June 7, 2011

Review: Mark D. Bennion, "Psalm & Selah: A Poetic Journey Through The Book of Mormon"

a musical term with uncertain meaning. 
It may mean either a pause or a command 
to start the music again" (103). 

Title: Psalm and Selah: A Poetic Journey Through the Book of Mormon
Author: Mark D. Bennion
Publisher: Parables
Genre: Poetry
Year: 2009
Pages: 109
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-61539-804-1
Price: $6.99

I love finding new ways to discover the Book of Mormon. Depending on the approach, authors often uncover previously unnoticed aspects of the text. Hugh Nibley, Brant Gardner, John Sorenson, Richard Bushman, Grant and Heather Hardy, Richard Rust, Terryl Givens, Royal Skousen—each of these Mormon writers have brought their unique backgrounds to bear on the text. They take the Book of Mormon seriously by asking questions of culture, politics, authorship, theology, etc.

But there is much more to our religion than these questions can cover. Mark D. Bennion uses poetry to explore the Book of Mormon in Psalm & Selah: a poetic journey through The Book of Mormon.

Psalm & Selah is an "attempt at imagining the inner lives of fascinating people, places, and events that appear for a few verses in the Book of Mormon and then drift into the shadows of the past" (xi). In forty-seven lyrically rich selections, Bennion casts light into shadows of the Book of Mormon narrative. To give you a feeling for what Bennion offers us, I reluctantly take a pair of scissors to his work in the rest of this review, recognizing that only a full reading can begin to capture what Bennion has done.

His opening poem, "Tribute," hints at potential insights one might glean from pondering less-prominent Book of Mormon characters. This seems to be the only poem in the book from the narrative perspective of Bennion himself:

          However much I admire Nephi
              I know it is with Sam
                   I hold the greater kinship. [...]

          I just kneel down to knowing
              A story has more than a rebellious

          And a future prophet. There are those braced
              Against a holy staff, adjusting their shoes,
                   Unnoticed (5-6).

As this selection suggests, poetry allows Bennion a voice through which he can flesh out the underrepresented figures, scenes, and emotions in the Book of Mormon. In this regard, some of his most affecting pieces are written about women, as in Sariah's "Sorrow and Song":

          That morning you came to me
          I saw the lamp arising in your beard,
          a flash of iron and fire
          wisping in your robes and hair,

          dreams full in your mouth like jamid*
          and your gait uneven on the hardest soil.
          I thought I knew what you were about to say,
          how sweat and sand would become our clothing,


          ...Forgive me, Lehi,
          for my complaint and hardness. I thought I saw the end
          as you believed in our beginning.

          Praise me, Lehi, for my denial
          and acceptance, for my quiet confidence
          in a goat-haired tent (25-26).

*Bennion, who has studied a bit of Hebrew, occasionally includes Arabic and Hebrew words. At the back of the book the author includes a "Notes & Nods" section, defining unusual terms or calling attention to sources which inspired him. "Jamid," he notes, is "a hard round food containing goat's or camel's cheese, grass, and various herbs" (103). Parenthetically, A version of "Sorrow and Song" appeared previously in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Others have appeared in publications including BYU Studies, Irreantum, caesura, LDS Life, Natural Bridge, Perspective, and the Steinbeck Review.

Later in the book, Bennion seizes an opportunity to add another woman to our cast of characters in a poem based on Alma 23:14"And the Amalekites were not converted, save only one." The poem, "Tree of Life," describes this "one" as a woman awakening at dawn beneath a dying tree, turning to search for a living one:

          She's heard of the high spots up ahead
          hiding muskrats in the bushes
          and just beyond, fruit dangles from a cluster
          of branches while the light succors a lone,

          solitary tree. It gleams like a coastline emerging
          or the first rapture of rumored snow...(48)

