Giving the Beauty of Holiness a Tongue: A Review Essay on Adam’s Dream: Poems for a Latter Day by Doug Talley (Part One)*
During the fourth month of my wife’s first pregnancy, she started spotting. Startled by her yell from the bathroom where she’d been getting ready for work, I ran from the kitchen and met her halfway down the short apartment hall. “What should I do?” she asked, absently handing me her crimson-brown spotted undergarments as she turned, without waiting for my response, to call her obstetrician. While she spoke with her OB, I slipped into the bedroom and knelt beside the bed. Wringing the undergarments in my hands, I told God the bare-bones of our situation: our first child, four months along, my wife suddenly spotting please oh please oh please let everything be okay.
And everything was okay, with both mother and child, our anxieties notwithstanding.
While I’m confident our oldest daughter (she’s now eight) would still be with us even if I hadn’t offered my inarticulate petition to God, I’m not sure I would have learned what I did from the experience if I hadn’t hit my knees and at least tried to verbalize my desires. (Not that I’m saying God set the circumstances in motion in order to teach me a lesson, just that the lesson arose out of the experience.) After closing my prayer, I flipped open the scriptures that were sitting on the bedstand. They settled on Malachi 3, parts of which I’d memorized in seminary and which had come up in nearly every Sunday School or Priesthood lesson and sacrament meeting talk I’d ever heard on tithing. So I was familiar with the refrain: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse [. . .] and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”
What really got my synapses firing, though, was this statement a few lines down the page: “neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field.” Until that moment I had never associated my young family’s corporeal prosperity—which right then centered in my wife’s reproductive health—with the blessings of tithe-paying. But as I considered Micah’s statement that morning, I sensed that our meager young-couple offerings were accepted by God and that the fruit of my wife’s and my procreative bodies would not be “cast” from the womb prematurely.
I don’t pretend to understand why, even among God’s faithful, some pregnancies reach full-term and others miscarry or result in stillbirths or why some couples have no trouble conceiving while others never can. But I am convinced a) that God heard my clumsy pleas that morning and somehow appended them to the other prayers that had been, were being, and would be offered for the blessing of our family’s generations and b) that my oldest daughter is a great blessing to our immediate and extended family.
The power of honest language (even if it’s clumsy) offered to God on the altar of humility is cumulative. It extends well beyond the range of each individual voice raised in prayer and joins with other voices that express similar desires across time and space. It even extends beyond the limits of the specific words used in prayer and the capacity of the supplicant to use them. Brigham Young acknowledged as much in a sermon delivered to a group of saints at Box Elder, Utah, June 7, 1860. Speaking to the fruits of discipleship, he observed, “In praying, though a person’s words be few and awkwardly expressed, if the heart is pure before God, that prayer will avail more than the eloquence of a Cicero.” After all, he continued, “What does the Lord, the Father of us all, care about our mode of expression? The simple, honest heart is of more avail with the Lord than all the pomp, pride, splendor, and eloquence produced by men.” In Brother Brigham’s economy of worship, then, the clumsy, fervent prayer is more effectual than the well-wrought, yet dispassionate one.
In The Gorgias, Plato leveled a similar argument against the Sophists in Ancient Greece, suggesting that the Sophists’ eloquent mode of expression was “mere flattery” and “personal adornment” and that Truth (capital “T”) was not to be found in pursuits associated with the use of “mere words” (ref). I sometimes sense this same distrust of words in contemporary Latter-day Saint culture. In a recent sacrament meeting talk the speaker mentioned how much s/he admired a certain leader because this leader was a man of action, not words. Instead of talking about what needed to be done, he just did it. Imagine, this speaker seemed to be saying, it we talked less about service and just served.
While there’s certainly merit to this attitude—after all, as the adage goes, actions may speak louder than words—what about those saints for whom words are a matter of faith, which, as Joseph Smith taught, is a principle of action and of power and thus one means of providing service to others? What about those who successfully combine the simple, honest heart with an eloquent tongue, those who are convinced that words act upon and influence the world and our existence in and relationship to it in profound ways?
This is one of the central arguments of Doug Talley‘s recently published poetry collection, Adam’s Dream: Poems for a Latter Day. In this collection Talley weaves his experience and desires as a husband, father, and son into hymns, parables, prayers, and lyric meditations on relationships among humans and between humans and God. In the process, he revisits metaphors and narrative forms we often use to describe, to understand, and to commune with God and His kingdom. Talley thereby takes up language as a form of worship—meaning that he not only uses his poems to praise God, but also to emulate God, whose words create worlds out of chaotic matter.
If we think of poetry in etymological terms, as I think Talley would have us consider it—poesis being the Greek term for the process of making—God, then, is the first Poet. And Adam was His apprentice. It was Adam who first built an altar from which to approach the heavens in the true order of prayer and it was Adam who named the animals and cultivated the earth, bringing order to a fallen existence. Talley has also entered this apprenticeship. And with Adam’s Dream he has crafted an altar of words around which we might gather as he translates the language of angels into an extended, eloquent, fervent prayer that our souls and our families might be touched and transformed by the simple beauties and the language of holiness.
*In the interest of full disclosure: I received a review copy of Adam’s Dream from the publisher through the Association for Mormon Letters. This review was originally published as part of AML’s book review program. You can find the original review here.