By Luci Shaw
97 pp. $18
Whenever Luci Shaw puts together a new poetry collection it's like a drink of cool, fresh water for a thirsty land — the "land" being the artistic community within the evangelical church. Evangelicals do not have a glorious heritage when it comes to the arts. We have been suspicious of whatever can't be nailed down; we produce charts and diagrams to explain the Book of Revelation, depend on commentaries to understand the parables, and trust systematic theologies to be sure God behaves himself.
Luci Shaw has long been a voice crying in this evangelical wilderness. Hers is evangelical, but not evangelistic, poetry. She is not attempting to win arguments but simply to shine light upon the truth in the world around us.
Her previous collection, The Green Earth: Poems of Creation, thematically points to the natural world, and through it shows God's hand. This new book focuses on water in its diverse forms — raindrops, snowflakes, fog, cloud, dew, ice, mountain glaciers, creeks, lakes, oceans, "bathtub water scrolling down the drain," and even the spittle of Christ. Geographically she takes us with her from Cape Cod's Atlantic to British Columbia's Pacific coast; from cool Colorado mountain streams to the insect heat of Texas; and from snorkelling in the Bahamas to the rough, rocky coast of Wales.
Some of the poetry here has appeared in earlier books. Shaw has carefully selected, and in many cases revised, her poems for their appearance in Water Lines. The changes are usually minor (punctuation, line breaks, an occasional word), but they provide a window into the mind of the poet. This reminds me of what French writer Paul Valéry once said: "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." Here Luci Shaw picks up again some of the fine gems she has scattered, and polishes them further — similar to the sea's continual polishing of the stones on the beach. One poem from her 1985 book Postcard from the Shore, entitled "Home Movie," has here been updated to be called "Vacation video," using a more-contemporary image.
One of my favorite poems from The Green Earth suitably reappears here, slightly altered. It is called "Raining", and captures the beautiful sights and sounds of a heavy rain:
… Thin ropes
of crystal beads (their shining drops
each singing its own syncopated sound
into the pail we set to catch the drips)
have raised the level so the pitch
climbs higher every hour, in the round
tin bucket, till it's full up to the brim
This is nature poetry that follows the tradition handed down from Wordsworth and Coleridge, through Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Frost. Shaw invites the reader into her world, where we can rest and reflect; her sequence of beachcombing poems, near the end of the book, intelligently shares the leisure of such activity.
Her laundry poem "Evaporation" (notice the water image) reminds me of the whimsical Richard Wilbur poem, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," where he says "Outside the open window / The morning air is all awash with angels." In her poem, Shaw laments the change to an electric dryer:
The air behind the house
is empty of epiphanies, apparitions.
Gone is the iron-fresh smell of damp linens
praying their vapor to the sun.
Prayer, in fact, often finds its way into her lines. In the opening poem she's noticing falling leaves and snow, and rain on window glass: "As if the mystery of existence were becoming / visible." She makes us envision her "small gasps of prayer, / meant to rise, not fall." Elsewhere she compares great blue herons to "gray praying prophets, heralds / of something Other." Another poem begins with the poet and her friend (writer Madeleine L'Engle) in a cathedral chapel: "Both of us kneel, then wait."
Luci Shaw feels neither a pressure to rhyme, nor the contrasting conformity of abstaining from rhyme. In one poem she will let the rhymes tumble over each other in a forward momentum, unbound by formal rhythm, but more often she is bound only by tight language and well-chosen words.
Her faith comes through in many poems, not in a didactic way, but in a natural flow, similar to the streams she is watching. Her poem entitled "Faith" begins, "Spring is a promise / in the closed fist of a long winter." Sometimes she is filled with questions: "The telephone is silent; God doesn't return / my calls." Sometimes she is filled with wonder: "Even his silence / breathes life into you, a golden sigh as fresh / as Eden."
This is evangelical poetry indeed — part of our new, glorious heritage.
D.S. Martin is a Canadian poet and writer. His poetry has appeared in magazines and journals such as The Christian Century, Christianity & Literature, First Things, and Mars Hill Review (email@example.com).
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Water Lines is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information about Luci Shaw is available on her web site.
Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
Faith, Hope, and Charity in North Carolina | New novels by Michael Morris—whose first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was a word-of-mouth hit— and Jan Karon, who continues her beloved Mitford saga. (Nov. 17, 2003)
Remember Afghanistan? | Two inside reports. (Nov. 10, 2003)
The Troubled Conscience of a Founding Father | An Imperfect God examines George Washington and slavery. (Oct. 27, 2003)
The Year of the Fish | The 2003 baseball season concludes with a bang—and 2004 is just around the corner. (Oct. 27, 2003)
I Shop, Therefore I Am | Critics of "consumer culture" are all wet, Virginia Postrel says. The riot of choices available to us resonates with our deepest aesthetic instincts (Oct. 20, 2003)
Back to the Future | A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.) (Oct. 13, 2003)
Poetry, Prayer, and Parable | The playful provocations of Scott Cairns (Oct. 06, 2003)
Terrorists on Trial | How the nation responded to an earlier attack. (Sept. 29, 2003)
The Contemplative Christian | Eugene Peterson calls believers to a life lived with "wholeness, honesty, without contrivance"-against the grain of much that's currently driving the church in America. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Recalling California | Want to understand what's going on in the Golden State? Toss your newsmagazines and pick up Joan Didion's new book (Sept. 22, 2003)
The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (Aug. 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)