Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mormon literature swims through many waters

Here is a nice article about the journal Irreantum, formerly edited by Laraine Wilkins, who some of us had the pleasure of associating with.
Mormon literature swims through many waters

Even though it sounds Latin, don't bother seeking an easy etymology for Irreantum, the name of a "refereed journal" published thrice yearly by the Association for Mormon Letters. The word is defined where it appears, in "The Book of Mormon" — specifically 1 Nephi: 17:5: "Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters."

So the English title is Many Waters, followed by the subtitle A Review of Mormon Literature and Film. It is a delightfully appropriate name, given that the publication accepts unsolicited submissions of any and all kinds, words come true to creative and critical thinkers who like to see their name in print, and possess the skills necessary to adequately convey their ideas. ("Irreantum" seeks "the highest quality of writing"). Additionally, while of course Mormons believe that we descended from Mother Eve and Father Adam, to artistic types there is much pleasure in the idea of humanity collectively emerging from a common primordial sea — the whole "mare/madre" connection.

The issue discussed here is Volume 8, Number 1 — the first of 2006. Its theme is poetry. The first poem is an in memoriam for, as far as I can gather, a former editor of Irreantum whose life was cut short by an auto accident. Lance Larsen's "And a Garden Drifts Past My Window" credits Wilkins with assisting those who knew her to take flight ("She opened her purse and handed each of us a bird" — an organic currency whose worth is evident after ink and paper meet).

Though Larsen writes "Let grief hover close," the poem's only transparent line, he concludes on a note of high optimism: "And sky says, Come join me, the morning is young." There is all the time in the world for creation, for songs, for poems, for words. Time for you and time for me. A poem by Wilkins about reclaiming one's soul also appears, full of lively imagery and ending on a thoughtful question.

Michael R. Collings prefaces a series of attempts at "epic" Mormon poetry with a brief, but remarkable essay on the form. Collings sees Mormonsim as "an epic fable, a struggle played out by heroes and gods on a vast, cosmic scale," referencing Homer, Milton and T.S. Eliot as archetypes and anti-archetypes.

The ensuing epics deal with God, Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon and everyday chores. It makes sense to write about religion using an epical model for the same reasons Collings points out — no figure is larger than God, few American figures as interesting or radical as Smith. Alan Rex Mitchell's "The Road to Carthage" is an exciting fictionalization of the prophet, portraying him as burdened and well-acquainted with grief. He is yearning, as Christ on his cross, for God to come out of his hiding place.

What I have discussed here is not even half of the issue. There are more poems, short stories, essays, opinion and a movie review of "States of Grace" that is written as I wish all movie commentary could be: not one sentence of opinion followed by several paragraphs of summation, but an intensely personal dissection that talks about the film's influence beyond just a bunch of flickering images synched to sound.

In many respects, Mormonism is the ideal religion to have its own literature. It's relatively small and new, and it adds radical new hallways to Christianity's mansion. Catholicism is too deep, ancient and varied to allow for a communal perspective, and other religions too pharisaical about the sanctity of scripture to allow thoughtful, personal and creative interpretations. Mormonism, with its specific myths and closely guarded lineage, provides a strong basis for its adherents to, in the words of James Joyce, forge within the smithy of their souls the uncreated conscious of their race.

Irreantum is a refreshing alternative to the vulgar pop offerings of "The Singles Ward" and Mormon fiction of that ilk. It is an honest navigation of Mormon theology that doesn't pander to a mass audience or do Mormonism a disservice by implicating that its most interesting tenets revolve around auxiliary organizations and Jell-o. It is a voice in Mormonism that I have not heard and I am pleased to hear it now.

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