson
Angelico Press, 2018.
85 pages, ISBN 978-1-62138-4021
As Dana Gioia observes in his preface to The Hanging God, James Matthew Wilson is a poet who “writes in what one might call the high humanist Christian tradition.” This tradition includes explicitly religious poets like John Donne and George Herbert as well as many more recent 20th and 21st century poets with affinities to the “new formalist” movement in contemporary poetics. However, this is certainly not the currently favored style of poetry for the editors of most magazines and literary journals who tend to prefer various kinds of wildly-wheeling and fractured free verse—an aesthetic that perhaps demonstrates the disjointed nature of our so-called “postmodern” times. But as Gioia points out, the high humanist Christian tradition in poetry “remains a powerful mode, though one difficult to master since it requires historical awareness, linguistic mastery, and intellectual depth.” James Matthew Wilson has all of these gifts and more.
A devout Roman Catholic, Wilson is the Associate Professor of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His recent (2018) book of poems, The Hanging God, is a carefully crafted collection exploring spiritual anxiety and moral/theological issues through a lens that can be brutally non-sentimental. And yet, his use of rhyme and form makes even the starkest of poems enjoyable to read. For example, in the poem “In Sickness,” Wilson assumes the persona of a lover planning to leave their ill partner:
I serve you tea and aspirin,
Your body sweating, fevered, chill.
I wait for you to heal, and, when
You have—I’ll leave for good. I will.
For if our love sprang from my terse
Laugh and peremptory kiss, its passing
Will come more soft and be the nurse
Of an indifference far more lasting.
And there’s a lot more where that came from! In another long sequence of poems, the author examines the dissolution of a love affair between a lapsed catholic and a stripper. These are not Hallmark greeting card poems by any stretch of the imagination. Many (perhaps most) of the poems in this collection are also not strictly religious, but they are all theological in the way Paul Tillich would have understood as expressing “ultimate concern.” Even when Wilson is writing in an ironic or tongue-in-cheek tone, there is almost always something very serious at stake…usually the slow erosion of someone’s immortal soul or at the very least, the degradation of virtue in contemporary society.
Wilson’s book is divided into six different sections, but my favorite set of poems in The Hanging God comes in Part Four: 14 poems reflecting on the Stations of the Cross. The first one, “Jesus Is Condemned”, deserves to be quoted in full:
- Jesus Is Condemned
I tried to think for half an hour
About the face of earthly powers
That would condemn a god to die.
I listened for its menacing cackles,
The crack of whips, the clank of shackles,
And searched for dark flames in the eye.
Through the church window I heard shrieks
Of ambulances whose techniques
Help us to forget our wounds;
The certain hum of homeward motors,
A candidate’s rank appeal to voters,
In these its stare and voice I found.
For we sit kind, when comfort’s here,
But draw our weapons with our fears
Should we one pleasure be denied.
The poem above is a damning indictment of the human tendency to think ourselves better than we actually are during times of ease and plenty. But given even a minor threat to such comforts, we quickly become the crowd calling for the crucifixion of others. Reading Wilson’s book is not unlike the liturgical season of Lent: bracingly bare of glittering distractions or easy amusements and instead focused on lament, penance, and honest self-examination.
Br. Daniel Klawitter works in Admissions and Student Services at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and is the author of six books of poetry, most recently: The Misuse of Scripture (2020).
I am delighted to announce that my book, The Trickster: Poems for Very Clever Children & Silly Adults, has won FIRST PLACE in the 2020 Purple Dragonfly Book Awards. My deep thanks to Robyn Crowell, who illustrated the poems and was an awesome collaborator.
My thanks to Christina for her review over at Poetica Place of my new poetry chapbook , The Misuse of Scripture.
I’m happy to announce that I have independently published a new chapbook of poems entitled— The Misuse of Scripture: twenty-three poems riffing off of verses from the Bible plus a short non-fiction piece about the time I almost died while hiking in the jungle of the Philippines. 14 of the poems have been previously published in respectable journals like Light, Vita Brevis, and Time of Singing: A Christian Literary Magazine. I’ve chosen to self-publish this time around for a variety of reasons, but the primary one is that I can offer the book at a much lower cost to a public not exactly ravenous for purchasing poetry by little-known poets. In terms of content, the book contains both serious and humorous work, covering topics as varied as environmental degradation and homophobia on the one hand and lighter work (like the difference between Episcopal and Pentecostal worship styles) on the other. This blend of the philosophical/serious with more quotidian/light verse fare seems to be a turn-off for many editors who run competitive poetry chapbook contests but it has consistently delighted many of my readers who also happen to be accomplished poets. You can buy the paperback online here if you wish for $6 ($2.99 for the Kindle version). Cheers!