Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Yes, It's Really Eden

“The title is really ‘Eden’?” I asked, shaking my head. “That’s both uncreative and presumptuous.” 

Then I read it—the poem by Javen Tanner in Fire in the Pasture. And I nodded.

From what I understood, the poem describes a secret meeting and sharing of fruit between the speaker and his lover in a garden. While it’s apparently a modern tale, Tanner makes several references to the story of Adam and Eve throughout the poem. He seems to feel that he and his lover are mirroring Adam and Eve’s experiences in and after the Garden of Eden. 

My basic opinion about what makes poetry “good” is how much or how differently it makes me feel. And I generally have a hard time expressing these feelings in the usual terms. Such is the case with “Eden.” Its Biblical imagery brought a sense of the epic, spiritual, and inevitable. The slight differences between the Bible quotations and the poem’s paraphrases brought depth. And Tanner’s diction brought intimacy.

The diction in particular caught me. For one thing, his use of the word “proxies” in the first line was spot on. I had to look up the word “nomenclature” from the third stanza, and I’m still not sure I know exactly what Tanner meant by it. But that’s part of poetry’s art, too, I think. Perhaps the only word I didn’t like was the word “sick” to describe the air, but it admittedly fit the theme of its surrounding lines. 

And the poem’s final stanza describing the fruit—a peach—and the woman’s heart. . . . Again, I’m not sure if I “get” the lines completely, but they’re perfect:

                delicious and desirable.
                See how it beats and bleeds,
                how it breaks to heal itself.

These lines feel like life. And love. And it made me wonder how breaking heals. But I suppose that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?  

Realities of the Book of Mormon: Revised Edition

The Book of Mormon is a sacred book of scripture for many people throughout the world. Its incredible message has brought many people unto Christ and has helped so many find truth in this confusing world full of opinion and opposing views.
I've read the Book of Mormon many times but each time I find new insight to the gospel of Jesus Christ though the struggles and successes of this ancient civilization.
Usually when I read, I try to immediately apply every story to my current life or today's society in general. After all, the Book of Mormon was written for our day, was it not? But recently I re-read the introduction to the Book of Mormon and I realized that this book was written for the Lamanites and the Nephites just as much as it was written for us, if not more so. Since then, I've tried to make my study of the Book of Mormon a little different by first putting things into the context of their situation. I ask myself “What did the author mean by adding this detail or this story?” Then, I would move to thinking about the original intents and feelings of the characters, which has helped me find a much richer interpretation of many classic Book of Mormon stories.

For example, modern readers tend to give Lamen and Lemuel a really bad reputation. We talk about them as “Thee Bad Guys” of the Book of Mormon, which is slightly unfair considering that we only see them through the eyes of Nephi many years after they grew up together, after they had separated from each other. Nephi, as great a guy as he is, is a bit biased as a narrator. Just think about what the family of Lehi was being asked to do. They were asked to leave their comfortable, safe home in Jerusalem and embark on a journey through the wilderness. In this time period, wilderness equated death. There would be little opportunity to find food and water, shelter would consist of a flimsy tent to protect against sandy wind storms, and robbers circled the lesser-traveled areas like vultures. The family also didn't exactly know where they were going or how long it would take to get there. Honestly, Lamen and Lemuel had a lot to complain about. While that doesn't make complaining right, it does help deepen my understanding of why Lehi said he was "exceeding glad" to hear Nephi accept this situation (1 Nephi 3:8). Lehi would have been so relieved to hear that at least someone was going to support him in this trial because this would have been a major trial for Lehi too!
Placing the family of Lehi in their proper context has helped me to recognize the characters of the Book of Mormon as so much more than an ancient people. They have become real to me as I remember that even though they were prophets and did incredible things throughout their lives, they were just people too. They were flawed people with weaknesses and short-comings that they had to work to overcome. As a result, I applaud them that much more for what they did to draw closer to God.

The Climax of Conversion: Alma the Younger

The Book of Mormon covers around a thousand years of the familial and spiritual history of the Nephite people. That is an incredible amount of information! The Book of Mormon has so many little stories all throughout the book that contribute to a larger overall message of bringing people to Christ.
One of my favorite little stories in the Book of Mormon is the story of Alma the Younger, the son of Alma, the former priest to the wicked King Noah. The beginning of Mosiah 27 explains how the people finally began to experience peace for a short time again. Laws and regulations were enforced in order to protect the people of the church from the persecutors. But then the very children of the righteous leaders and protectors of the people begin to create contention and problems among the people. Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah are dead set on destroying the church and the more people that they brought down with them, the better.
Then in the very moment of absolute rebellion, their dark world of lies and sins and filth is shattered by the blinding pure light of God. An angel of God “descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder” (Mosiah 27:11). This appearance of the angel was the culminating moment, the climax, of the conversion of Alma the Younger. His whole previous life was leading up to this one moment in time, hurtling him towards the light and goodness of God, even though he probably didn’t realize what it was until it was right in front of his face.

The Book of Mormon is full of little moments of climax and resolution; each one contributing something new as a confirming witness of Jesus Christ.

