Luci Shaw: What the Light Was Like

Just a few problems with Christian art can be seen here and here. I’m not one to criticize somebody’s creative effort in itself, but I think that too many Christians that want to make art (music/literature/paintings/drama/everythingelseIdidn’tmention) get so caught up in forcing their message (most of the time the gospel) that they miss true depth and meaning. It’s something I call church cheese–people with good intentions but limited sight in terms of artistic expression. Some would say that simply relying on God (or a god of any sort) is limiting, but that’s for another day.

One poet that does an excellent job of creating powerful art inspired by faith is Luci Shaw. Her latest collection, What the Light Was Like, draws on Christ as inspiration but moves beyond the cross for subject matter.  This collection views/evaluates/observes light in various facets of life.

One example, “The Simple Dark,” states, “Everything / is drawing down into shade. / But the dark, which is at first so simple / is not simple.” Maybe this is stating an over-simplified obviousness but then Shaw explores this darkness as the poem ends:

The unbroken velvet swims
with complications so subtle that
seeing and hearing must take their time
to know. The shadow purples,
the dusk intricate with crickets. The sky
infested with pricks of light.
My whole body an ear, an eye.

My mind automatically turns to Emerson’s transparent eye walking through nature perceiving all of these things. I’m struck by the emphasis of sense and perception rather than talking and making noise and ruining the moment.  All of this without one mention of the cross. Shaw continues the perceptions of nature in “Without a Shadow,” a poem where the narrator is taking a walk along a shoreline blanketed with thick fog:

Not exactly dark, but without shade,
the sharp purity of morning has been
diminished. I read somewhere that
“only full light reveals shadow.”
Moving through fog, living
is a blindness, a yielding
of my layered ignorance to the mist.

The ambiguity of light and confusion of shadows relates this experience in nature to life–sometimes we get so caught up in searching or trying that the fog of confusion (regardless of how thick or thin it actually is) blinds us.  The poem ends with “A rumor of blue / begins to kiss its way through.”  The fog never quite goes away or completely fades, but there still seems to be glimmers of hope, or rest, or illumination despite ourselves.

I’ll end this too-brief review with “Breath,” a poem starting in the darkness of the womb, gasping for those first breaths, and then becoming the spoken word, something so powerful we may not always understand the strength behind it.


When, in the cavern darkness, the child
first opened his mouth (even before
his eyes widened to see the supple world
his lungs had breathed into being),
could he have known that breathing
trumps seeing? Did he love the way air sighs
as it brushes in and out through flesh
to sustain the tiny heart’s iambic beating,
tramping the crossroads of the brain
like donkey tracks, the blood dazzling and
invisible, the corpuscles skittering to the earlobes
and toenails? Did he have any idea it
would take all his breath to speak in stories
that would change the world?

This poem mentions the cross in the scope of a bigger picture. Shaw’s poetry does not end at the cross like too many other poets of Christian faith. This book is filled with poems about journeys, contemplations, let downs, and illuminations. Whether or not the reader prescribes to the Christian faith, this collection reminds the reader to slow down and look at the little things receiving small slivers of light, in all its forms.


2 thoughts on “Luci Shaw: What the Light Was Like

  1. Great comments Joel – I may have to check this one out from the library.

    I too hate when inserting Christianity into art becomes forced or fluffy. I especially hate it when people quote Frost’s “The Road not Taken” in their lessons in church.

    I’d rather read that poem from a deconstructionists view – it totally destroys it.

  2. That’s especially funny since the “The Road Not Taken” is really not as positively touching as some would believe.

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