“That was epic!”
This is what contemporary teenagers often exclaim after experiencing something impressive, whether the epic in question is a blockbuster film, a huge fantasy novel, a multi-state road trip, or a resounding crash by an accident-prone friend.
From the Greek epic to the haiku, the tragic drama to the sonnet, poetry has spanned the history of literary scope as well as of social and linguistic change: in other words, poems can be big or small. Each size has its attendant values and uses, of course. An Oedipal agony will not fit into a haiku, but neither does Oedipus Rex focus a sharp beam of attention on one exquisite blade of grass.
At the moment, American poetry tends towards the smaller end of the scale. A full-length collection usually runs between 80 and 100 pages, somewhere in the range of 40 to 60 poems. The poems themselves are not expected to run onto a second or third page. We like to be able to take in the shape of a poem at a single glance.
There are, of course, exceptions. Dana Gioia’s brand-new collection Pity the Beautiful includes an extended narrative poem. It’s called “Haunted,” and it runs for an impressive 8 pages. There are a few genres that still require poetic virtuousity over considerable length: opera libretti come to mind.
But in general, Americans are not writing epic poetry. We’re not writing long verse dramas. We’re not writing extended narrative ballads. Our poetry is tiny, isolated, incidental, and frequently insignificant.
Tania Runyan’s A Thousand Vessels manages a large scope within the confines of contemporary minutiae. It is a collection of 46 painful, exquisite, prosy monologues. The book as a whole sweeps across thousands of years of Biblical history, from “Genesis” to “The Empty Tomb.” Her organizational method is also ambitious: in a mildly feminist strain that yet reaffirms many stereotypes, the “Thousand Vessels” are women. This volume gives voices to women from the Biblical narrative: Eve, Sarah, Dinah, Ruth, Esther, Mary, the woman at the well, Martha, Jairus’ daughter, and Mary Magdalene. There are four or five poems for each of these women’s stories, all imagining ways into their lives. Yet the concept is far more nuanced and original than this description suggests. The poems in each section are not predictably and consistently in first or third person, nor even tied to a historical locus. Rather, 11 are in the third person, 32 in first person, and 3 in a second-person direct address. More interestingly still, 27 are set in biblical times (the “right” time period for the characters in question), but a few in each section (19 total) are set in the author’s own time and place.
In other words, we are also numbered in the Thousand Vessels. When Sarah waits at home to see whether Abraham comes home with Isaac—or with Isaac’s body, or ashes—for instance, Runyan herself worries about “Keeping My Daughter” in perhaps the most perfect poem in the collection. She is at her best with the intimate details of mothering—or fathering; when Jairus mourns the death (and struggles through the strange restoration) of his daughter, Runyan pairs his grief and confusion with a poignant three-section poem on “Children of Near-Death.” These children, nearly drowned, electrocuted, or smashed in a bike accident, could be our own kids, ourselves, or ancient children. What’s the difference, anyway?
That seems to be the overwhelming effect of Runyan’s book: to take away the differences between ourselves and Ruth, Boaz, Jairus, Mary Magdalene. This is brilliantly done: prostituted children are identified with the ravished Dinah (“Drift”); two teens in bikinis compete in King Xerxes’ beauty-and-sex contest for virgins (“Beach Walk”); Runyan herself gives birth to the first baby in the world (“The Birth of Cain”).
The sad side of these stories haunts Runyan’s verse. Her twist on the title is metonym for this approach. “A Thousand Vessels” first appears to be a reference to the thousand ships launched by the beauty of Helen of Troy; however, in the “Sunday” section of her poem “Mary at Calvary,” Runyan re-interprets the phrase thus:
God creates women for no reason
but grief. He can’t cry himself
and needs a thousand vessels for his tears.
Helen of Troy herself, then, is a vessel, and joins the historical procession of all the fragile vials for holding tear drops, cups for wrath, vases for grief, down to today when Runyan and I add our crystal agony to the shelf.
This is not a very pretty picture of God: pouring women full of suffering, setting them aside, letting them break. A reader can imagine this deity dropping the spun-glass woman and watching her shatter into agonizing fragments.
Nor does the story have a particularly happy ending: outside the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene “for a moment / held the souls of the nations like a basket of figs.” Which way will the figs go? Will they become nourishment, or fall to the ground in her astonishment, to be trampled underfoot?
The end of A Thousand Vessels leaves the reader with another question, too: What, then, is the scope of these poems? Do they manage to hold a thousand women and many thousand years in their slender lines? The technique argues against a huge compass: Runyan tends towards the easy word choice, the random line break, and the facile simile. The pieces are simple, generally avoiding the kind of double vision that can lend depth to truly great verse. Yet there are also surprising turns in these poems, unexpected endings, and memorable individual lines. Her greatest strength is bringing ancient women to life through a consistently impassive narrative voice, giving stories and characters a different color than they ever had before.
Here is one final example, showing Runyan at her imaginative best. After the expulsion from Eden, Eve watches Adam grow more and more distant:
For a moment I see
his eyes, then they float over my shoulder,
as if another woman stood behind me,
beckoning him toward paradise.
The reader might be that other woman, with a chance at a second Eden; it is more likely that the reader is Eve, watching her husband fade away, entering into the age-old grief of all women at all times, in all places. That may not be “epic,” but it strains the limits of these tiny poetic vessels.