Can an Atheist Write Christian Poems?

Reading between the lines.
April 8 2014 10:33 AM

Devotion

Poems of faith and prayer from a priest, and from an atheist.

Illustration by Rem Broo

Illustration by Rem Broo

Blind, known and read across the continent but no longer able to fulfill his duties or his calling without help, worried that he would never begin, much less complete, the epic poem that awaited him, John Milton wrote a sonnet. Its final line counsels humility in the voice of Patience, whose thundering pentameter sounds downright Miltonic: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The ambivalence is stunning. The same force that slams the door on ambition reasserts Milton’s authority. It’s hard to imagine anyone could stand and wait for long.

The best Christian poems—and much of Christian prayer—tend to wind up in similar places: Failure becomes success; success, failure. We try to turn away from our earthliness, but our prayers embody our appetites. In a time when the double edge of progress cuts so wide and deep, the charged language of prayer can help us register our dividedness in voices that make us whole, whether the author in question is an atheist or a priest.

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Mark Wunderlich, an atheist, sets roughly half the poems in The Earth Avails in the form of prayers, seeking powerful images of our frailty on an Earth that will prove stronger than us, even if we destroy it. And with The Road to Emmaus Spencer Reece, an Episcopal priest, offers pastoral attention to the wounded and discarded of the world—including, frequently, himself.

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For Wunderlich, much of prayer’s dramatic potential plays out in its imperative mood, the way the language of petition wavers between submission and command. In the case of “Dwell in My House,” the tension is especially, but not entirely, erotic:

Build your room inside me, for I do suffer.
When I am sleepless and tally what I have lost,
or when I feel for nodes swelling in my groin,
lay your hand upon my brow and shut the hot lids of my eyes.
When I hurry to lock my door, stay my hand.
When I see my aging, childless body,
bring me back to the company I keep.
All this will be taken from me, this I know.
Author Mark Wunderlich
Author Mark Wunderlich.

Courtesy of Nicholas Kahn

There’s a strange and, for me, compelling mix of poise and exposure running through these lines. It’s interesting to imagine how different they would sound stripped of both their divine audience and the slightly archaic language (“stay my hand”) that audience allows. What feels exposed here might instead feel self-centered; what feels representative might merely feel vain. In prayer, though, he is both humbled and enlarged.

These poems seem to find their images in an older world—one where human technologies were powered by the labor of humans and their animals. The book’s most contemporary poem, “Driftless Elegy,” is the exception that exposes the rule; it looks at the present tense of his hometown in southwestern Wisconsin exclusively in terms of damage and decline. When, approaching the poem’s conclusion, he writes:

I am the end of a genetic line—a family dies with me.
This is hardly a tragedy. We are not an impressive group,
in intellect or physical form. With weak hearts, myopic,
we paddle lazily down the human genome,
pausing to root briefly here on the riverbank
in the shade of these limestone bluffs.

He may be speaking about more than just himself—though humanity does impress him, maybe most so when we are weak. In prayer, the speaker of these poems reveals his powerlessness, nowhere more so than those moments when he wishes for power. Borrowing from the Christian tradition, Wunderlich has imagined a way to make the unmistakable ambition of his writing align with his wish for a more humble image of human life.

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For Spencer Reece, humbling is a given. Even though his language in The Road to Emmaus, his first book since his ordination, is often remarkably inventive and sometimes formally elegant, the poems’ tone never betrays awareness of his achievement. Meanwhile, the book’s population seems to exist mostly in institutional spaces—hospitals, church basements, community centers—and the meager dwellings that their visitors otherwise occupy. Just about everyone here is broken, and only patience, it seems, can hold them now:

In the neonatal ICU, newborns breathed,
blue, spider-delicate in nests of tubes.
A Sunday of themselves, their tissue purpled,
their eyelids the film on old water in a well,
their faces resigned in plastic attics,
their skin mottled mildewed wallpaper.
It is correct to love even at the wrong time.

Sentences like that last one show up throughout the book—short, aphoristic. “We can never be with loss too long.” “There are moments of memorable patience in this world.” “Where there is estrangement there is little peace.” “Listening, Sister Ann said, is a memorable form of love.” There’s a quality of devotion in all of these that can make the secular seem sacred. One can truly attend through attention, the writing suggests, and the poems manage to be unwavering—almost unvarying—in the quality of their gaze.

In all of The Road to Emmaus’ 125 pages, Reece never prays, with one exception. Early in the book, he is describing his father when he slips from description to address and from a lowercase to uppercase F. Whether the person he’s speaking to is his dad or his God or, more likely, both, the source of the power here is unquestionably Reece’s gift of powerlessness, a profound image of acceptance among those who could not accept themselves, the Christian sacrifice writ touchingly small:

The quietness inside my father was building and would come to define him. I was wrong to judge it. Speak, Father, and I will listen. And if you do not wish to speak, then I will listen to that.
Author Spencer Reece.
Author Spencer Reece.

Courtesy of Rosanne Olson

Jesus, like his father, doesn’t make many appearances in this book, but toward the end he shows up on the cross that Reece wears after graduation, decades later, from seminary: “a man I now relied on— / paradoxically bound and free— / a childless, bachelor Jew, slightly feminine.” Like Reece himself and so many of the essential people in this book, Reece’s Christ has been bruised and lonely. Reece’s Christ is queer.

It feels remarkably appropriate. As the book moves toward its conclusion, a sense of abundance pours into the poems, and the blessing they register seems related to the sheer bounty of having lived through and then beyond the time when it was impossible to be both gay and accepted in America, even, for many, by oneself. Describing a recent phone call with a friend, Reece writes:

There was no more time to hate ourselves.
Many had already died and some had been kept from dying.
We spoke of her brother, John,
and we spoke of my cousin John, now both long gone.
It was our time now.
Over the phone, I could hear her daughter, Inan,
asking for dinner in the background,
the daughter that had come late in life, a gift.
The Gospel of John was right:
the world holds so much life.

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The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich. Graywolf Press.
The Road to Emmaus by Spencer Reece. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Earth Avails: Poems: Mark Wunderlich: 9781555976668: Amazon.com: Books

Jonathan Farmer is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of At Length.

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