Beliefs and Blasphemies: A Collection of Poems


Beliefs and Blasphemies exhibits the same qualities—accessibility, deep feeling, wisdom, humor, and technical brilliance—that made Virginia Hamilton Adair's first collection of poems, Ants on the Melon, into a bestseller and a literary landmark. Here Mrs. Adair devotes her attention to a single theme, religion, but in her brilliant performance the theme's variations turn out to be wide and deep—from reverence to iconoclasm, from comedy to profundity, from joy to lament. If you ...

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Beliefs and Blasphemies: A Collection of Poems

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Beliefs and Blasphemies exhibits the same qualities—accessibility, deep feeling, wisdom, humor, and technical brilliance—that made Virginia Hamilton Adair's first collection of poems, Ants on the Melon, into a bestseller and a literary landmark. Here Mrs. Adair devotes her attention to a single theme, religion, but in her brilliant performance the theme's variations turn out to be wide and deep—from reverence to iconoclasm, from comedy to profundity, from joy to lament. If you are looking for Hallmark platitudes or E-Z faith, look elsewhere.

In "Saving the Songs," for example, we reconsider Martin Luther's penchant for recycling barroom tunes into hymns: "Said Luther of the singing in saloons,/'Why should the devil have the choicest tunes?'" More soberly, in "The Reassem-blage," we are asked to test the extremes of the Christian version of the hereafter—"one a verdict brutal beyond imagination,/the other by most reports an eternity of boredom"—against our hearts' hopes. The conclusion? "Some myths are too terrible for our believing." "Goddesses First" muses about the primacy of female deities in many religious myths. "Choosing" uses the poet's virtual blindness to explain her celebration of the only distinction her "frail vision can discern": the literal difference between night and day. Zen temples and the chapel at a state mental hospital, animism and meditation, whores and angels—this curious, witty, and compassionate sensibility encompasses them all.
Virginia Hamilton Adair is a uniquely American poet—restless in her lyrical investigations, hopeful and honest, rigorous in her formal accomplishments, spontaneous in her emotions. Beliefs and Blasphemies will appeal to anyone who has ever thought about first things or final things—anyone who enjoys speculating about how we got here and where we're going—and it will reconfirm its author's stature as a national treasure.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The afterword of Ants on the Melon, Adair's first collection of poems--published two years ago at the age of 83 to justified acclaim--hinted at a trove of equally masterful poems to be drawn on in books to come. The toughness, grace and humor of this second collection at times bear that out, but those expecting an Ants on the Melon II, with that book's broad range of subjects and moods, will be disappointed. These poems almost exclusively take up God, religion and ethics as their subjects, subjects that have produced much of the greatest poetry, but that have been somewhat neglected of late. Divided among seven sections ("Imagining a Maker"; "Yeshua"; "Mineral, Vegetable, Animal"; "Beyond" and three others), the poems quip ("God is a girl, they intoned, and if you don't believe us, no soup tonight"), question ("How could God know he was `love'/ before this voice, these eyes, told him?") and declare a provisional faith ("I have never been sure of meanings/ of sin, atonement, forgiveness"). Others use chance encounters--a cabin-bound couple's brush with a gun-toting biker; a visit to a mental hospital's chapel; the discovery of a great-grandmother's "soiled scarf"--to meditate on the nature of belief when put to the test. Some lean toward the transcendental ("The eagle soars, slides down air/ from heaven, giving thanks/ for wings and atmosphere") and others, without fanfare, toward death. Adair's searching verses may not always have the ring of the contemporary, and they often stop short here of fully unfurling their insights. But at its best, this collection points the way back to an American tradition of religious poetry understood and cherished by the likes of Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Bogan. Editor: Dan Menaker. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Two years ago, Adair made headlines by publishing her first book of verse. The unusual attention given to Ants on the Melon (LJ 4/1/96) was due as much to Adair's age--83--and her relative obscurity as to the quality of the writing: unsentimental, direct, technically accomplished. Her life story didn't hurt either: a well-educated New England professor who gave up teaching for marriage and children, she lost her historian husband to suicide in 1968 and her eyesight to glaucoma in the years that followed. Acclaim may be more measured for this second collection, whose unabashed religiosity borders on the trite: "Part of the maker dwells in all that's made:/ in crafted things, the plough, the ax, the spade,/ the everlasting flower carved in jade,/ souls of the trees that gather in the glade." Rhymed poems about God are a tough trick for any poet, but Adair's so-called blasphemies can also be corny: the prostitute who is nauseated by watching people eat "weiners," for example. But when Adair finds the right words for her stark, honest vision--often using the imagery of childhood--she can chill to the bone: " `Come to the playground of the dead,' we sing,/ swinging from the bar of the jungle gym./ And sooner or later, everyone comes."--Ellen Kaufman, Dewey Ballantine Law Lib., New York
Kirkus Reviews
The second book by the octogenarian poet organizes itself directly around the title: the author of the much stronger Ants on the Melon (1996) contemplates religion and offers a good deal of orthodoxy and some very mild blasphemies. Accessible and coherent (to a fault?), these mostly short and rhymed poems at times seem like fodder for Reader's Digest: sing-songy verses that address big questions in transparent language. The nature of God inspires queries regarding origin, gender, permanence, and His relation to Mammon (þDownsizeþ). Poems on Jesus review Gospel history, bemoan the popular imagery (þFor Yeshuaþ), and imagine the day before the Sermon on the Mount (þThe Lost Gospelþ), upon which the poet delivers her own sermon (þSermon on the Sermonþ). The lightly blasphemous þHis Motherþ and þVeronicaþ contemplate those women in slangy contemporary language. Groups of poems celebrate places of worship, from Chichester Cathedral to þThe Chapel at Mountain State Mental Hospitalþ; another batch extols Godþs creatures and questions manþs sovereignty over nature; and another sequence ponders the þeternal momentþ when, like Whitman, the poet contains and cherishes þall humankind.þ In poems about false prophets, the evil done in Godþs name, and the afterlife, Adairþs most blasphemous poem considers the Last Judgment as a myth evolved by sadists and masochists. Adairþs gentle Episcopalianism leads to poems that, at best, recall the divine simplicities of Blake, with whom she sees eternity in a grain of a sand; at worst, sheþs Gibran-profound,with the same cosmic gasses.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812992458
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/13/1998
  • Pages: 124
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Virginia Hamilton Adair was born in 1913 in New York City. Educated at Kimberly, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, and the University of Wisconsin, she taught briefly at Wisconsin, the College of William & Mary, and Pomona College, and for twenty-two years at California Polytechnic University at Pomona. She lives in Claremont, California.

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Table of Contents

Whodunit 3
Goddesses First 4
In All 6
To the Worldmaker 7
Games with God 8
Versions of Jehovah 10
Downsize 11
Easter 1990 12
Bridge 14
Choosing 15
One Only 16
Long Beginnings 19
Zen in the Quaker Sunday School 21
Saving the Songs 24
Chichester Cathedral 25
On the St. Lawrence 26
The Chapel at Mountain State Mental Hospital 27
Wings Like an Angel 30
From the First 33
Yeshua 35
For Yeshua 36
Making Truth 37
If and What 38
The Lost Gospel 40
Sermon on the Sermon 42
Communion 43
His Mother 45
Veronica 47
Pro Snake 51
Seven Deadly Sins 52
Judas 54
Dirty Old Man 55
Arrest 56
The Hooker at the Church Picnic 58
Yom Kippur 60
Hymn 62
Trails to Untruth 64
No Mercy 65
Matter and Soul 69
Due Reverence 70
Look, No Feet 71
A Shell Singing 72
A Kind of Zazen 73
Competing Kingdoms 74
Grace 75
The Birds Preach to St. Francis 76
The Recognition 79
Entrance 80
Moment 82
Good Night, Good Day 84
Enormous Day 85
The Voice 86
The Welcomer 91
The Playground of the Dead 93
So Long 95
Beyond 96
A Solitary Walk 98
The Gatherer 100
Timing 101
The Reassemblage 102
Walking into Siberia 104
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