Thursday, November 2, 2017

God Is a Laughing Bedouin - Cullene Bryant (Inanna Publications)

Today's book of poetry:
God Is a Laughing Bedouin.  Cullene Bryant.  Inanna Publications & Education Inc.  Toronto. Ontario. 2017.

Good Lord.  Today's book of poetry was born Catholic and raised in the United Church of Canada, taught Sunday School as a teenager and was President of the teen social organization at our church, it was called Hi-C at the time.  But I am not a Christian and do not believe in God.

All of that preamble before letting you in on a secret I am sure you don't know about - God Is a Laughing Bedouin, Cullene Bryant's first book of poetry, is stunning.

Bryant, a retired minister from the United Church of Canada, among many other things, has done something unique with God Is a Laughing Bedouin.  Unique isn't a word we get to use all that often here at Today's book of poetry, we don't throw it around.  What makes God Is a Laughing Bedouin unique is that Bryant has found a way to bridge her considerable and unassailable faith and belief to modern feminism, but more to the point for Today's book of poetry, Bryant's bridge goes all the way stone cold fine poems.

Cullene Bryant's poetry is a gas.  Bryant is candid, sublime, compassionate and hilariously funny.  These poems cover sex, marriage, divorce, illness, dying, mourning and so on but they always include Bryant's faith.  But what faith.  Her rock solid beliefs are always most challenged by her own questions.  As much as Bryant embraces her belief's she challenges them.  This makes for some very surprising poetry.

Embarking I

All the way to Jerusalem I travelled
alone photographed David's mosque
rode an Arab's horse
to Petra city of red rocks
women scarved in black prayed
in the church of Our Father
walked the road to the cross

All the way unseen, God followed
jingled coins in my blue jeans' pocket
while I bartered in the market place
for an Aramaic cross to wear
around my neck sat across
from me at a marble table
tasted goat's cheese sipped a glass
of Galilean wine in Bethlehem
just beyond the souvenir shops
a Bedouin appeared swathed
in white down to his sandals proffered
coffee camel reds Arabian sweets
pointed to blue window frames
everywhere For good luck
We have a saying here there's the blue of the sky
blue of the sea blue of a women's eyes
He looked straight into my black pupils
But all your women's eyes are brown
Mine too He winked
offered me his arm but I hung back
not knowing all the while
God is a laughing Bedouin


And if Today's book of poetry looks at the poems without the Cullene Bryant religious context - they are still and always will be - excellent.  Bryant's years on the pulpit have left her knowing what to say to an audience and when.

God Is a Laughing Bedouin is a great title for a book of poetry and this is a great book of poems.  Today's book of poetry was poetry smitten.  In some distant dream world these are the poems I would insist my long dead mother read.  My mother, Effie Margaret wasn't much of a reader but I'm convinced that if she had read God Is a Laughing Bedouin she would have become a big poetry reader.  Bryant's take on faith would have given my mother a great deal of comfort and relief, it would have made her laugh till she peed.  I'm certain of it.

Immaculate Conception

I wonder how it happened when the Holy Spirit
came upon her a soldier
on the corner side street  in Nazareth
sweating in his uniform too big for
him belonged to his uncle who died
in the last war spots a young Jewess
carrying a jug of water on her head
He steps up demands a drink pours
all of it over his face licks
his lips salty
I want more than a drink, girl

Squinting in the sun she cannot
see his smirk  fingers claw
just above her elbow sleeve torn
vessel smashed  she is overshadowed

A great white dove
soars down from heaven blinded
by the sun she cannot
see what knocks her down
her head hits the rocks skin
of upper thigh scratched raw
smothered by wings moth stuffed
with feathers  she is overshadowed

An ecstatic vision as when Moses hidden
in a cleft of rock saw God's back
glide by in clouds
or as when Jacob wrestled
with the angel and limped
away at dawn this time
when God passed by he let her see is thigh
his mortal penis he wounded
in the groin fell
softly on the grass
he was overshadowed

When the Holy Spirit came
upon her Mary wept
washed blood from her legs
hid behind locked doors
afraid to tell her mother
ashamed  kept silent
until the inevitable


Our morning read was held indoors, after a splendid Halloween Ottawa is now cold and wet and rainy.  Bryant's poems made for a humorous and reflective hour.  The women on our staff all agreed that God Is a Laughing Bedouin is the sleeping beauty/bandit of the poetry world.  Today's book of poetry hopes Bryant gets all the notice the poetry would has.

