Validating the Faith: The Poetry of Rod Jellema

Rod Jellema, professor of English emertius at the University of Maryland, has been writing poetry for forty years. This new volume constitutes a selective harvest of his effort. Forty-nine of the poems are new. Also new is a section consisting of translations from modern Hebrew by Moshe Dor and Jellema.

The task of choosing could not have been easy. Jellema has left the foothills of his poetic energy behind as he wended his way up and through the trails of his poetic excursions and chose the poems he judged to have the greater staying power. What is impressive is the continuity of his sensibility, his reading of life and experience. Also impressive is the tone of his work–a hearty affirmation of life rather than the faddish casualness toward or even denial of the goodness of the world. Click to purchase Incarnality His work is pervaded by the wonder of being, by joy in the variety and plenitude of the world, by his awareness of its deep meaning, not only here but in a world that transcends the present one. He writes, not as a fragmented person, but as a sound person, with reliable intuitions, with a deep sense of what it means to be human and the obligations which our humanity entails. He does not simply record his observations and thoughts; rather, he transmutes his insights to reveal the deeper meaning of the themes he has been wrestling with. The word “mystical” comes to mind–but with a caveat. He does not “spurn the surly bonds of earth” by rising to an undefined spirituality. The physical world is good. God made it. But he so designed that world that it comes to us with multiple meanings. A poet sets out to disclose those facets, those nuances, those resemblances. Jellema explains this in an introduction, “A Double Vision.” A poet is in the business of searching for metaphors.

Jellema inhabits a large world. He is at home on land and on lakes–and though he is not a pilot, his imagination enters that world as well–and sometimes he enters the pilot’s world actually, as when he looks down from a private plane as Washington burns during the race riots of 1968, wondering whether there will still be a solid place (metaphorically as well) for the pilot to land. Disdaining W.C. Bryant’s “Lines to a Waterfowl,” he recounts the unexpected courses in the lives of three classmates. The third one, a lonely stammerer, to whom no one had paid much attention, came to a sad end. One day, “crimson phrase against the darkly sky,/His jet purred into a green Korean hill.” He writes about reconciliation and forgiveness in his family. They did not use words much to exercise this grace, he says, but expressed it with gestures and in the daily routines of their lives. In “Civilization” (191) he attributes the rise of the Greek republic to the advance in musical instruments–from an ancient crude flute carved from the wingbone of a crane, to instruments made from animal guts which expanded human consciousness and emotional sensibility. That technology which permits us to remove wrinkles from photos–how do we distinguish between appearance and reality? He plays with the multiple meanings of words: shells, for example–from benign objects, to the tell-tale casings left in the wake of shots fired in anger. Or conduction, and the letter X–used by an illiterate person in lieu of a signature, to a teacher’s mark for an error–but, then, also, as a shape for language implying the Christian cross.

Several themes recur. His missing son, killed in an auto accident on a road near his Lake Michigan cottage, he describes as “the presence of an absence.” “About Loss” (218) explores the general theme but also with reference to his son. “First Climb up Three Surfer’s Peak” (53) expresses both the celebrative moment of the memorial he and his friends installed on a nearby hill but also the fresh stab of awareness of the loss. And in his “Letter to Lewis Smedes about God’s Presence” (124), he confesses how he wrestles with the reality of God’s grace–an uncontested reality for him–but that it appears only in “cracks and crevices.” He concludes: “The thin and tenuous/thread we hang by, so astonishing,/ is the metaphor I need at the shoreline/of all those immeasurable oceans of love.” This noble poem is one of the most moving of the collection.

This theme, a slender grace (the very title of his 2004 collection), recurs often. As one of his friends, Jack Kuipers, would put it, Jellema would have us “see through a glass darkly.” His preoccupation with light, well, it glares at us from many a poem. On the one hand, light is essential for life. The crab cactus, “deformed and staunched like the stump of a claw… hunches toward light” (65). It is an errant plant, but every December it “spikes one bloom/of outcast star” (who but a poet would notice that?). But in other places he points out that “This is not an age of dark, but of glare.” Along with some of the Frisian poets he translated, he makes the case for the role of positive darkness. Jellema fuses such themes as darkness and light with life and death, language and silence, joy and tragedy, history and art, as well as a number of memories which illuminate for us his view of changes in the world and in himself. One example is the poem “Marge’s Thursdays, Living at Harmony House” (203). She compares the laundry as she did it in her day, on Mondays, “smell of bleach and the brown soap I grated,” sheets blowing in the wind, fresh and clean, with the smell of the sun and the clouds, to the present, where a Maria does the laundry, on Thursdays, “with sheet-sets flat in plastic on a cart that squeaks … with their usual creases / pasty sick white like my thighs.” He complains that, owing to human activity, something is not quite right in the changing patterns of migrating birds. A number of poems deal with language itself, and with words. He has spent time in Friesland, to hear, and translate, the sounds of his ancestors. A number of poems pay tribute to his family–his immediate and ancestral members.

Jellema is a master of free verse–free, but disciplined, with a light, unobtrusive but functional beat. These chastely chiseled compositions provide a pleasure of a high order–health to the mind and a challenge to live reflectively. They augment our consciousness, make us more perceptive. Readers of these poems will do well to read the poet’s Preface. There he makes the case for his title, Incarnality, a term which, at its highest reach, speaks of the Word made flesh, and of all its ramifications for language. Here Jellema also explains his posture towards his Christian faith as he deals with it in his poetry. He is, obviously, not writing hymns. But insofar as his poetic statements are true and comport with reality, they validate the faith. As one writer put it, “If one has been baptized, and has been forgiven, and all this was done with integrity, then everything one writes will have a Christian accent.” E. B. White implies something similar: “All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.” These assertions justly describe the legacy of Mr. Jellema’s poetry.

Steve J. Van Der Weele is professor of English emertius at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.