Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Steven Toussaint picks a favourite read

 

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What does it mean to be a religious poet in an irreligious age? John Dennison’s debut collection Otherwise (AUP) offers us a generous glimpse. The fixtures of contemporary lyric—domestic eros, urban existentialism, memories of childhood, communion with nature—are renewed under Dennison’s theological gaze. In the astonishing poem, ‘The Immanent Frame’, he recasts the boundary-lines between the secular and the sacred. In contrast to the popular ‘subtraction story’ that frames religion as an ever-diminishing component within the vast horizons of modernity, Dennison intimates a still-vaster transcendent force driving all things, ‘while all the while is carried / through, unsensing each / extra mile which goes / itself.’ Dennison’s poems are enriched by their subtle recourse to the Christian mythos (for C.S. Lewis ‘a true myth’), and are never more impactful than when turned toward social commentary. ‘On Climate Change’ traverses the sham of boundless growth with an elegant parable (When was the last time Balaam’s Ass appeared in a poem this side of David Jones?!). In addition, Dennison is a sure and studied composer, as vigorous in ‘free verse’ as in his peerless pantoums. I detect continuity with distinctively Brittonic voices like Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, and R.S. Thomas, even Geoffrey Hill’s playful opprobrium in a poem like ‘After Geering.’ I look forward to reading what comes next from this talented poet.

Steven Toussaint

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