Giving the Beauty of Holiness a Tongue: A Review Essay on Adam’s Dream: Poems for a Latter Day by Doug Talley (Part Two)
Adam’s Dream is divided into four sections: “Land within Arm’s Reach,” “Temples Framed by Hand,” “Voices from Another Room,” and “Flowers of a Kiss.” Each section contains eighteen poems and is framed by a nineteenth. These extra poems unfold one line at a time throughout each section, with a new line appearing in the header of each page on which a new poem begins (as in this sample page).
As an argument for the structural unity of Talley’s book, I submit that together these extra poems serve as an extended, four-part prayer. The final of these four parts—the extra poem that appears in the section titled “Flowers of a Kiss”—bears this argument out well (in order to suggest the associative power of this selection, I’ve left off the end punctuation because in the book each line appears followed only by an ellipsis):
- The autumnal decline resigns the spirit
Yet beauty remains a daily commonplace
As ironies swarm like dark stars and haunt
Songs of the spirit will answer need in the smallest particular
Spirit and flesh join as equal tutors of belief
In covenant after the manner of stars and flowers
The two are made one
As type and shadow of a resurrection
The heavens open in more ways than one
Eternity courses time like a thread of words
A few key words remain, even as the flower fades
Culminating in further illumination at the veil
Words and gestures of faith resound through all generations of time
Until even the harshest irony surrenders
One word above all others
Circumscribed in one eternal round
A woman shall compass a man
With no beginning and no end
in the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.
Each part of this petition could arguably take the section heading beneath which it appears as its title, though each could also just as easily be unnamed. Whatever the case, the poet veils his book with this poem-prayer in all its associative glory, a veil through which he reaches in order to gather readers around the altar of worship where he drops words like live coals on the tongue. Among other reasons the poet does this because, as he observes in his Foreword to the book, “The beauty of holiness begs a tongue”—and with his lyric gifts and his prayer he sets out to share and to prepare readers to receive that beauty lingually.
In this light, consider the book’s opening poem, which appears beneath the following statement—the first line of the first section’s extra poem: “In an early light the beauty of holiness is manifest,” which suggests the innate relationship between holiness and light. The poem is titled “Hymn of the Morning Star”:
- Morning spreads across the sky.
Birds begin to sing.
Their voices raise our thoughts of praise
to Thee, our God and King.
Who else gave the sparrow breath?
Crocus its blue song?
Or gave us choice to add our voice
in worship all day long?
Who but Thee, O Lord, our God,
nurtures each good seed
and answers prayer with patient care
according to our need?
Give to us an angel’s bread,
though a crumb or trace,
and then we’ll sing an offering
as with an angel’s grace.
With this intricately arranged opening hymn, Talley not only mirrors in his book the structure of most LDS worship services—which typically begin with a hymn—but he offers a fitting invocation to his collection.
This connection between singing and praying is clear enough, especially in Mormon culture: As the Lord told Emma Smith in 1830 when he called her to compile a book of hymns: “my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” And the connection between poetry—especially lyric poetry—and singing is also fairly clear: In his “Defence of Poetry” (written in 1821 and published in 1840), Percy Bysshe Shelley observes that “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men [sic] entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” In “Hymn of the Morning Star,” Talley draws both connections, suggesting that as he and his fellow poets “begin to sing[,] / Their voices raise our [desires and] thoughts of praise / to [. . .] God.” Framed this way, the poet becomes an intermediary figure, one who might sincerely and eloquently sing in order to “move and soften” others, including, perhaps, God.
