Accompanied By Angels: Poems of the Incarnation

Article by   February 2007

If poetry has any benefit at all for the Christian (and it does), then certainly one of its more valuable functions is to show us that things are not always straightforward and simple; that our lives are both complex and beautiful, both miniscule and meaningful. Poetry is, in a way, then, a reflection of what it means to be human. It is the transformation of the experience of the poet - the observations, meditations, and sensations occasioned by human life - into image and commentary. In short, it is the flesh made word. So it is fitting that Luci Shaw presents us with a collection of poetry, loosely centered on the history of Christ's life, in order to explore the significance of the word made flesh in the Incarnation.

As writer in residence at Regent College, Shaw is certainly entitled to our attention. Her bibliography includes some fifteen anthologies of poetry, along with numerous prose works (mainly essays and articles); she is a widely-recognized public speaker on the role of creativity in the Christian life; she has conducted creative writing workshops and led seminars both in the U.S. and abroad. More than this, however, Shaw deserves our attention because her poetry is consistently "indicative," by which I mean that she is constantly drawing our attention to, and thereby affirming, the reality of meaning in human experience. Thus, in the present case, while she might not be able to explain the Incarnation - and who among us could? - she implicitly assumes, throughout her poems, that it has meaning, a fact to which we shall return.

Shaw's compilation of 60-plus poems is an anthology of previously "published" works - some of which are to be found in other Shaw collections, but many of which first saw the light of day in "church bulletins, anthologies of Christmas readings, literary journals, and other people's Christmas cards," as she informs us in her Introduction (x). The anthologized texts are therefore necessarily diverse and wide-ranging, from the playful - e.g., "Odd Couples" (49), which maintains that "Things are so often / at odds with their containers" - to the meditative, as evidenced by her statement in "Bluff Edge, Whidbey Island" (43) that "I never encounter Advent without / Dark Friday." Yet everywhere, Shaw attempts to explore and illuminate the physical, corporeal, human element of our Savior's life - an effect of the Incarnation which is all too often overshadowed by the mind-blowing grace and mercy that are its cause.

The poems in Accompanied by Angels are divided across five sections - "Announcement," "Arrival," "Living," "Dying," and "Risen" - each of which concentrates on an aspect of Christ's life through several poetic illustrations. In some cases, Shaw will revisit familiar biblical territory, breathing vivid and dramatic life into the stories we know. Such a one is "Announcement" (8), where she contrasts the formal and contrived (though masterful) Annunciation paintings of "Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Titian, El Greco / [and] Rouault" with the sudden, unrehearsed, impromptu response which the young virgin Mary must have uttered in the wake of Gabriel's proclamation. "Simeon" (39-40) gives us a similar treatment of the "just and devout" figure of Luke 2; Shaw reminds us of the anticipation that Simeon endured in the face of "generations of crying babies / brought by new parents into the holy precincts." In both cases, and in others such as "The Overshadow" (13) or "Royalty" (48), we are offered a glimpse into the human reality of what the Incarnation meant, and what it might have been like for those who experienced it firsthand. Along the way, we are reminded that the infant Christ, too, was a "little howler" ("A Blessing for the New Baby," 22), a label which should give pause for thought to those of us who find ourselves distracted by uncooperative toddlers in Sunday morning's service.

In addition to these "historical" poems, Shaw includes texts which focus more on her contemporary and contemplative response to the redeemed life, though still offering a relevant illustration for one of the aforementioned sections. So, for instance, in her short poem, "Cross, Holy Week" (68), from the section on "Dying," she finds a reminder of her own participation in Christ's death:

On my chest this Friday afternoon
the elegant small signature
of violent death
swings on my neck as I walk,
gold tapping my deep heart,
telling me I was there.
(I did not mean to do it; I did
not know.) I slump under
the weight of it; my pulse
echoes the beat of hammers.

This is devotional poetry at its best: a small, quotidian image in which one discovers the affective depth of the human dimension of Calvary - that all humanity is culpable and responsible for the horrors of the Cross. One is reminded, stylistically, of Julian of Norwich's 14th-century Revelations, with the entirety of the universe contracted into the span of a hazelnut in the hand of God.

Shaw's poems are shot throughout with this kind of arresting image. She presents us with the sheer joy and pleasure of life as a physical, corporeal being when she inquires whether the infant Christ began "to love the way air sighs as it brushes in and out" of the body ("Breath," 28). In "The Meaning of White Oaks" (11-2) she finds a reminder of temporality and physicality - the human elements that connect our lives and Christ's - in the tree rings of a White Oak, the "dark ripples in / a slow pond" that represent a link between past and present, between "a crib / for a newborn" and "a table / for bread and wine." All through the collection, complementing these visionary insights, there is a quiet, subtle celebration of the minutiae of life - the small, the discrete, the momentary, those "little, nameless, unremembered, acts" which, as Wordsworth reminds us in "Tintern Abbey," might just add up to be "that best portion" of a human life.

As alluded to earlier, that Shaw finds meaning in the Incarnation should surprise no one; after all, as Christians, we affirm that it is apostasy to suggest otherwise of the event. However, the precise significance of the coming of Christ, as reflected by Shaw's anthology, is where her poems offer invaluable insights. In a collection which juxtaposes the historical realities - the "events, settings, and relationships" as Shaw puts it (xi) - of Christ's life on the one hand, and the modern experiences and responses of the 21st-century human on the other, Shaw accomplishes two worthy goals. First of all, she effectively incarnates the Incarnation for us: her poetry forces us to encounter the physical, visceral, and psychological implications of Christ's life on earth, whether in terms of humanizing the experiences of Christ and his contemporaries, or in terms of Shaw's insights, gathered from her own experiences, that point us to the life of Christ.

Secondly, and more importantly, Shaw reminds us of a fundamental truth concerning the Incarnation - a truth that the early Christian Church expressed most succinctly in the circa fifth-century Athanasian Creed: that the unity of God and Man expressed in the Incarnation was accomplished "not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God." In other words, the birth, life, and death of Christ mean much more to us than merely the eternal security and beatitude of our souls. The Incarnation has redeemed humanity - including the physical, visceral, and psychological portions of our own present lives. As such, then (and here is a good, solid doctrine that no reformed Christian ought to be ashamed of espousing), all human endeavors are redeemed, and all have the potential to be redemptive.

Shaw brilliantly reiterates this truth for us. In these poems, human activity itself is celebrated as meaningful, by virtue (and, ultimately, only by virtue) of the Incarnation. The cutting and trimming of a Christmas tree ("December 15," 45), the observation of a winter snowfall ("One," 19), a meditation occasioned by a Renaissance painting ("The Annunciatory Angel," 3), or another depicting the isolation of suffering ("Onlookers," 69) - all of these form a mosaic of image and experience that demonstrates the pervasive and restorative nature of Christ's life and work. By themselves, these poems are evocative and expressive - good things for poetry to be, by any standard. In light of the Incarnation, however, they are themselves vessels of truth: they are diminutive sacraments, communicating the essence of Christ through the substance of the word. And, we remember, this motion from essence to substance is, as John's Gospel reminds us, precisely what the Incarnation is all about.

Luci Shaw / Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006
Review by Jonathan Randle, Associate Professor of English, Mississippi College, Clinton, MS  

 

 



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