My Review

***** (Out of 5)

Tania Runyan has conjured up a strange school of apocalyptic fish with What Will Soon Take Place (Paraclete Press). Each of the poems in this collection, which explores the book of Revelation through a personal lens, wriggles with wit, catches light like so many shining rainbow scales, and sets ripples in motion in the reader’s mind. “What is the book of Revelation,” Runyan forces us to ask, “to me?”

The book opens with a poem called “Patmos” that immediately sets the tone for the whole thing:

“No cave, cleft, or ocean shattering bluffs / The only trumpet ‘Hot Cross Buns’ / blatting from my daughter’s open window.”

The reader who expects to find angels ushering in the End Times with the brassy blast of a bugle finds only Runyan’s offspring here. In this poem, we are squarely seated in the here and now, tethered to the present like the “whimpering beagle roped to a magnolia” that appears a few lines later. This is clearly not John the Revelator’s book.

That being said, readers who have brushed up on Revelation will reap untold rewards in What Will Soon Take Place. I know it helped that, in writing a twelve-part series for In Touch magazine about my first journey through the Bible as a whole, I read a graphic novelization of Revelation twice in an attempt to see its images with greater clarity. When I picked up Runyan’s book, I brought this experience to the table with me.

I also brought a certain inexperience, too. While I wrote a regrettable body of insufferable poetry in high school, I have not read a surplus of poems by other people. I wanted to read this collection, however, because I could not escape one question: “What would a book of poems inspired by Revelation be like?”

As I read, I found myself imagining each poem as a tincture—a world distilled in word form on a page. One drop under the tongue, and Runyan’s visions sprang to life in my bloodstream and my brain alike. Like any good chef that manages to wield contrasting flavors to tantalizing effect, these poems marry a multitude of elements—some seemingly oppositional—to maximize their impact. Wit is counterbalanced by gravity. Modernity intermingles with the Iron Age. Reverence holds hands with irreverence—the sacred with the profane. Absurdity stands shoulder-to-shoulder with clear-eyed reason.

“You’ve got a jumbo rainbow / over your head and a sun / for a face like something / from My Little Pony,” Runyan writes at the beginning of a poem titled, “The Angel and the Little Scroll.” Here Revelation becomes a cartoon, with the titular scroll looking “like a golden Fruit Roll-Up.” Where many writers would read Revelation 10 and see something decidedly serious, Runyan sees a child’s sandbox instead, and sits down with her pail and plastic spade accordingly. I love how effortlessly she does this throughout the book.

As I said earlier, however, the playfulness in these poems is counterbalanced by more serious scenes. Sometimes these two impulses coexist. Consider the opening stanza of “Maybe an Idol,” which reads, “The hot rotten eggs of my destruction / locust stingers jouncing in my skin like arrow: fantasies of stasis.” Here Runyan writes of looking in the mirror and longing for eternal youth. (The hot rotten eggs of my destruction. I want to see this line on a movie theater marquee as the title of a new film by Werner Herzog. I want to hear him read this poem, too.) “Sometimes I catch a flash of fifteen in the mirror,” the poet continues. She wants to remain young forever, and this desire is the very thing that incubates and spoils and threatens to crack open and destroy her from the inside. Who can escape the End Times of the flesh, after all? Who can evade old age? Who can outrun wrinkles?

These are the sorts of scenes that unfold in What Soon Will Take Place. For every time Runyan writes a line about childbirth like, “After the baby ripped a lightning bolt in her perineum,” she offers something equally whimsical elsewhere. In “New Jerusalem,” we find Jesus using—well, insofar as I can tell—a Bedazzler! “Pain and tears will pass away / but for now he bedazzles / your blisters and tissue, / saline and nerve.” Jesus manages to make something pretty out of our pain. I never knew such compact writing could hold so much. Each poem in this book is an overstuffed suitcase on the verge of bursting open and filling the Earth with the contents of Tania Runyan’s mind.

I will admit I do not understand all of the poems in this book, and suspect that living with them a little longer will crack them open a little more, allowing light to illuminate the darker interiors of each piece. But wrestling with a poem does not diminish the enjoyment of the reading experience. If anything, it enhances it. Art that resists easy interpretation requires more of us, challenges us to grow, and refuses to leave us unchanged.

Reading What Will Soon Take Place—surrounding myself with all of Tania Runyan’s slippery, poetic fish—I thought of those spas where doctor fish nibble at peoples’ toes, eating dead skin. There is something beautiful and surreal and grotesque and ticklish about it all. The same could be said of this book. Chew on my toes, little fish, and hasten the arrival of the New Jerusalem.

What Will Soon Take Place comes out on December 5th. Pre-order your copy now.

Biography

Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her instructional guides, How to Read a Poem and How to Write a Poem, are taught in schools across the country. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, The Christian Century, Southern Poetry Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. She was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.