Family History: A Reoccurring Theme in the Book of Mormon

Recently I have become more interested in family history work. I used to roll my eyes as my grandma told yet another story of some long deceased ancestor I'd heard about countless times. In my mind family history was for old people and my ancestors had little to do with my present life. However, I slowly began to gain more interest in my genealogy as I realized just how important knowing your ancestors can be. Roots, in the form of ancestors, can play a significant role in determining identity, a fact that prophets in the Book of Mormon were well aware of as evidenced by the repeated resurfacing of the theme of family history throughout the book.
The importance of family history is first introduced in First Nephi when Nephi and his brothers are sent back to Jerusalem to get the plates from Laban. We learn that these plates contained scriptures that would be essential for Nephi's descendants to learn the truth of the gospel. However, in 1 Nephi 5:14 we also learn that the plates contained the genealogy of Nephi's family." Nephi's father, Lehi, finds "upon the Plates of Brass a genealogy of his fathers; wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph."
In my opinion the cool part here is not just the fact that they learned their family history, but that through this family history Nephi's family was taught something important. Later in the verse Nephi goes on to write that Joseph "was preserved by the hand of the Lord that he might preserve his father, Jacob, and all his household from perishing with famine." In learning his heritage Nephi learns, not only who he's descended from, but also the role of the Lord in the lives of his ancestors. Through his ancestors Nephi receives a confirming witness to his faith.
This theme of lessons through genealogy appears multiple times in the Book of Mormon and, up until recently, I'd never noticed it before.

Comparing Characters: Moroni and Amalikiah Revised

The Book of Mormon is filled with memorable people from all walks of life. There’s Nephi, the strong, faithful, younger brother who’s always being picked on by his older brothers. There’s Korihor, the anti-Christ who asked for a sign and lost his voice as a result. There’s Abinadi, the prophet who had enough faith in the Lord that he refused to deny his testimony and was killed. There’s Alma the Younger, the rebellious son who changes his ways.
One of my favorite people in the Book of Mormon has always been Captain Moroni. He was a courageous man who wrote the Title of Liberty and led the Nephites to victory against the Lamanites on multiple occasions. You can't get much better than Captain Moroni. I mean, not many people can be described like he is in Alma 48:17: "Yea, verily, verily say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever."
Talk about a great guy! I personally wouldn’t mind meeting or being compared to Captain Moroni.
Unfortunately, not everyone is like Moroni. Around the same time we meet Captain Moroni, we also meet Amalickiah, a wicked, former Nephite who uses deception and trickery to become king of the Lamanites. Amalickiah is described as being "a man of cunning device and . . . of many flattering words" (Alma 46:10) and "a very subtle man to do evil" (Alma 47:4).
In other words, not a great guy; in fact, a very bad guy.
Though I've read the Book of Mormon many times, during my most recent reading I noticed something new concerning these two individuals. One of the most righteous men and one the most wicked men in the Book of Mormon are discussed simultaneously, contrasting the two. The Book of Mormon switches back and forth between Amalickiah's actions and Captain Moroni's actions, showing their similarities and differences.
Amalickiah and Captain Moroni are similar in that they both use strategy to accomplish their goals. They're both powerful leaders and they lead armies into battle. They're both Nephites and highly persuasive.
However, they also have some very distinct, important differences. Captain Moroni follows the prophet. Amalickiah is a dissenter. Captain Moroni is righteous and fights for the freedom of his people. Amalickiah is wicked and fights for power and his own selfish gains. (In literary words, these two are a foil to each other).
In comparing these two I saw in a new way the power that one righteous man (Captain Moroni) can have and the power that one wicked man (Amalickiah) can have. Moroni led his people to victory and protected their freedoms. Amalickiah led his people to death and destruction, his own life being taken on the battle field as he attempted to overthrow the Nephites.
And I learned all of this through simple comparison.
It’s a comparison that I think can be applied to other portions of the Book of Mormon. I can’t wait to see what more I can learn by contrasting foils like Alma and Korihor or Nephi and Laman and Lemuel or Nephi and Laban or Abinadi and Noah. What more can foils teach us? I guess we’ll have to study the Book of Mormon to find out.

Statue of Captain Moroni by Josh Cotton; Image from Wikimedia

Dreams and Visions: Two Perspectives on the Tree of Life

Is there a difference between a dream and a vision?

Lehi and Nephi both see revelations of a tree of life, an iron rod, a great and spacious building, and brilliant, white fruit. But while Lehi presumably received his while he was sleeping, saying “I have dreamed a dream,” Nephi receives his while he is awake, pondering in his heart.

Though they apparently saw the same things, Lehi and Nephi describe them differently. Lehi tells his dream as a narrative, explaining how he and his family traveled through the darkness, followed the rod of iron, received persecution from the masses, and eventually found the tree of life. In contrast, Nephi describes his vision as a series of images--the same darkness, iron rod, spacious building, and tree--and he explicates their meanings as given to him by the angel. While Lehi’s dream remains limited to the perspective of the family, Nephi’s vision is more universal: it prophesies the fall of the spacious building, as well as the coming of the Savior.

I read these two revelations very differently. When I read Lehi’s dream, I am swept up in the imagery and the narrative. I imagine my own family pushing forward through the darkness, being tempted by the crowds, clinging to the iron rod. The texture of Lehi’s storytelling makes me more empathetic to the story, more self-reflective of my own spiritual responsibility. On the other hand, when I read Nephi’s vision, I scan the verses looking for doctrine. I accept as principles the explications that the angel gives. I read the vision both as a set of symbols and as a prophetic account for what will occur in the future.

