Relief's Poetry Editor, Brad Fruhauff, reviews John Hodgen's collection of poems titled Grace.
This volume’s title would seem to promise a series of poems at least indirectly related to a familiar but central Christian concept. “Indirect” is the right word, for among the myriad people, places, and things that appear in these poems, God and Jesus only stick out for their peculiar sanctity among a popular and secular host. There are churches, and there is a form of grace, but it’s not always the kind that makes you think of the generosity and greatness of God.
Not that it has to be. Hodgen’s poems resonate with a spiritual vision, but his audience isn’t specifically us Christians. Rather, it’s anyone who has felt like the heart of life must be beating somewhere else than where we are—somewhere, perhaps, where there are fewer cars and all the iPods are out of batteries. Grace, for Hodgen, is a moment of recuperating life through memory, memorializing, or metaphor-making—that is, through discovering and creating the poetry of the everyday. Grace is an open buckwheat field, and it’s a lightning-struck tree where “a slender roan horse feeds under its basilica of broken branches, / because he knows that is the place / where the soft tufts of grass / taste the sweetest”; or grace is the burst blood vessels of a dead friend’s face that become “God’s autograph, / His certain seal, saying I made this, / this belongs to me.”
This places Hodgen within a class of poets, religious and otherwise, for whom all poetry is about discovering or creating the numinous within the mundane. I used to think such poetry was in the tradition of T. S. Eliot’s shoring the fragments against his ruins, but the ruins of our culture and subsequently ourselves have been bulldozed, paved-over, and replaced with strip malls, so that we barely know there ever was something to be ruined, and we figure whatever fragments we may need can be bought at a discount.
No, the poets of the everyday are not gathering up what cultural riches remain but searching for a richness independent of culture, a richness originating within the vision of the poet himself and, hopefully, taking form or incarnation within the poem. In the latest Image, Gregory Wolfe considers this the very function of art: “not a message to be communicated but a presence and a mystery to be experienced—in the flesh.” Art initiates an experience of presence and mystery.
For Hodgen, the means to this experience is the Proustian means of metaphor. For Proust, metaphors were pregnant with spiritual meaning, and Hodgen squeezes every ounce of spirit out of metaphorical operations as he can. His poem, “Each Moment Is Speaking to You of the Other” explains and demonstrates the gist of this kind of poetry. It begins with the poet landing at an airport, watching another plane landing on a parallel runway. He projects himself into a spectator on the ground looking up and imagining a pair of swans. Planes become swans. Boats become “little florettes on the cake of the sea.” The “Other” moment is “the parallel universe, that twin world that lives like a bubble, like the past / inside each vagrant moment.”
The twin world leads him to his mother guilting him over a putative twin in Europe who wishes he had green beans for dinner, which leads to a reflection on pairing itself and a series of pairs: a lover and his love, a street person and a sitting Buddha, a woman picking up a mango and a man cleaning out his dead mother’s fridge, discovering little peas sliced in half, “worlds split in two.”
Hodgen’s poems are veritable piles of such metaphor-making, following one shape to another to another on a path only the poet can take, turning now and again to show us how the path has been switch-backing all the way from the ground up to the glorious mountain peak of—well, of some kind of vague spiritual experience. One reviewer of this book complained that there feels like little takeaway, which seems fair enough; Hodgen describes a world where people are often lonely or desperate and where death shows up and rends an already fragile existence, and he certainly doesn’t offer any positive statement for how to live in this world.
What he does instead is model a form of meaning-making that memorializes the tragic and strange by integrating these experiences with their “pairs” or “twins”—the simplest form of meaning-making, perhaps, such as occurs when we learn the English equivalent of a foreign word. This is like that.
There is something powerful in this kind of naming and connecting—it suggests that extraordinary experiences can still become part of us, do not have to represent voids or tears in the fabric of the self. But Hodgen doesn’t go much farther than to point this phenomenon out to us—in fine, flowing language with a light but elegant sense of rhyme, granted, but in language that circles back in upon itself. In “Each Moment Is Speaking to You of the Other,” the poem concludes with each of the split worlds “speaking sweetly to the other.” The poem, as does much of the book, ends where it started. We’re not going anywhere, we’re just learning how to be where we are.
Which may not seem like much of a gift, but simple gifts are gifts nonetheless. Hodgen at least offers you a pleasant trip back to where you started, and maybe the world looks a little more wonderful than it did before you started. Christians can often slip into an attitude of pining nostalgically for a version of Christiandom in which miracles happened all over the place; Hodgen adds his voice to the chorus of poets who insist that the miracle world—the kingdom of Heaven, Jesus would say—isn’t in some idyllic past but is staring us in the face every day.
Brad Fruhauff has recently received a PhD in English at Loyola University Chicago. He occasionally contributes book and music reviews to the Burnside Writer's Collective, and his story "The Strangler" appeared in the first volume of the Ankeny Briefcase. He is by temperament something of an Ancient—"a grumpy old man," as his (young) wife puts it—and does not believe a good idea goes bad by going out of fashion. He is currently excited about the novels of Marilynne Robinson and Orhan Pamuk, and enjoys the poetry of Auden, Donne, Hopkins, Tennyson and, more recently, Scott Cairns.