Dustin Pickering reviews “Our Purpose in Speaking” (MSU Press, 2018), the debut book of poems by Emerson College’s senior writer-in-residence William Orem, who recently won the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Award. Pickering consistently familiarizes readers with Orem’s poetry collection from a particular understanding that is in tune with the reviewer’s greater appreciation for poetry. In doing so, the reviewer situates Orem’s verses within a greater history of poetry inspired by an engagement with God, life, being, existence, nature and world from the optics of contemporary Christianity, and in particular Catholicism. For the greater readership, the review elucidates the relevance of such introspective and contemplative poetry with religious motifs and undertones as one that is equally innovative and in constant development, which is best exemplified by Pickering’s engagement with specific poems and with the collection as a whole.
Our Purpose in Speaking, an award winning first poetry collection from Emerson College’s writer-in-residence William Orem, is a stunning search into the spiritual heart of its writer. Orem quotes St. Augustine’s de Magistro at the beginning, seeming to illuminate the purpose of the collection from its opening pages. de Magistro is St. Augustine’s discussion on teaching, epistemology, language, and prayer with his devoted son. Our Purpose in Speaking is a deeply metaphorical spiritual journey undertaken by a soul saturated in grief and longing. Throughout this poetic vision, Orem discovers his faith through life’s mortal motion in brief stillness. In the poem “Adonai Adonai”, the poet writes of the God of Earth:
“My God: He
bent the rainbow in his hairy hands, made
Earth dry when it was and
when it was…”
The poem tells of a God resembling a human father who gently bends the rainbow —a delicate deliberation of might and gentleness— before us. His ways cannot be known or understood. The Earth is made “absurdly” fecund, implying an inability to reason concerning this grandeur. In “God’s Grandeur”, Gerard Manley Hopkins writes: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” Orem’s musing is identical. The poem ends gracefully in powerful resolution with these lines: “…when death would come, / or bad sickness, he’d be there, / stroking his antique face in concern, / telling in the fevered shell of your ear / how light is from light is from light.” The reader must wonder why the ear is “told”—this implies wise authority. God is a humanized Father whose strength endures beyond even the wildest hope, sickness, or destruction. This poem is powerful enough to still the reader’s contemplative process. The expressions are similar to Hopkins’ poem but the suggestion is ultimately ulterior. God is present in Orem’s poem. However in “God’s Grandeur”, Hopkins recognizes God’s power through His Creation and its vastness.
St. Augustine writes, “…since there is one in heaven Who is the Teacher of all. Furthermore He Himself will teach us what ‘in Heaven’ is—He Who prompts us externally through men by means of signs, so that we are instructed to be inwardly turned toward Him.” Again, this reflects the authority of God Himself as it demonstrates the nature of teaching and language. God is the All-Powerful instructor and He employs His signs in everyday life. We must be wise to perceive them. For instance, in the poem “In Memoriam Erwin Schroedinger: August 1887-January 1961,” the poet is reminded of what he already knew. The opening lines perfectly indicate the problem of human awareness. The poet writes of the cat with a sad indifference, reflecting the godlike understanding with which humanity is blessed. The title is surprisingly foretelling. Schroedinger is remembered for his thought experiment “Schroedinger’s cat.” The paradox illuminates the phenomenon known as quantum entanglement. In entanglement, two states can mingle and form a new state. This implies that all quantum states are composed of two states. Orem writes in simple terms, “…no questions we with our puffed-up simian brains / and all our tricks and powers still can’t scan.”
The use of the phrase “puffed-up” displays bold irony. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge: Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” The verse admonishes patience in understanding. When we believe we have understood something, we fail to understand it sufficiently. St. Paul is not condemning the search for knowledge (as many Bible verses encourage this pursuit for its own sake), but instructing the person how to approach understanding. This poem is not a memorial to Schroedinger so much as a question concerning alternate states of being. Mortality is being both alive and dead— therefore, two states mingle. It is entirely possible that death is another state of being that superimposes over a state of which we are not aware. The ingenious suggestion to St. Paul reminds us we are short of understanding by the mere fact we cannot know what lies beyond. The cat in the poem believes it knows its partner is alive when it recognizes the sign of the jingling collar. Yet the animal is profoundly mistaken in its certainty. The human is aware but the situation invokes his agnosticism. The poem leaves me as a reader in quiet reflection, proving its success as a poem.
The poem following “In Memoriam: Edwin Schroedinger August 1887-January 1971” is beautifully erotic, suggesting entanglement among the poems themselves. This alternate state from death is sensuality. The poem “Handmaiden” touches the erotic impulse by inviting the spiritual dimensions of service and charity into sexuality. The poem is about the Annunciation of Mary, God’s mother. The poet questions the deeper instructions within Miryam’s virgin birth. She is God’s “handmaiden”— the angel “placed a finger” on her womb. The use of “placed” reflects gentleness and not force. Miryam is given the greatest pleasure of birthing God Himself. Orem writes of her experience, posing a question: “Tell us, O Lady, / how spirit enters flesh to / the experience of man; / tell us of that moment where / such dumb beasts as we are can meet / such speaking souls as we may be.” The question invokes the mysteries associated with the soul, evolution, and coming into being. The poem ends with an invocation to Miryam: “You felt.” The poet questions Miryam as he explores this fathomless mystery because she felt it deeply as experience. He inclines his ear to her as a pupil. Her story is a sign unto itself, unveiling magic and perplexity. Human minds can only stare deeply into this region with awe.
Orem’s poems unite epistemological questions and religious experience. The Teacher is God Himself who is made into a deeply human Father, gentle and strong. The ideal Man is seen in this image of God the Father. The collection is too deep to explore fully in a single review. The author pursues the spiritual life with the humanistic devotion of Catholicism while basking in the poetry with which life is imbued. Language, as we know from St. Augustine’s text, teaches us internal silence in prayerful reflection. Life, whether of Earth or other people, is instruction. Even song brings the mind to deeper pondering. William Orem’s first collection is a masterpiece of interwoven conceptual depth. Each poem reflects off the others like a ray of light in a hall of mirrors. Orem’s grief is contained within each word as this poetry is not merely instruction, but visitation of experience through memory.
Our Purpose in Speaking poses as many questions as it attempts to answer. Does it actually attempt to answer? Perhaps it merely leads you to a deeper appreciation. If you read this collection and are left with a reverence for life, you have succeeded in intuitively grasping its purpose. Our purpose in speaking is to remind each other why life is a mystery—how our knowledge of things exists to experience it and nothing more.