Monday, July 27, 2015

Review of Psalm Sonnets

Alexandra Glynn, Psalm Sonnets. Resource Publications, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1498223669. 54 pages. $8.00

From her title, Alexandra Glynn makes it clear what readers should expect from her collection of poems.  In the same way that the biblical psalms explore questions of sin and belief and doubt and worship, Glynn’s poems do the same, though exclusively in sonnet form.  This is a book for believers, those who know many of the biblical stories already, not for those who are outside of the faith who would find references to the “bracelets, signet, and the staff” as “signs” confusing, at best.  These poems, then, are devotional, and Glynn makes no apology for that.

That is not to say, though, that Glynn does not present the more complicated questions of life in her writing.  In fact, the opening poem, “With palms in hand,” (and I have no idea if she purposely began with a poem that has an anagram of psalm in its title or not, but I like to think so) begins with the speaker talking about following Jesus into Jerusalem, but ends by asking if she will “go out in the bitterness of the night/With greed, envy, and hatred in my heart/To meet with those who do what is not right?”  She knows that we humans, even believers, are flawed, fallible creatures, as capable of acting like the disciples who abandoned Jesus as those who sing his praises.

There are also poems that move past such questions to try to provide home and comfort, as she moves quickly from her first two poems that are concerned with humanity’s sinfulness to a poem like “A tale is told like a light,” which ends

            Our consolations, as light after light,
            Are retold to us year by year and word
            By word; so we to the story belong
            Just as a melody does to a song.

Glynn combines the power of story, in general, to the story the angels tell—here summed up simply with “Do not fear”—to prove, as she says, consolation.  She wants readers to see the hope that comes through the collection, that ultimately drives the doubts and questions away.

One interesting theme that develops throughout is that of loneliness and community.  Almost in the middle of the collection, two poems—“You left our Christianity” and “We used to sit together clad in white”—tell of someone who has left the faith from the point of view of the person still there.  While it is clear the speaker is concerned about the apostate’s soul (the closing of both poems make that quite clear), the speaker also seems to miss the other’s physical presence.

This loneliness becomes quite explicit in “I am lonely like Joseph,” where the speaker is unable to see the beauty of the world because of that loneliness.  The speaker also clearly seeks spiritual comfort in a poem like “Befriend me in my shame,” which ends with the speaker asking God (I’m assuming) to “Help me, acknowledge that you know my name;/Walk side by side with me in my great shame.”  The final poem, though, seems to seek inclusion in a community, not just acceptance by Jesus, as it opens “Don’t kick me out.  Don’t gather around me/And list my sins and faults and what I said/And did not say, last year, last month.”  This poem examines the idea of a community that seems more interested in taking notes on the speaker’s life than simply loving that person.

I would have liked to see more poems like the one that concludes the collection, as it is here that Glynn seems to most honestly wrestle with challenging ideas.  In other poems, such as “The snow is pure and white but I am not,” the conclusions are too easy, moving quickly from sin to salvation without any true struggle, any anguish that we see in the biblical psalms that end without clear resolution.  Similarly, I would have liked to see more diversity in the poems, as they are all written as Shakespearean sonnets with titles that match the first line of the poem.  While Glynn explores thematic diversity, she omits any exploration of the form, which could have added to the collection’s complexity.

That said, Glynn’s title sets forth exactly what she sets out to do, and her collection lives up to that expectation.  She has written a collection of devotional poems that explore biblical stories, ideas, and themes that people of faith will find interesting and intriguing.

- Kevin Brown, Professor of English, Lee University. Author, most recently, of Liturgical Calendar.

copyright 2015 by Kevin Brown - All Rights Reserved