Form, in the case of these two accounts, determines what I get out of them as a reader. This is something that occurs all over the Book of Mormon. Sometimes the authors write very personally, using rich narratives and descriptions; other times, they write like the Ten Commandments, laying down the law impersonally and non-figuratively. It is fascinating to me that Nephi and Lehi seem to separate these two styles into dreams and visions; it makes me wonder if dreams can be taken as dogma, or if visions can ever pass for poetry.

Then again, Lehi’s own statement--”I have dreamed a dream, or, in other words, I have seen a vision”--may suggest that there is almost no difference between dreams and visions at all.

The Complex Heart

Often the core, key or essential part of an experience or situation is referred to as the “heart of the matter”. The heart is essential to the human body and its functioning. Yet the heart is more than a symbol of importance and functionality; the heart often symbolizes emotion, love, tenderness and compassion. References to the heart happen often throughout the chapters of the Book of Mormon. The word “heart” is mentioned 158 times and attached to multiple phrases within the book. Forms and variations of “imaginations of the heart” are found five times, “hardening of hearts” found twenty three times, “softening of hearts” found eight times”, “pride of their hearts” found thirteen times and “broken heart” found eight times. Obviously, the heart is capable of a lot; breaking, imagining, hardening and softening. In these contexts, the heart represents a compassionate person, a humble beggar, a prideful murmurer and others. The Book of Mormon writers use this complex symbol for this reason; the heart is capable of much greatness. The heart is a life source, pumping blood to every dependent part of the body; it is our lifeline to mortality, to humanity. Yet, the heart is also a pair of scissors to said lifeline. When the hearts stop beating so does mortality's pulsation and life leaves the occupant. However, the heart represents more than a physical life but a spiritual life as well. The symbol of the heart represents a compassionate, righteous life when it is softened but represents sin and pride when hardened.

 Nephi promises blessing to those who avoid such a hardening. In 1 Nephi 14 he writes "And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles...harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God...they shall be a blessed people upon the promised land forever" and he continues in chapter 15 to say "If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you". So though the heart can stop the flow of blood and metaphorically the flow of truth, the heart's most critical and beautiful job is softening.

The phrases "burning of the bosom" or "swelling of the heart" aren't strictly metaphorical; anyone who has experienced moments of wonderful emotion or intense, emotional pain has felt this. Emotion is physically felt in the heart for the heart is more than an organ but a threshold for deep feeling. I have the experienced forms and variations the Book of Mormon attaches to the heart. My heart has felt hardened toward truth, my heart has softened toward my fellow men, my heart has been filled with vain pride and my heart has presented itself to God, broken and discouraged. Luckily, God accepts us wholeheartedly and I am thankful for that. And I am thankful for my heart and all it can do.

Written for Humanity: Revision

When reading a novel, poem or essay, I don't like when I am given the "moral of the story" within in the first paragraph. I like to analyze and search and even create my own meaning. Where is the fun when the answer is blatantly stated?

Among the chapters in the Book of Mormon, the writers often include a statement of intended language. In 2 Nephi 31: 2-3, Nephi states that he will speak in plain language and he emphasizes "plain" multiple times. He says "I must speak concerning the doctrine of Christ; wherefore, I shall speak unto you plainly, according to the plainness of my prophesying". The prophets of the Book of Mormon write to enlighten and engage our understanding; they do not write to confuse or misguide. Just like when conveying something clear and essential, we do not do so in difficult terms. We tell it like it is. The Book of Mormon is meant to be understood by humanity for it was written for humanity. Nephi testifies "For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding".

When I read the scriptures, I want to be told and carefully guided the answer. I've been taught that we can find answers and happiness in the scriptures so I'd rather receive inspiration and knowledge sooner rather than later. Sometimes though, as I'm sure most people will find, I don't always understand what I am reading; whether it be the message, the language or the context I am unsure. But I trust that Nephi and others were honest in their intentions to speak plainly of the workings of God. The intention of the Book of Mormon is even stated on the first page. On the title page, Mormon writes that such a record intends “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever­­ – And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ”.

The Book of Mormon was not only written for scholars or prophets but for us. It was written plainly and is meant to be understood. So I may enjoy the well-crafted words of Shakespeare or appreciate the deep passions of Emily Bronte but more than that I adore the plain and simple truths the Book of Mormon offers to all who read.

real sons of real fathers.

For anyone who may have read the Book of Mormon before, there is a significant amount of scripture dedicated to some men referred to as the sons of Mosiah, along with Alma the younger. Usually when they are thought of or talked about, there is an emphasis on how they were quite awful human beings at first, but then became some of the greatest missionaries in that time. Little is said about their conversion, especially regarding the sons of Mosiah, and not much is mentioned about how they changed from being ridiculously wicked to being impressively righteous. However, if we look closely at certain scripture verses, we can see aspects of characterization through descriptive writing to delve a little deeper into the understanding of what these young men went through regarding their repentance process and change of heart.

befriending the Book of Mormon: revised post.

There are many challenges that come with reading the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon. Sometimes it’s simply hard to follow. Sometimes it’s really annoying when the writer goes off on a huge tangent about confusing things, like Isaiah or the money system. Sometimes the language is too thick and it’s near impossible to understand what they are trying to say. Sometimes it’s just too difficult to relate to the people being talked about, because gosh darn it, I’ve never been to war or been in a place where a type of punishment is being stoned to death or burned alive.

Despite all these difficulties, there is still hope. Before you roll your eyes or let out an exasperated sigh, let me share an experience of my own that might shed some light on this ‘hope’ I speak of:

The Devil's Ploys: Book of Mormon Entry 2

I was so close to missing it. But luckily, I didn't.

I was quickly skimming over 2 Nephi 28:19-23, a passage about the Devil's ploys, the day active and passive voice became a little more important to me. I was skimming because who likes reading all about the Devil and his nasty tricks? I mean I don't. Anyway, while looking past versus 22 and 23, I noticed the word "grasps" on one line and "are grasped" on the next. "Why the difference?" I asked myself.

Photo by Victor
I knew the difference between active and passive voice. In active voice, the subject or actor in the sentence comes first with a verb immediately following, so "he grasps." In passive voice, the object, or what is acted upon, comes first making the verb become passive, or what is happening to the object and not what the subject is doing. The subject either comes later or remains unsaid, for example, "they are grasped," where no subject is said at all leaving "they" to be "grasped" by somebody unsaid.

Looking back over the versus with active and passive voice in mind, I began to see a pattern. Every time the Devil was referred to, he was the subject of the sentence. He, as the actor of the sentence, was constantly on the move, actively trying to "shake" us, "grasp" us, "pacify," and "lull" us. He "cheateth," "flattereth," "leadeth [us] away," "whispereth in [our] ears." He "rage[s]" against all that is good. Suddenly the Devil seemed powerful, frightening, and dreadfully busy. But what was worse came next.

Further down the versus, there was a sudden shift into the passive voice. The catalyst? "His awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance." Those who allowed themselves to be taken in and acted upon by the Devil suddenly became incapable of acting. The sentence structure itself showed it. "They are grasped with death and hell," they "have been seized" by the Devil. They cannot act for themselves, having given away their agency to the Devil and his ploys and rendering themselves objects to be acted upon.

Looking up from the page, I was shocked at how clearly the bondage of sin was embedded into the very sentences of the versus. It was terribly clear how existence would be if I was ever to relinquish my agency. I feel incredibly grateful that God gave me agency. After all, even those who give away their agency to the Devil's ploys will someday have to actively "stand before the throne of God" because God will not take away our agency. In fact, God requires us to be accountable. Perhaps that is why the Devil is so clever. He deceives us into thinking his way is easier, that no agency is better. But then at the last, when we must stand accountable before God, he abandons his followers and they are left not knowing how to deal with the consequences that will always come, regardless of active or passive choices.

Agency and accountability. Active and passive. To act and to be acted upon. What should we choose? Its pretty simple when put this way. 

We Are Not That Different: A revision of Book of Mormon Entry 1

The Psalm of Nephi, or 2 Nephi 4, is Nephi's most poignant and poetic work. Already being considered a sacred hymn by way of it being a psalm, it was adapted into a Mormon Tabernacle Choir piece called "I Love the Lord" based on the hymn "Be Still My Soul." And although I've studied this chapter frequently, listened to it's musical rendition, and visited it in my own times of sorrow, I've rarely thought of the chapter as more than just Nephi having a bad day. But then I read it again.

The psalm can be easily formatted to poetic stanzas since it is written to be a sacred hymn. Once it is in stanzas though, it is amazing to watch the poetic devices emerge. As I was reading the chapter in stanzas, I noticed that Nephi repeats the beginning few words of his lines, called an anaphora, all the time. For example "he hath" in versus 20 to 23, or "O Lord" in versus 30 to 34. Nephi uses anaphoras like I do? I was surprised. I began to wonder what type of man would use poetic device to self-reflect, to express sorrow, to show his faith and angst simultaneously? What type of man would write devotional poetry at all? 

I guess Nephi would. 

It suddenly dawned on me that Nephi, at about 20 to 30 years old, took the time to sit down and scratch a repeating opener (an anaphora) into metal sheets. Nephi took the time to molten the plates and show future generations that it is normal to feel inadequate, sorrowful, and even self-deprecating. Nephi took the time to write a poem so that we could see the beauty that comes from turning sorrow into self-reflection and angst into faith. 

As I read the versus again and again, more poetic devices kept appearing. Apostrophes and exclamatios were everywhere. Nephi used exclamatios, or emotional exclamations, to address himself "O wretched man that I am!" and "O my heart," showing just how intensely he was feeling. The apostrophes (addressing either an inanimate object or abstract or absent being) were addressed to God, "O Lord, I have trusted in thee," showing that Nephi felt actual distance from God. Could Nephi feel distant from God, the same way I have sometimes felt? Could Nephi feel upset with himself the way I sometimes am? Nephi's desperate cries while still sacred and emotional, were becoming more and more reminiscent of my own pleas to God.

Starting to feel more similar to Nephi than different, I wasn't surprised to see him use imperatives (or command verbs) to give himself personal pep talks, just the way I have: "Awake my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul." It was almost contagious, as though whispering the motivating words to myself louder and louder would allow me to join the rally of souls, although both he and I were alone, him in writing the words and me in reading them.

