Day 1 of Lying Awake – The Missing Poems
I first read Lying Awake a number of years ago and was taken with the quiet little story of what stands at the heart of faith. I mentioned it to people, recommending it as though I were the one receiving royalties, and came to think of it very fondly.
Through the years, whenever people asked me what it was about I said a nun who wrote poetry who was faced with a question of faith. I remembered it being thin but powerful and that there were moments of transcendence when the author had tried to capture the inexpressible. Months and years passed without me reading the book again and as I remembered it, those moments of transcendence became linked with the poetess nun. A few days ago I could have sworn there were snippets of poetry in this book.
Mark Salzman talks about Sister John writing poetry. He names her collection—Sparrow on a Roof. Some of her thoughts drift to the poetic, but there isn’t a poem anywhere to be found. It’s a pretty slick trick to pull off. If you’re writing about a talented poet or short story writer or novelist and then have to unveil a sample of their writing you can come to ruin. Either it’ll suck or it’ll sound as if it came from the author’s pen. (see The World According to Garp) Or it’ll distract readers. (see Peace Like a River) So Salzman skipped that challenge entirely and instead imbued his book with a sense and feeling of poetry rather than the poems themselves.
Here’s a passage from Aug 6.
Sister John opened a fresh notebook and began to write. Adoration welled up through the pain, closing of the gap between lover and Beloved. The force of his presence curved eternity in on itself; it was not her love rising after all, but his love pulling her toward him. She fell upwards into brilliance, where all suffering was released.
In the fire of his embrace, all that was her ceased to exist. Only what was God remained.
The cloister bell, the voice of Christ.
He spoke again:
She tried to obey but was frozen in beauty, like a fly trapped in amber. She could not move.
Nothing exists apart from me.
Self had been an allusion, a dream.
I edited an undergraduate literary magazine at Penn State for two years and let me tell you, we saw far worse poetry than the above, which isn’t even an actual poem.
Salzman doesn’t camp out in the oblique, however. Most of the book is grounded in sharp detail and so it makes the contrast that much more striking. The next scene in the book, in fact, is a wonderful moment where another sister sprays a blue jay with water so a wren can find drink.
Variety is the key lesson here however. If we can balance moments of our book (be they action, horror, comedy, transcendence) with equally striking scenes of a different kind, your work will have immediate breadth, if not depth, of accomplishment. And that’s a start.
Go to Day 2 of Lying Awake.
Jules from Master’s Artist sent me this interview with Mark Salzman published in the wake of his finishing Lying Awake. You’ll have to get a free day’s subscription with Salon by watching a little ad thing, but it’s an interesting interview.
Salzman, by the way, is a fascinating person. He’s done fiction and biographies. His Iron & Silk is wonderful. He’s a very passionate person who seems obsessive in his interests. It’s no wonder that this subject attracted him.