Today's book of poetry knows it is harder for women to get published than men, and come to think of it, the entire sweep, it is all harder for women, period.  Strong and compassionate poetry like this is a reason for celebration.

We still live in a misogynist society and we do need to hear the voices of strong women, and we need to listen to them and attentively.  These voices are necessary and reading Bryant's God Is a Laughing Bedouin will help show you why.

When poets as smart, experienced and heartstrong as Cullene Bryant offer themselves up - we listen.

Make My Coffin Wide

when I die make my coffin
wide so I can spread my legs
that's how I spent most of my life

spread your legs tuck in your butt
point your toes flex and point
bend your knees that's it ladies one, two three

spread your legs stretch and bend
clean the toilet hang up the clothes
sew and mend unwind the hose
that Harry forgot to put away last summer

when you're tired spread your legs
in a hot tub filled with bubbles
that is    after  you've scrubbed it
'cause nobody else will

spread your legs c'mon Honey open wide
sorry about last night what's the matter forget the fight

spread your legs I can see his head
breathe deeply just like I said
don't push    that's it    relax
good girl

spread your legs a little bit more
this may hurt a tiny sore
just like a bee sting
don't move your legs relax

spread your legs first one then the other
it's easier that way we don't want you to fall between
the bed and the stretcher
we'll support your shoulder
just slide over that's it good girl

when I die make my coffin wide
so I can stretch out on either side
point my toes tuck in my pelvis
breathe deeply count to four
relax and spread my legs


Today's book of poetry wants to send copies of God Is a Laughing Bedouin to almost everyone I know.  Cullen Bryant - please write more poetry, you are very good at it and we want to hear what you have to say.

Cullene Bryant

Cullene Bryant (June 4,1941-April 23, 2017) was a retired minister in the United Church of Canada, and mother of two and grandmother to 5 grandchildren. She authored two collections of short fiction, Llamas In The Snow (1993) and In the Dry Woods (2005). The title story of the latter collection, "In The Dry Woods," was awarded the 2006 national Canadian Christian Writing Award. Her stories have aired on CBC radio and appeared in various literary journals, among them Room of One’s Own; Fiddlehead; Descant and The Iowa Review. God is a Laughing Bedouin is her first poetry collection.

"By turns reverent and irreverent, God is a Laughing Bedouin puts a human face on the Biblical story and confronts the stages of a woman's life with wit and fearlessness. Bryant's collection reminds me of Colm Toibin's celebrated The Testament of Mary in its candour and compassion. Playful yet immensely moving, these poems show us what it means to be mortal."
     —Evelyn Lau

"It's rare to encounter poems that break free of conventions. Bryant recognizes this is where poetry's power is as she turns the questions of aging, spiritual life, intimacy and death inside out. The result is exhilarating."
     —Betsy Warland

"Cullene Bryant's God Is a Laughing Bedouin is at turns funny, heartbreaking, and sublime. We are in an age in which the territory of the spiritual is disputed, sometimes productively and sometimes destructively, but Bryant's voice cuts through the noise with a reminder that the highest thoughts are rooted in direct experience. Her poems are wrought from the quotidian suffused with the elevated, and the sublime brought into deep, familiar focus. With these poems, Bryant will shepherd you through to the self you see in others—the self you’ll recognize in these flashes of the eternal."
     —Wayde Compton

"Whether through unflinching and compassionate poems about her work as a hospital chaplain assisting patients during the final days of their lives, or through vivid and often wryly humorous poems about marriage, childbirth, divorce, widowhood, and aging, Cullene Bryant co-mingles the personal and the Biblical to reveal the arc of a rich and varied life. From delight to despair to celebration, these poems explore the presence (or absence) of the Holy with open eyes and an open spirit."
     —Fiona Tinwei Lam



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