In one last glance at the chapter, feeling like I'd made a new friend, I noticed Nephi's self-reflecting rhetorical questions sprinkled through his poetry. Yes, I have bad days just like Nephi. Yes, I sometimes write poetry just like Nephi. Yes, I cry against myself and to God just like Nephi. And yes, I give myself commanding pep talks just like Nephi. But, what I do best is self-reflect. So no, I am not surprised that Nephi, too, self-reflects: "Why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, / and my flesh waste away, / and my strength slacken, / because of mine afflictions?" Nephi talks to himself like I do? Nephi self-reflects like I do? Yes, of course he does.

After all, Nephi and I really aren't that different. I mean, come on, the guy writes poetry. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

I am the worst poerty analyzer ever

Atlanta to Salt Lake by Laverna B. Johnson was a fun and entertaining poem to read. I thought it was more of a modern poem. I am usually not a poetry person but this type of poetry if refreshing to me. I also loved reading this poem because I myself am moving from Utah to Alabama. I see this woman going through her journey across the country and I felt like she wasn’t very excited to make this trip. My first sign of that was her description about the hotels she stayed in. They weren’t high-end suites but more old, dirty motels in the middle of nowhere. She goes on with her trip and it seems boring and like she is driving to her death. The last stanza she explains how she is coming back home. When comparing it to the pioneers’ journey across the plains to Utah it is nothing but her feelings are still valid. I think there were many people who didn’t want to travel across the plains but still did. She keeps this attitude through the entirety of the poem.

Coming back to the poem its self. I like her writing style. Modern and still very descriptive. I don’t know if I could say this was Mormon poetry unless there was an analysis but that what I liked mostly about the poem. Over all it was fun to read, and that coming from me is a good thing because I am not a big poetry person.

"The Excommunicate" by Danny Nelson

Consistent with my theme of this semester, I found Danny Nelson’s poem “The Excommunicate” to be a deeply insightful view into the mind of one who has lost faith and feels there is no way to reconcile it. The imagery of the piece is dark and bitter. It opens with a condescending mention of a “white-shirted man” who rests his hand upon the back of the narrator and assure shim that “God is not gone.” However, as the poem will reveal, the narrator feels that this man has misunderstood his need entirely. He knows God is not “gone,” but rather feels that God remains all the same, but as a “plague” in his life. He goes as far as to describe God as a “vengeful task master,” an “unapproachable father,” and an “inconsistent judge.” Ben Abbott’s reading of the poem brings these empassioned declarations to life, and you can feel the pain in each depiction of a distanced deity.
It is clear that the speaker is as hard on himself and his misunderstood band of brothers as he is on his Heavenly Father. He calls them “bastards” and “abortions in the wilderness.” Purposefully using such emotive language, Nelson’s narrator feels victimized and judgmental, but still justifies his actions in his head, stating that there are “some hungers which are better to fill than to die.” The most heart breaking lines, for me, read, “No help from him who SAYS he bore the burden of all. No hope. No hope remains save sliced wrists, harsh medicines, or the long slow slope built by the bored Gods.” There seems to be no escape for the torture soul, except those of self inflicted pain and anguish. The poem ends with a supplication, perhaps made in cruel jest, but perhaps as a sincere, final cry, as the narrator states, “Oh Savior, stay this night with me, behold, tis eventide.”

I cannot imagine feeling so angry towards God, which is why I appreciated this poem so much. Poetry is an excellent lens into the emotive life of someone who you may not understand otherwise, and this certainly was the case for me reading this poem. I felt pained both listening and reading it, sympathy and a sense of hopelessness in spite of my own convictions of the Lord’s infinite forgiveness and goodness. That is the power of the text. I am fascinated by these people and am trying to find a better way to communicate the love of God to them, and this poem certainly gave me insight into their lives that I did not fully comprehend beforehand.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Reaction and Analysis of "The Excommunicate" by Danny Nelson

This poem is a shocking departure from the usual sentiments expressed in the church, but it ends with something familiar and powerful. As the title implies, poem seems to express the feelings that accompany a person being excommunicated from the church. The language and imagery are strong and vivd. The poems starts and speaks of God as "a plague in my blood clotting life giving streams." Who would think of God as a plague? This put me in the shoes of someone experiencing extreme spiritual pain. The speaker doesn't deny the existence of God at all, but feels weakened by him, or maybe simply weakened by the burden of whatever he/she has done.

The speaker feels like an "abortion of a wilderness church" and "broken by hunger." There is so much imagery of solitude and hopelessness that contributes to the overall theme of being stuck in a whirlwind of doubt and guilt. The speaker refers to the savior as having only said "be bore the burden of all," implying his doubt about the validity of the atonement. Amid this doubt, he says, "no hope remains save slashed wrists." But, after spending almost the entire poem painting this hopeless picture, the poem concludes with the words from a hymn:

O Savior, stay this night with me; Behold, 'tis eventide.

That line (and the entire hymn) has always brought real comfort to me when I've felt burdens in my life, but this poem created an even more profound meaning to that line by using it to remedy such exquisite hopelessness, sin, doubt, and guilt. To be excommunicated would be an enormously difficult trial, but this poem depicts how far-reaching the Atonement truly is. It helps me to have more confidence that no matter what mistakes I make or how many doubts I may have, I will still be able to find solace if I embrace the Savior.

