Religious faith has inspired poets for likely as long as faith and poetry have existed. About a third of the Old Testament is written in poetic form. The Greek and Roman poets were inspired by their pantheon of gods. In Christian times, a considerable amount of poetry made its way into church liturgy and popular culture as well; the Christmas carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is only one of many songs and poems that come from what are called the “O Antiphons,” songs of appeal sung at the Vespers service in the last week of Advent. And faith continues to inspire contemporary poets like Scott Cairns, Luci Shaw, Wendell Berry, Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, Julia Kasdorf, and many more.
Tania Runyan is another contemporary poet inspired by faith, and her most recent collection demonstrates just how unusual and surprising that source of inspiration can be.
The 54 poems of Runyan’s What Will Soon Take Place spring from an unexpected source—the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, or what some faith traditions call “The Apocalypse of St. John.” This is the account of the end times, and what John describes ranges from the heavenly and sublime to the grotesque and horrific. In her foreword, Runyan explains why she is using Revelation as a source and framework for these poems, and how she reads John’s account in the context of the past rather than the future, enabling her to “live” the book more fully in the present. That is the key to What Will Soon Take Place.
She begins with poems about Patmos, the island in the Aegean to which John was exiled and where he wrote Revelation. The subjects and themes move to the letters to the seven churches; the images of the scroll and the seven seals; the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; the major characters of John’s account—the antichrist, the “great whore of Babylon,” and the rider on the white horse; and the coming of the new kingdom. I almost laughed to see the title of two poems, both good examples of how she applies Revelation to the present—“The Great Harlot Takes a Selfie” and “The Antichrist at the Mall”—and then I considered what those titles and poems imply about all of us.
Consider “Ephesus,” a poem taken from the letter to the church at Ephesus, one of the seven churches cited by name in Revelation. The letter is a generally glowing account, until it says that the church has lost its first love. Here’s how Runyan considers losing that first love.
I was in love with God for one afternoon.
Twenty, alone on a beach, I dropped rocks
by the edge and watched the ocean wash
gray into blue, brown into red. An hour
of my crunching steps, the clack of pebbles,
the water’s rippling response. Never mind
invisibility. We were the only ones, and I
so intoxicating—sand-blown hair,
denim cut-offs, no reason to believe
anyone’s faith could dissolve. My prayers
were as certain as the stones I threw,
the answers as sure as the cove’s blue floor.
Runyan has published three previous collections of poetry: A Thousand Vessels (2011); Second Sky (2013), and Simple Weight (2013). She’s also the author of three non-fiction works: How to Read a Poem (2014), How to Write a Poem (2015), and How to Write a College Application Essay (2017). She’s also a rather amazing fiddle player (I can say that; I’ve heard her play).
What Will Soon Take Place is arresting and often jarring. It will make you smile and often squirm. And it suggests that we should perhaps be living our lives as if each present day is the end times.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish