A Poetics of Church

Reading and Writing Sacred Spaces of Poetic Dwelling

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Jennifer Reek
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How is the “poetic ... political” (171)? This question conveys the dynamic life and the theme that connects the 10 essays in Jennifer Reek’s A Poetics of Church: Reading and Writing Sacred Spaces of Poetic Dwelling. At times elusive, always allusive with countless conversation partners, Reek invites us on a journey with poet-thinker “companions,” including Ignatius of Loyola, Gaston Bachelard, Yves Bonnefoy, Hèléne Cixous, Dennis Potter, and Karl Rahner. She returns to a phrase that Martin Heidegger learned from Friedrich Hölderlin—“poetically [human being] dwells,” strategically substituting “woman” for der Mensch (1)—and asks, again with Hölderlin (115), “What are poets for in a destitute time?” 

The destitute time is that of Catholicism, which Reek considers a home. It becomes destitute when propositional, binary dogmatics align with ecclesial, gendered polities that exclude women from sacramental authority and dwelling space—as would certain gendered and exclusionary writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Reek considers that Catholic feminist Tina Beattie’s severe, reconstructive critique of Balthasar’s misogyny often fails, remaining in his hierarchical framework while ignoring aspects of his creativity. Reek knows how the language of exclusion infects insidiously, behind overt semantics. In lifting up Rahner’s poetics (lesser known than Balthasar’s and far less overdetermined), she hopes to see destitution healed, I think, one reader at a time. The church is opened up by vectors of grace, intersecting souls through new, or newly retrieved paths of consciousness. A language less univocal is required, more phenomenological, following poetic, multivalent, heuristic imaginaries. Reek opens spaces where poetry, sacred and secular, meets prayer, listening for the real, the uncanny, the absent and present God. 

To be a poet companion on such journeys, one need not formally be a poet. Of Reek’s principals, only Bonnefoy (1923-2016) practiced poetry, while Potter (1935-94) was a TV writer remembered for The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986). Cixous is, like Derrida, an Algerian Jew, better known in America as a deconstructive theorist, but in France as a playwright. Ignatius and Rahner are Jesuits—close, but separated by four centuries. Poet companions need not be conventionally successful; Bonnefoy felt he best listened to the real through failures. Disclosure via failure touches the Job-like writer-character Marlow, hospitalized with arthritis and psoriasis so enervating that he cannot write in Potter’s semi-autobiographical script. Disclaiming herself as neither a poet or theorist, Reek’s typical mode of reading locates “phrases” (127, 130) from her guides (like Arnold’s “touchstones”), which may initially frustrate but later resonate receptively with other voices. At times, I wished she wrote more propositionally and argumentatively about what she learns from her companions, but even so, the book’s great pleasure is our learning from the guides she intriguingly juxtaposes.

Ignatius teaches reading as journeying and encountering, beginning in a liminal period of immobility. While recuperating from a battle wound he learned to listen to Christ, as recapitulated in his Spiritual Exercises; he became incorporated in the texts he read. (Reek’s other guides suffer “immobility” as well, owing to grief, ennui, and depression.) We go from church as “temple” to church unfolding as “text”—one arc of this book, along with homeleaving home, and transforming home.

Bachelard comes closest to offering a method: turning from conceptual rigidity to living images that make us receptive in our reveries. His La poétique de l’space (1958) distinguishes “place” (defined by stable and restrictive signs) from “space” (less determinate, more fluid); he also links “reverberation” to “resonance,” the former entailing odder images of vertical depth, while images of the latter interact horizontally, more familiarly. Reek mentions resonance more often than reverb, but reverberation may correspond to her irritation with some phrase—until it begins resonating. The dialectics of reverie overcome dichotomies of interiority and exteriority, with many implications for church.

Reverie is liminal. Bonnefoy inspires Reek to reflect on “thresholds” and “leaving home” as part of any dialectic of home (and church). We are to inhabit poems of an abandoned, labyrinthine stone barn, once a Cistercian monastery, which both he and his wife made into their home, until its upkeep forced them to leave. These poems desire the canny and uncanny, or divine presence as absence, and are critiques of their own nostalgia. Reek reads Bonnefoy to disclose how desire and failure can transfigure toward sacred order. Cixous helps Reek say how textuality liberates us from hierarchical oppositions; how reading texts, in a vocation of call and response, can possess and dispossess us; how “manna” (etymologically, “what is it?”) in Cixous’ experimental novel (Manna, 1994) suggests “glimpses of veiled spaces” (101, 110). While deconstruction is famously leery of ontological depth, Reek aligns Cixous with depth as reader-transformation. Poetics is “making” (poesis). She enlists all these companions for making church a capacious textual dwelling space. Midrash can be a model for feminist church-making (93). 

In destitute times, a one-reader-at-a-time political therapy (with companions) may leave us impatient. One of the reasons that I wanted more propositions and linear arguments—besides a preemptive desire for clarity—is to understand how insidiousness is the destitution. Systematically distorted discourse (Jürgen Habermas) can seem invulnerable to poetry, which even at its most avant-garde plays with language already distorted. Reek’s footnote on Heidegger’s Nazism (17-18) reminds us to ask: How could one who valorized a hermeneutics of encounter, in the “fourfold” of earth, sky, mortals, and divinities—and who warned of a default of the gods due to technical, instrumentalized thoughtlessness—come to associate poetic dwelling with German soil and a technocratic pall with the Jews. In the churches, such questions probe creative theologies that as yet dehumanize women, and not always accidentally. Procedural, propositional, systematic doubt can cut through mystifications of illusory sanity. This remains so, even after acknowledging that the political legacies of critique also have horrors.

However, Reek would undoubtedly warn against making a binary of ideology critique versus the hermeneutics of dialogical disclosure. The poetic word—traditionary and innovative—is also critical. Its reverberations destabilize familiarities while touching the depths of the familiar. To find poetry and prayer’s “inner kinship” (Rahner) is to associate them with personal-political critique. If that kind of attentive self-transcendence is the best hope for church, will it prove a more pervasive hope than my impatience realized? One text at a time, one reader at a time, with companions, on an on, wider and wider—perhaps not so long a gracious wager.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Larry D. Bouchard is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Reek's work has appeared in journals such as Literature and Theology and Contemporary Women’s Writing. She is co-editor of the forthcoming fourth volume of the Routledge Power of the Word series, Thresholds of Wonder: Poetry, Philosophy and Theology in Conversation. Currently, she teaches seminars in Great Books in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut.


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