The Art of Not Knowing

Patricia Karamesines "Introduction to the Mysteries/How to Read a Poem" uses a rather informal tone.  She dedicates her poem to "Sean" and the first line begins with "First, kiddo" as if addressing her son or a young person she cares about and is familiar with.  She addresses the reader as "toots" and "dearie" and "darling" giving the poem a light-hearted touch.    In a few places, she writes categorically listing different ideas as one would do when expressing ideas with examples.   Her poem, in many places, reads like a conversation.For example, while trying to explain how to read a poem in the second stanza, she writes "If you read a poem, yourself, alone, watch for those sudden synchronizations of, you know, pulses..."  Her tone makes the poem identifiable as if she was speaking to me and was perhaps my mother.  Though the tone and language of the poem often remains informal, the poet addresses a much deeper thought.
The last line of her poem reads "It isn't to know, darling, it's never to know, but only ever follow what calls". I was reminded of the movie "The Santa Claus" were a sweet little elf tells Tim Allen "Seeing isn't believing, believing is seeing".  Karamesines, in her poem, encourages the reader to experience, take risks, find adventure and stumble upon truth and knowledge as if  catching such things "playing naked in the stream".  She does not suggest not to seek for truth but rather experience life in a way where truth will find you.
Often times, I think Heavenly Father gives us a similar answer to our prayers.  We often want immediate and comprehensive answers to every plea and prayer without actually experiencing the adventure that comes when we don't know everything.  The poet writes "To read a poem is to stand with it and to move, to change in ardor of exchange, to wind with words into a nerve bundle of world's desire."  Such advice should be applied to experiencing life in general; we should be willing to experience and trust in God's promise that we will stumble upon our answers.

Mormon Diversity at AML

I attended the award ceremony for the Association for Mormon Letters because I wanted a taste of everything, and the ceremony included readings of novels, drama, poetry, comics, and picture books. However, the thing that stood out to me before I heard the specific writing of the Mormon participants, was the diversity of the individuals themselves.

It's easy to stereotype Mormons.

It's easier to stereotype Mormons living Utah.

But as I sat and watched people filter in at the beginning of the conference, I was amazed at how many of the people in dress and grooming or manners or both, did not fit these stereotypes. I saw three BYU professors there (including our own Dr. Burton), but it was clear these authors came from different walks of life. While sharing the same faith and a love for writing, everyone there was there own person.

This individuality was reflected in the writing as well. I recognized the award for Chris Crowe's was given to his novel Death Coming Up the Hill which is not an overtly "Mormon book," and yet it won an award next to a comic book based on Alma.
I felt the diversity of the presented works summarizes the discussion we've come back to over and over.

What is Mormon literature?
What do we call a works of literature by Mormons that aren't just for Mormons?
Who is a Mormon author trying to reach and what are they're trying to say?

Every reading I heard was written by a Mormon. The novel written about a returned missionary was a Mormon work, but so was the Pride and Prejudice play adaptation. The answers to our questions are not simple because Mormons are not simple.

We have a lot of things to say. And a lot of ways to say them.

"UTopia" With Snakes, Apples, and Iagos

Laura Nielson Baxter's poem, "UTopia," begins with two questions: "Have you ever heard / of a flawless paradise? / Who would tell about it?" The questions serve to grab the reader's interest, forcing them to pause and consider what it means for a place to be perfect, flawless. From these questions she moves on to state, "There's not much of a story there: / 'Life's Perfect, The End.'"
This statement grabbed my attention for two reasons. First, most people wish for a perfect world. They believe that if God is perfect and created the world, then the world should be perfect. However, that's not how God works for a very good purpose, which leads me to my second reason: good stories need conflict.
I'm currently taking a fiction writing class in which we've discussed what makes a good story. One of the key components is conflict. Without conflict a story is flat and shows no growth or progress on the part of the characters. In this poem, Baxter uses the idea of the need for conflict to point out that in a perfect world there is no conflict which means there is no growth. If there is no growth, the purpose of life is undermined. This sums up why the world isn't perfect, despite the fact that is was created by God. The world isn't perfect because we need to grow.
We as LDS people believe that there must be conflict or opposition in all things in order for the plan of salvation to work. There must be an opposite so that we can struggle, grow, and progress towards exaltation. This is why the world contains "a snake," "an apple," "heathens," "Pandora's Box," and "Iagos." We need conflict as personified in these allusions to the Bible, Greek mythology, and Othello illustrate. Without opposition, there is no purpose to life.
It's an important concept to understand and this poem presents it in a unique way that allows the reader to ponder on their personal perceptions of the world and why it has flaws.

Picture from pixabay.com
The poem that stood out to me during the listening section of this assignment was "Close" by Amber Watson. I did not particularly like the poem, but listening to it made me notice the alliteration in the poem and how it worked to create a gasping like sound similar to one who has injured themselves. I would have missed that if I'd only read the poem silently.

"hair like spun glass."

The poem in “Fire in the Pasture” I read that stuck out to me the most was My Daughter’s Favorite Bedtime Story by David Nielsen. It’s about how his daughter’s favorite bedtime story is Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman. He thinks it is interesting because he’s read it to her so many times, but she always wants to read it again. He uses a lot of descriptive language; “hair like spun glass” and “the black water smooth as sleep, or maybe death” being the most prominent. At one point, he reflects on if his daughter sees some of the details that he sees, then compares it to wondering if how seeing so much is how God feels about watching His children on earth:

Does she see in the sky/ a smile of teeth for a moon? I wondered once,/…if it’s how God feels, watching the pages,/knowing the end and the beginning,/ having already read it a hundred times,/ or more.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ink and Wax

I went to the session on writing personal essays. We were first told to go read a good sample size of personal essays starting with Eugene England. Then we were presented with a "nearly perfect" essay to look at called Joyas Voladoras by Brian Doyle. Some of the reasons it was so well created is because it began by asking us to consider. Then it began to give us further information to consider often starting with large units and reducing to smaller units. It also quickly alerted us to the theme of hearts by using well-placed repetition. Perhaps most importantly though was the skill with which the easy transitioned from interesting facts about the world to a personal, contemplative understanding.
One quote I really liked was "the world is everywhere whispering essays."

Photo by Bunches and Bits {Karina}
From there we moved into a workshop period where we applied what they called "the artful trick." We began by listing 10 things we considered ourselves masters of. This came from the idea that the most interesting and important things are found in the tiny masters of tiny domains that we all are. I only got to 6, but I listed 1) considering new perspectives, 2) Writing wax-sealed letters, 3) Reading what I want to read, 4) Having a one-on-one conversation, 5) Playing with Spencer's curls, 6) Missing my family. 

From there, we were supposed to choose just one topic and free write/free associate for five minutes. I wrote: "I've always felt romantically toward writing letters on parchment sealed with red wax. They way the wax bubbles and drips as it globs onto the crease only to be pressed into an identity, is fascinating. To watch it seal away secret contents and hidden feelings. Wax can be unwieldy though. I have a red stain on my pajamas and underclothes and a small red spot on my leg to prove it. But then again, so is ink. Just like wax being pressed into distinguishable form, ink etches itself into meaning.

Then we were to free write on a person somehow related to the topic. I wrote: "I always hoped to sometime have a person to give a wax-sealed letter to. When I met Spencer, I figured I'd found him; he was my wax-sealed match. And believe me, I wrote a few, got burnt in the process. But I have since stopped because there is no utterable word with which to etch in ink or seal with wax.

Finally, we were to free write the opening to our essay. I wrote two openings: "Contemplate the similarities of ink and wax." And, "Why must words inscribed with ink and wax be secretive?"

I even got some interesting feedback. The general tone they felt was a romance edged with mystery. Not what I was going for but, hey, no big deal. And a comment I really liked was the idea that ink is more permanent than other forms of communication, similar to the drafts of our lives and the desire to find someone to write to permanently. 

Jer3miah: What an introduction

Your birthday is actually April 11th . . .
Oh no! You lied to me, and now everything is changing!

Photo by ClaraDon
Duh duh duh duh! (moving into ominously lower tones)

This post is going to focus on the opening of the web series because beginnings are important to me. So my first impression included a little gagging at the stereotypical Mormon jokes and shallow characterizations. It seemed to me that the director expects a lot from his audience because his audience must be really specific to understand the jokes or even find them funny: faithful member, often male-specific, freshman-in-college-age, and undying patient. Fortunately the first few episodes also include some tactful foreshadowing, making the jumpy transitions less startling. But it is still jarring to enter non-stop fast cuts, constant danger, and surprising revelations at almost every moment. I mean, I get that it is supposed to "suck to viewer in" but really it just feels like a bad soap opera. This is also problematic because those who aren't looking for constant danger or fast-paced cuts find themselves not at all invested with the characters who are either still relatively shallow or dead by 33 % into the series, or those who don't mind the pace find themselves with too many questions, no information, and little hope for information.

Now let me pause here and say it gets better. Unfortunately though, the first few episodes don't set it up well.

Let's back up to characterization again. The main character is problematic because there is literally no reason to like him or think he is special other than the story is about him and we were told he is. That, in short, is frustrating. As a person who will always prefer characterization to plot, I find it frustrating to only ever see what is done to him, instead of who he is. Same with his parents. They were really back and forth with how they treated their 18 year old son and a bit cliche. But no worries, they're dead before we get to no them so as the audience we feel no sorrow. (Yes, that was biting. But my biggest pet peeve is when things should matter and they don't because of lazy characterization.)

Let's end with a few nice things about the opening episodes. I liked the moment when the roommate puts a blanket on Jeremiah and lets him curl up in bed silently. It is a nice moment of unspoken characterization. I like the fact that they took a risk with the filming and let is all be seen through the hand-held recorder. Yes, it made me motion sick, but hey, it was innovative. The Joseph-Smith-esque allusions were a bit trite, but at least they made an allusion when talking about the box and the dangers and the three things he must do.

Overall, it was hard for me to watch. But, I did watch it with my husband, so we had a fun time listing out the pros and cons as objectively as possible. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Book of Jer3miah": A Page-Turner?

I slid the DVD into the player wondering what to expect. I’d never seen a Mormon webshow before. What I watched was an intriguing, mysterious, and action-filled series about a BYU freshman who learns about suspicious connections he has to the Book of Mormon and the ancient societies described in it. It certainly caught my interest. 

