Reviewed by Marilyn Brown for the Association for Mormon Letters
There are some authors who inspire awe. Marilyn Arnold is one of them.
What has she done now? Besides leaving her footprints as a dazzling pink and blue cover girl (at last, in her eighties!) she has scrabbled around in the dozens of boxes she’s moved over the years from place to place and come up with a new literary form! It is essentially a collection containing illuminating snippets of biography linked to past poems she has rescued from the detritus of her garage! (I’m tempted to give this new literary form a serious designation—something like garageography? poemography [too close to pornography?], but maybe . . . maybe . . . poetography? We’re open for other suggestions! Anyone?)
As we rifle through the slips of yellow paper and old sacrament meeting programs she scribbled on during some long boring talks, we are not only relieved she didn’t throw these scraps in the waste basket, we are stunned by the beauty! Not only in the poetry, but by the life that created it!
If anyone is going through one of those tempting Mormon intellectual apostasies, Marilyn Arnold’s work is a balm that heals. An icon of Utah’s culture, she loves the Book of Mormon. She knows it’s true. Her intelligent analyses ring with authenticity. These highly intellectual and sensitive essays about the Book of Mormon alone place her as a bright light in our history. But there is much more—her status as an administrator with Dallin Oaks at BYU, her consistent service in the Church, her exquisite hymns, memoirs, novels, and outstanding academic studies—especially her contribution to the Willa Cather lexicon. As an outstanding and fearless advocate of our “Primitive West,” she has raised the bar for ways in which our “Mormon Literature” may excel.
A majority of her poems express perspectives gleaned at the tops of mountains. A hiker, she has lived constantly climbing. She has overseen the broad world as it might look to those spirits that hover over us. (Our God and Savior among them?)
Something has to happen in a human heart that continually absorbs this proximity to heaven. Marilyn Arnold can count thousands of these moments, and they resonate in her powerful language complete with alliteration: “. . . the singing wind—the broad exhilarating circle of the summit.” The same celebratory voice rings in “Come Spring,” which, after describing a process fraught with violence, breaks through to our seasonal resurrection:
The just-smelling time
Is sliding in,
Wrinkling the past
In its shove.
The spread of it
Tears the heart loose
And clogs it in the throat.
The clutch of it Wrenches the tremolo
From a meadowlark
And jams it in the ears.
The unstoppable gush of it
Batters through stomach walls.
I rejoice in lyrical phrases that support her hiking narratives: from “Mt. Nebo,” “Shafts of rain smoke the south horizon,” “stunned by the magic,” And in the midst of poetry, she becomes accessible to the reader with a plebian incident or question. “The trail is there. I choose not to be afraid today.” In “Echoes,” we identify when she asks “Remember your conversation with a wall?” In one case she remembers the first time she tried the same climb:
That was the day the
bee nosed up the back of my shorts
as I bent over a sticky bush
and stung me twice before I could
dance him out.
Her sense of humor is infectious. Forgetting her neighbor Pat’s birthday on February 1st, she writes:
I might well have known you’d be born on the first—
And knowing my memory is one of the worst,
You exercised all of your cunning and stealth,
Refusing the second, the tenth, or the twelfth.
But one thing I mention as shame turns to fear;
Will this same sad event be repeated next year?”
One that should be set to music is the excellent, rhythmic “Ballad of Rita Lost.” In her “Oak Creek Canyon” I am impressed with the “red ball of setting sun” and the final words:
And again, as on countless
other days in countless other places,
God spoke. And again, in
the world’s rugged wilderness, I recognized
his voice and was glad.”
Finally, I was especially impressed with the eulogies she wrote for the deaths of her acquaintances. (And I believe she will have many more of these to write, for she makes friends easily, and she is going to outlast us all!) These pieces reveal the depth of her compassion. One of my favorites was offered to a mother whose boy committed suicide: “Who are you, son of my friend? Source of endless tears, object of endless love . . .”
The problem with sharing Marilyn’s work is that I want to include everything. And I can’t. At least I hope I’ve whetted some appetites! The book is available for purchase, thanks to Doris Replogle Wenzel, Arnold’s astute publisher in Mahomet, Illinois, who is bright enough to recognize extraordinary talent, and who has been willing to publish many of her works. Marilyn was the winner of Mayhaven’s Award for Fiction with her road trip novel, Minding Mama, in which the main character (and it might well have been Marilyn herself) drove west hauling her deceased mother who, (prim and proper under a hat), outlasts the bumpy journey slouched against the passenger seat of the car.
When I immerse myself in Marilyn’s poetry, I revel in her spirit. I feel light and free from the restraints of daily politics and the threats of war. Marilyn’s clean living and commitment to the gospel shines through her carefully crafted poems and works. She is a stalwart, and we are refreshed by her strength and the power of her exemplary life.