I'm not a poetry expert, but I have a few tricks to try and experience a poem. I try to read the sentences aloud, following the cadence of the lines while also paying close attention to punctuation to keep the sentences together. Note the stanza break between "lone," and "solitary tree," above. The sentence is connected, but the pause allows for the emphasis to fall on that tree so that it emerges suddenly in the poem as the focus of her searching. The author depicts a holy sensuality in a way that the Book of Mormon narrative simply can't, as she arrives at the tree:

          [...] and reaches for the fruit
          in its summons and flesh. This beginning
          far flung, yet encouraging,
          as she basks in color and size, inhales

          the juice and aroma between crispness
          and candor, the Holy of Holies in scent
          and yield, how she sings, like the morning wind,
          her mouth, a sapphire, with this fiery, luscious bite (49).

(Notice the break at "inhales?" Gotta breathe in, before moving to the next word.) Thus, Bennion introduces a fresh character, a searching, confident woman, by pondering on a verse which left so much unsaid: "save only one" (Alma 23:14).

In "Dear Father, Love, Abish," Bennion writes from the perspective of the Lamanitish girl who believed in the Messiah, but had to keep it to herself because of prevailing Lamanite culture (Alma 19): "How did we keep / that frightening joy inside?" she asks, "Somehow we said nothing / and still believed, remained silent / as the desert before rain" (53). "Nothing" and "silent" break the enthusiasm, cut it short like Abish felt cut short. Soon she would be able to shout, as the poem ultimately shows.

In addition to such well-drawn characters, the poems brim with pleasing scenery and emotion, all clothed in elegant lyrics. Refreshing. Sometimes the aesthetics of a poem are enhanced by typography. "Rameumptom" gives me the feeling of a high, but shaky tower, as a rambling voice sings:

Stand covered with suave velvet, utterances
thin as velvum, assemblies
with redundant preachers.
Though they started, rife with grand intentions,
like the apprenticed weaver
with devoted strands of labor
stitching around the fragile cloth of truth,
but then after only a few 
he hangs the wrong side,
jangling with empty imaginations
and endless genealogies, no room for unrehearsed
prayer or the seedbed of clear
just fine goods counted or procured,
such multiple words gilded with pretentious lace. (57-58). 

The juxtaposition of initial intentions versus actual usage presents a new reading for an old tale. Bennion uses objects from the Book of Mormon as launchpads for higher contemplation ("launchpads"? how unpoetic!) Another example of such insight comes from "Compass," in which the author sings of the Liahona (without ever calling it Liahona). Here's a stunning observation:

          Its magnetism awakens as famine
          starts to thrum—the straight-line
          boredom, weariness, rule. And

          before long, you see it in every stone-
          face, in each yellow evening, it cools
          on the horizon: Remember smallness," (14).

Bennion's work is clearly borne of deep contemplation, thus inspiring further contemplation on the part of the reader. A few more examples should suffice.   

The lament of a fallen people: "Would that we could remove / the scab of robber and antichrist. / We shout for the formerly baptized / to wear again the water of your shores" (72).

The recollection of Lehi: "I recall the dust / of my gold staircase and hear / a sandal lift from Jerusalem stone" (9).

The Nephite pride cycle: "Might you risk again the shades / of afternoon, the swinging / of our prosperity and repentance?" (72). "This is my mite and cumin—to not ignite / the torch when tares are overgrown" (82).

Excitement and renewal at the Waters of Mormon: "Amid the tingle of forest and shadows, / you ford through the water / to the sway of its purl and girth, / a surge of billow where air arrives / in speckles of light. The only / distance is the reach of your hand / and the life after petition and promise" (40).

In Psalm & Selah, Bennion locates instances of uncertain meaning in the Book of Mormon and turns them into opportunities to pause, or as commands to start the music again. Selah!


My apologies to Mark Bennion, author of this book which I'm finally reviewing after a year and a half. I enjoyed it back then, now I read it again. 
I think I just wasn't ready yet.   


Chris Henrichsen said...

Thanks for the review. When I taught in Rexburg, Mark was very kind to me.

BHodges said...

Thanks for commenting, Chris. This was a really cool read.

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