In thinking about the web series, though, I had difficulty deciding how much praise “The Book of Jer3miah” is really worthy of. Its characters are pretty shallow, for one thing. I was especially disappointed that we didn’t get to know Jeremiah better; I’d have liked to either hear more of his thought processes or see more outward expression from him. I did enjoy Porter, though—I felt like he was more enjoyable and three-dimensional than the other characters. And I liked the connection between him and his ancestor Orin Porter Rockwell, although it felt a little overdone. 

I also had some issues with the plot. Jeremiah’s experience with being prompted to kill a man was identical enough to Nephi’s to—at least in my opinion—cheapen it. Again, I’d have preferred a more subtle connection between historical characters and “Jer3miah” characters. In addition, the fact that other BYU students, none of which could’ve been much older than 20, got so negatively involved in the conspiracy surrounding Jeremiah and his special mission seemed pretty unrealistic.  

Overall, the episodes caught my attention, but not my admiration. I’m not sure that I would recommend it as literature or even particularly good entertainment. Not to say that “Jer3miah” is of terrible quality or not worth any consideration. It does seem to have an edge—if not a monopoly—on the Mormon Sci-Fi Thriller, and could perhaps spark the beginning of a new genre. But is “Jer3miah’s” novelty enough to redeem it? 

A Peculiar People

When I think of Mormon poetry, I typically think of traditional poems that worship and praise God, such as those we find in our hymn books. These kinds of poems are safe and authors know that they will be accepted by the general Mormon/Christian audiences. Because of that assumption that I had formed, I was pleasantly surprised to find some poems that explored other topics, topics that are still Mormon in nature but are not discussed as openly among members of the Church.
My favorite poem from this section is entitled "The Excommunicate" by Danny Nelson. Nelson's sarcastic and bored tone fits his topic well as he paints the image of one going to church and being approached by the bishop and other members but not being able to connect to them on the same spiritual level. He uses a very strong diction (one that is full of anger, hunger, confusion) which well exemplifies the attitude of one who is falling away or has fallen away from the Church. The end of the poem quotes a beloved hymn: "Oh Savior, stay this night with me! Behold, tis even'tide." The quote from the hymn surprised me because the overall tone of the poem wasn't one of adoration. But when I went back and listened to the poem again, I heard the words of the hymn and of the poem as a pleading tone, a plea for help and guidance again even if the speaker didn't know that was what they were initially looking for.
Another poem that I enjoyed that followed this vein of untraditionalism was "Bless Our Tacky Chapel" by John Sterling Harris. This poem was a breath of fresh air as it described some unique characteristics of Mormons in a humorous manner, both for members and non-members alike. The poem started by briefly describing some aspects of our usual chapels (the crappy carpet and cheap fixtures), which would help any readers not accustomed to our churches understand the rest of the poem. Then Harris started listing off further descriptions of the most minute details of a chapel- the pulpit, the wood, the cords connecting the microphone and sound systems, etc. But he made it comical by placing the descriptions in the context of a prayer- "Bless the pulpit made of beech..." This made me think of prayers where people bless everything that they possibly can, no matter how small or silly they may seem. Then he ties it all together in the end by describing the "aluminum steeple" that "has no bell." When most people think of churches, they think of stain-glassed windows and bells calling the people to mass. Our churches, however, are as unique in regards to the outward structure as they are to the inward beliefs.
Overall, I enjoyed reading these poems and gaining new insight both to ways in which Mormon poetry can be written stylistically and how unique Mormonism is in itself. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Separation and Faith in James Goldberg's "Ghazal"

One of the difficulties of being a Mormon is accepting the love of God and trying to develop a personal relationship with him, while simultaneously accepting his absence, to live life and make decisions without him telling you every choice you should make.
          James Goldberg’s “Ghazal” illustrates that difficulty poetically. The poem is a formal ghazal, meaning that it begins with a rhyming couplet and continues with unrhymed couplets after, each ending on the rhyme initiated by the first couplet. Goldberg’s poem begins with the rhyme “free again,” which is echoed throughout in variations of “—ee again.” This gives the poem a certain amount of momentum, pulling the reader through each couplet to hear what the next rhyme will be, like this:

Faith was the beam I removed—and went blind
You had to wash the clearness out with mud so I could see again
I left you once—because you told me that I should
When I come back, what will I be again?
The altar has room, James, for both of your legs
So don’t ask for that promise on just one knee again

          Ghazals originated anciently in Arabia, which immediately connotes Jerusalem, and both the Old and New Testaments. Goldberg touches on several biblical stories—Adam and Eve, Moses, Jonah—before landing on the story of Jesus, his experience in Gethsemane, and his healing of the blind man with clay.
          But the next stanza, the one when (I assume) Christ tells the man to leave, that one is less explicit. That stanza only says that the man told him to leave, and then he wondered what would happen when he was gone. This is like the story of the ten lepers, when Jesus told them all to go see the priests, and they weren’t healed until they left.
          It must have been a little scary to have to leave Jesus, and not know if you were going to be healed. The lepers must have wanted so badly to stay with Jesus, and when he told them to leave, it may have been a difficult thing to hear. But this is the great anxiety of our religion—to come to love and worship the Savior, but to have the faith that we can keep living in this world without him physically by our side. The faith that it took to obey Jesus, and leave him, is the same faith we must develop if we are to become like him. We must have the faith to act, knowing that with his Atonement, he can heal us.