Partaking and Passing On: The Work of Luci Shaw

content43d83ee2ef93fea2425d3770e85a9c83The following post by Allison Backous Troy honors Luci Shaw, the 2013 recipient of the Denise Levertov Award. This award is presented annually by Image and the SPU MFA and English departments to an artist or creative writer whose work exemplifies a serious and sustained engagement with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The world is
not with us—enough.
O taste and see.

–Denise Levertov, “Taste and See”

It may seem incongruous to speak about a poet by introducing the work of another poet—in this case, Luci Shaw via Denise Levertov. But many factors make this epigraph fitting of Luci’s work, vision, and character, the most immediate reason being that Luci is the recipient of the tenth annual Denise Levertov Award, an annual literary award given by Image JournalSeattle Pacific University, and the SPU MFA program in creative writing.

If it weren’t for Luci’s work and vision, it could be said the MFA program that shaped and spurred me wouldn’t exist. And if it weren’t for Luci’s character—generous and lovingly, stubbornly brilliant—many poets and writers who wrestle with Christian faith would not have the room to explore language and belief on equal terms.

Luci Shaw, alongside Levertov, has spent her life opening the world to us through poems and prose, her faith never smugly covering up life’s unanswerable complexities. Instead, Luci’s Christianity is one with muscle: it asks the hard questions, examines the difficulties of doubt, of thirsty children in Honduras, of a mother’s coldness in the face of a child’s need for love.

But if Luci’s faith can be compared to muscle, it is a supple one, unafraid to bend and bow to the mysteries that both haunt and comfort her: “Sterile, skeptics, yet we may be broken / to his slow, silent birth, his beginning / new in us.”

In Luci, we see a poet who does not shy away from faith, but without kitsch or pretense, clings to it with her whole being. We are brought to both beauty and wonder in a way that both satisfies and leaves us hungry, a way that demands total attention: “My whole body an ear, an eye,” she writes in “The Simple Dark,” a poem that could be considered a trademark of Luci’s aesthetic vision.

Luci’s poetry has taught me this: paying attention is hard, holy work, and we must do it all the time. And we must bring others to see what we see, make them stare a little longer than they are comfortable doing, in order to see the beauty and difficulty of the world that we live in.

This is what it means, in Luci’s work, to “taste and see”—to examine what is around us with an open heart, and to recognize that what makes the world feel frightening to us is often our own fear, which, when faced, can give way to something more.

In a small way, I try to share Luci’s vision with others. I’ve bought many of her almost thirty books, but none of them are on my shelves: they sit with friends, churchgoers, old students who needed something to read.

I’ve had the honor of working with Luci on some of her poems as an editor for The Other Journal, and I was always surprised at her graciousness, her fluid revisions, the kindness with which she took my simple questions.

I was completely surprised at the reception my students gave her work when I taught her latest book of poetry, Harvesting Fog. The journey through Luci’s book was slow and rewarding. Many of my students had never read a full book of poetry before, and were delighted to find a poet whose depictions of ladybugs, water, and midnight soul searching mirrored their own.

One student wrote a poem in response to one of Luci’s and submitted it to a magazine. Another student, a self-professed hater of poetry, wrote a poem about his Mountain Dew bottle in imitation of Luci that shocked both of us with its wit and humor.

We spent one class hour sitting in the woods outside campus, the morning sun spilling through the tree branches, all of us standing in a circle, listening to a Kenyan student read Luci’s work, her hushed, graceful voice hard to catch in the windy morning.

This was a lesson to us—the need to listen closely, to quiet ourselves, to pay attention. It is still a lesson to me in these days where I rush through job applications and frantically add items to my unborn son’s baby registry.

It is a lesson to all of us who would measure our faith by the products of our belief: committees headed, checks written, but our own midnight questions ignored out of fear, or apathy, or simple weariness at the endurance faith requires.

“We live in such a changing, complex, intricately formed universe. Every part of it deserves to be brought to our attention.” Luci said in a recent interview with Image.

And what does that attention do but force us to listen for God, even if what we hear is silence, or a murmuring that we cannot decipher? What does that attention do but erase our excuses, reveal our needs to us, humble us to the bone?

And if that is the case, what can we hope for? If we read Luci rightly, we hope for love, which she sees as a reality that, perfectly divine, is always drawing us:

“The tide that outward ebbs, turns then and inward flows,” she writes in “The Returns of Love,” comparing our blind seeking to the endless reach of God’s love for us. “And what I offer you, you’ll multiply to me.”

Luci’s body of work is a legacy that offers us a way to see the world as a testament to what is multiplied to us, an invitation to God’s table, which invites all and is for all. Her work challenges us to see that invitation in things both beautiful and difficult—to not only see, but to accept, partake, and pass on.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.