In Adam’s Dream Talley sings a variety of songs, leading a multivoiced chorus of lyric meditations on and mediations for the world. Among others, this chorus of fellow poets includes: God, Adam, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Dante, Vergil, Horace, Shakespeare, William Stafford, Talley’s kids. This multivocality is apparent in one of my favorite poems from the collection, “Latter-day Aesthetic.” The poem begins, “I once had a dream I was William Stafford / riding a bicycle to China to become a poet.” Not only does the poet slip into “the guise of another” in his dream, he also does it in this poem by taking on something of Stafford’s own “natural mode of speech,” which American poet James Dickey described as being “gentle, mystical, half-mocking and highly personal daydreaming about the western United States.” Within the shadow of this mystical/playful/personal voice and, in Talley’s words, “encouraged by the views of an oriental sage / cycling alongside [him] with the same ambition,” the poet plays with the fiscal advice proffered by this muse—”In China, he said, you make good living as poet”—and spins it into an exploration of what makes poetry a means to living well. “True or not,” he says of the sage’s bit of fortune cookie wisdom,
- we were entirely content, happy
to chase on a bicycle our dream in a dream.
What was it but a voice from another room,
a whispered oracle from some templed vision,
a truly original idea perhaps? I think of Adam,
the first in so many things, tending red peonies
in a garden, the first man to laugh, the first
to reach for a woman with love instead of lust,
the first to use words as metaphor and symbol.
Perhaps I was the first to dream of crossing
the Pacific on a bicycle in the guise of another
—a simple, animated descendent of the first
of all true originals—led from the brink of hell
to the fringes of heaven on a wave of ocean
flamed by sun and moon, believing all the while
a poem must sparkle like water for the soul
in creating the world, or prove nothing at all.
Beyond suggesting that poetry can help us live deeply and well by engaging us with language and imagery that ignite the imagination to conceive of new dreams and to reach for and to inhabit other wor(l)ds, “Latter-day Aesthetic” also argues for the poem as sacrament, as “water for the soul.” Talley fully realizes this aesthetic communion in “Perspective on Greater Eternities.” In this poem he “consider[s] the great cities of the earth, / how each from the air appears set like a jewel” in Earth’s crust, and how Christ refused this “handful of baubles” when Satan offered it to him “in the mount.” To each of Satan’s temptations Christ had responded by referring to something an earlier prophet had spoken. “It is written,” he said, reaffirming what Talley calls “a few, old words” and “reshuffling” them in the new context “into loaves of bread,” into sacramental language that would someday feed generations of God’s children and raise them into holier, immortal flesh.
Flesh and blood, body and spirit, the sacred and the commonplace, heaven and earth, man and woman, the language of worship and everyday speech: These are paired terms Talley juxtaposes, explores, and combines throughout Adam’s Dream and through which he seeks to resolve the ironies of mortality—or at least to ease the burdens imposed on us by them. I think of one poem in particular that’s drenched in irony and whose imagery is drenched in iron: “Parable for the Pulse of the Wrist.” In this lyric narrative, the poet recites a story he’s fond of telling and retelling, because, he says, “I never tire of its strange beauty, / its happy ending returning over and over to smile at me.” The story:
- One bleak winter evening a good doctor deftly cut
the umbilical cord wrapped three times around the neck
of my firstborn to save her from strangling to death.
An intern noted the moment precisely, seven past seven,
because, like a garden hose suddenly gushing water,
the cord, once severed, whipped a circle of blood
halfway across the room against a pale yellow wall,
against the blue scrubs of those standing by the bed,
against the face of a clock fixed at seven past seven.
The splatter of blood on glass could have been a chime,
a red stripe announcing its own peculiar name for the hour.
The irony of the poem centers on the fact that blood had to be shed in order for the poet’s firstborn child to survive delivery, a bloodshed beyond that which may typically accompany childbirth. The poet draws a parallel between this blood sprayed across a delivery room and the blood shed by Christ in Gethsemane. With this parallel and his extended meditation on it, he suggests that, yes, childbirth and its antecedents—procreation and pregnancy, especially—are acts of atonement, ones that send the mother deep into the valley of death in order that she might give life to her child. Talley also suggests that these acts and their associated ironies can—as the iron (the blood) that whipped across everyone and everything in his story—give life to more than just the child. They can also tutor the belief of an anxious mother and father. They can return a little bit of innocence to the world. They can course through time like and in response to the thread of words strung in effectual prayer between and for a family’s generations.