From the moment I heard Love Like a Conflagration was being published, I’ve tried to remember how I first discovered the observant, often witty and always life-giving voice of Jane Greer.
I believe my first introduction to her writing came sometime in the 1980s in the pages of Chronicles of Culture, a magazine published by the Rockford Institute. I’m not certain how I came across Chronicles, but it was likely because Richard John Neuhaus was associated with Rockford, having established the Center for Religion and Society as part of the Institute. I read him avidly, learning a great deal in the process about the intersection of faith and politics, religion and pluralism, Christianity and secular ideologies. Neuhaus famously said he sought to be, “in descending order of importance, religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic.” I appreciated his sharp mind, wide reading, generous irenic spirit and finely crafted prose. He and the Rockford Institute parted ways in 1989, and the next year he established the Institute on Religion and Public Life and its journal, First Things.
But I’ve gotten off track here. This is not supposed to be about Richard John Neuhaus, but about Jane Greer.
Once I began reading Chronicles of Culture, I fell in love with a regular column, “Letter from the Heartland,” written from North Dakota by a poet named Jane Greer. Her prose was so richly crafted that her columns were a delight regardless of the topic or conclusions. Whenever an issue of Chronicles arrived, hers was the first column I read, and sometimes it was the only one I finished. Greer is a kindred spirit, sharing a desire to listen carefully, love the open prairie horizons of the Upper Midwest, seek wisdom rather than mere expertise, and embrace a rooted and ancient faith that shapes life and perspective and work.
I learned Greer was editor and founder of Plains Poetry Journal, which we began reading, and so were introduced to her poetry. Now, after a long hiatus, Greer has published a slim volume of poems. If you visited our home, Margie or I would doubtlessly read aloud to you from it. Trust me, it would make your life richer. It’s titled Love Like a Conflagration, and it is that, indeed.
When you begin reading Love Like a Conflagration, one of the first things you’ll notice is that Greer’s poetry is accessible. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that she is what is known in the world of poetry as a New Formalist. “New Formalism,” the Academy of American Poets says,
…was a late-twentieth century development in American poetry that sought to draw fresh attention to traditional forms of verse in terms of meter, rhyme, and stanzaic symmetry. Disheartened both by the overwhelming popularity of free verse during the Cold War and by the notion that metrical patterns were somehow antithetical to organic truth, New Formalist poets and their advocates rallied behind the traditions, aesthetics, and practices they believed had been all but abandoned by many of their contemporaries.
I am not able to fully understand this distinction, but Greer’s poetry has always seemed to me to be, on the one hand, ensconced in a noble and ancient literary tradition, and on the other, able to touch my heart and mind and imagination by speaking into my present moment and reality. How she accomplishes that I do not know, but it is a gift of beauty that clarifies truth and deepens my sense of life, divinity and existence.
I do not mean to suggest that Greer’s poems are simplistic or easily digested in one quick scan. There are poems in this collection, and stanzas in poems, and phrases in stanzas that I do not grasp and must read again, and perhaps again, and then wait for understanding to arrive. Or to return later only to discover that my earlier reading discovered only some of what was there to be discovered. “The Romantic” draws me in but without full understanding. The final two lines, harvest only a kinder name / for that ticking sound in the evening intrigues me but escapes me. And “Better Advice to Colonel Valentine” made no sense until I had tracked down a poem by Robert Graves. A task that was, in the end, rewarding in ways I’ll leave for you to discover on your own.
Most of the poems in Love Like a Conflagration are a delight on first reading and immediately invite a second reading simply to keep the delight alive. “God of the Gold and Purple Finches” is exactly right, and echoes a reality experienced at the feeders on our deck.
…Within the nearby pine, push comes to shove
as the shrill chorus nags me, makes me leave
the cool deck and my chair and drink and book
to fetch seed quickly, fix their rotten luck…
And the clever twist about divinity made me smile and see creation more clearly. “Bathsheba on the Third Day” causes me to think again what David’s sinful excursion might have been like, so human, so fallen. “On Nearing Our Thirty-fifth Anniversary” celebrates a life together that is extraordinary because it finds joy in ordinary things.
…and every time—that look
saying, where did you come from,
how did I get so blessed,
aren’t we wonderful.
It’s a quiet yet remarkable joy brought alive in sharing insignificant things because of love and the love of laughter. Greer’s poetic commemoration helps me see and feel what I might otherwise miss.
“Unrequited” stopped me in my tracks. Only nine short lines, and one space, a pause that’s needed both to live into this poetic conviction and to feel the full force of my hesitation on the edge of all that matters most. Think of all you call us to: / love that mirrors all you do. We stand before our Lord. He has given all in love and now calls us to the same.
Love, and count it all as loss
You croak, shattered, from your cross.
This is what you call us to?
We’re just not that into you.
Love is, it turns out, very much like a conflagration.
I recommend Love Like a Conflagration to you. It will make you love the word and the Word and provide a good excuse to slow down and embrace simply being in the midst of all the wearisome busyness of doing.
Source: New Formalism online (https://poets.org/text/brief-guide-new-formalism)
Book recommended: Love Like a Conflagration: Poems by Jane Greer (Pittsburgh, PA: Lambing Press; 2020) 88 pages.
Photo credit: by the author with his handy iPhone.