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Friday, June 24, 2011

Burning Wyclif

One of the most memorable books of poetry I have read in the past five years is Thom Satterlee's Burning Wyclif (Texas Tech University Press, 2006). Astonishingly, it is a first book, winning the Walt McDonald First-Book Competition in Poetry for that year.

Although this volume is a biography-in-poems of John Wyclif, the philosopher-theologian who translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into English in the 14th century and was later condemned as a heretic for doctrinal criticism of the Catholic Church, its beauty and insight have much to offer the reader who is not interested in religion or Christianity, but who merely wants to read glorious poetry with a larger vision.

The imagination with which Satterlee sketches out likely events in Wyclif's life (since little detail is known) provides  glimpses into the thinking and customs of the day in a compelling manner. Whether Satterlee is painting a scene of the young Wyclif entering Oxford and having his head shorn into the tonsure sported by the religious community, or of the older Wyclif wresting with his lustful urges, the details  he offers are authentic enough to draw you fully into the story as though you were being given verified fact.

Other hot topics of the time, including the Black Death and flagellation, are explored quietly by the poet, belying the feelings of horror that may be raised in the reader. Satterlee, it seems, has been able to adopt the attitudes of the 14th century in order to relate a completely believable response by his hero, so authentic in fact, that the poet disappears from the awareness of the reader entirely.

It was by reading "Habitus" on the Poetry Daily website that I first discovered Satterlee's book, and determined that I needed to own a copy. Having now read the entire volume a number of times, I still find this opening poem to be one of my favorites.

Another favorite is "Wyclif Places Himself, His Room Within the Ten Categories of Essential Being," in which the student Wyclif attempts to master the philosophical categorizations of Aristotle while coping with his own growling stomach. Scroll about 3/4 down towards the bottom of the link to find an audio file of this amusing and entirely believable piece.

Fleshing out a likely life story for a historical figure with such reverence for the individual's integrity seems to me to be an extremely worthy poetic project. I wish there were more books of poetry in which a historical personage is completely present and the poet is almost entirely absent. What a gift it is to inhabit this book without feeling the writer looking over your shoulder, wanting to be complimented.

And the subject of such dedicated rendering need not be a religious figure either. I'd love to read the lives of scientists and mathematicians written in a manner this thoughtful and deep. Lauren Redniss's Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (HarperCollins, 2010) promises to do this much for the Curies, though in prose and artwork, not in verse, from what I've read about it (I have yet to read it).

At her website, Redniss describes her artistic process as follows: "I made the artwork for the book using a process called “cyanotype.” Cyanotype is a camera‐less photographic technique in which paper is coated with light‐sensitive chemicals. When the chemically-treated paper is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it turns a deep blue color. Photographic imaging was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity, so it made sense to me to use a process based on the idea of exposure to create the images in Radioactive."

Go here to see some of the images that accompany her prose in the book.

Such imaginative ways to represent the lives of great thinkers in communion with their own intentions. The writers step aside and let the figures be themselves entirely. That is true generosity, if not genius, in writing.

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