in verse #43 : hero’s journey

When Leonard Cohen said “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash,”[i] he probably didn’t have Joseph Smith in mind. Joseph Smith burned brightly in a world lit only by fire, and he left a splendid ash indeed, but Cohen most likely has never considered that ash. That is my task today.

On November 27th, 1832, Joseph Smith sent a letter from Kirtland, Ohio, to W. W. Phelps, the Church’s newspaper editor in Independence, Missouri, in which this poem appears:

Little Narrow Prison

Now Brother William if what I have said is true,
how careful then had men ought to be
what they do in the last days lest they are cut short
of their expectations, and they that think they stand
should fall because they keep not the Lord’s commandments,
whilst you who do the will of the Lord
and keep his commandments have need to rejoice
with unspeakable joy, for such shall be
exalted very high and shall be lifted up
in triumph above all the kingdoms of the world —
but I must drop this subject at the beginning.

Oh Lord when will the time come
when Brother William thy servant and myself
behold the day that we may stand together
and gaze upon eternal wisdom engraven
upon the heavens while the majesty
of our God holdeth up the dark curtain
until we may read the round of Eternity
to the fullness and satisfaction of our immortal
souls? Oh Lord God deliver us
in thy due time from the little narrow prison
almost as it were total darkness of paper
pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered
and imperfect language.[ii]

The letter was written Continue Reading →

More Mormon Comics, Please: A Review of Stephen Carter and Jett Atwood’s iPlates

Mormon comics have been around for a while. For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to attempt a complete history here, but I will direct you to Theric’s excellent chapter on Mormon comics in J. Michael Hunter’s two-volume Mormons and Popular Culture. It’s a history I’ve been unaware of for most of my life, despite my long interest in both Mormon literature and comics. Like most members of the church, the only Mormon “comics” I had access to were the church-produced scripture readers. But I never really thought of them as comics.

Lately I’ve been trying to make up for lost time, familiarizing myself with the Mormon comics scene and trying my best to follow Theric’s “five easy steps” to becoming a “Mormon-Comics Snob.” I’m still early in my snobbery, but I’m enjoying it immensely. As I’ve written about elsewhere, comics were a major part of my childhood and teenage years. While I quit collecting comics when I was fourteen, I cartooned throughout high school (including a year as the editorial cartoonist for the school newspaper), my first year of college, and my mission. After I got back from Brazil and became an English major, though, I made a choice to walk away from drawing to focus on poetry, fiction, and literary criticism. Looking back, I probably needed the distance. It had been a huge part of my life, but I was getting bored with it.

Then kids came along. I started watching cartoons again. Lot of cartoons. One thing led to another and, after more than a decade away, I got back into comics and drawing.

So far, Mormon comics have not been a huge part of my return to comics, but this year I’ve been taking steps to fix that. The other day I downloaded Stephen Carter and Jett Atwood’s iPlates, Volume 1 for my Kindle. One of my daughters has really taken to comic books lately, and, wanting to feed her habit, I decided to push iPlates her way. I hadn’t read it yet, but what I had seen of it impressed me. Besides, as a fan of Stephen Carter’s writing and a wannabe fan of Jett Atwood’s art, I figured it had to be good.

Continue Reading →

Behold, Ye Are Fallen: The Case for Mormon Tragedy

Moroni Mourns the Death of his Father, Mormon by Walter Rane

Near the end of the Book of Mormon, the narrator, historian, and namesake of one of Mormonism’s most sacred texts, has just witnessed the downfall and near obliteration of his people. As he contemplates the carnage and the waste of potential in the multi-thousands of bodies he sees strewn across the landscape, he laments in a soliloquy worthy of a Shakespearean tragic hero:

O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return… O that ye had repented before this great destruction had come upon you. But behold, ye are gone, and the Father, yea, the Eternal Father of heaven, knoweth your state; and he doeth with you according to his justice and mercy.[1]

For me, Mormon’s cry of anguish, “O ye fair ones…” is one of the Book of Mormon’s most memorable and haunting passages. Even as a boy, the tragic story of Mormon and the downfall of his people resonated with me on a visceral level. My parents had purchased the Living Scriptures videos produced in the 80s and 90s and the episode “Mormon and Moroni” was, by far, the one I watched the most. When I finally read through the Book of Mormon the whole way through for the first time as a freshman in high school (after lots of start and stop attempts previous to that), again, it was Mormon and Moroni who stood out to me, second in personal impact perhaps only to the first time I read through Christ’s visit to the Americas in 3rd Nephi.

My friend Natalie would often gently tease me in high school about how “sober” I was, which made me think of Ammaron’s comments about Mormon:  “I perceive that thou art a sober child, and art quick to observe.”[2] This gave me another connection to this plaintive and sensitive Mormon and his son Moroni. I felt kinship with tragedians like these.

And yet with one of our core books of scripture being a tragic work about the destruction of an entire civilization of people, we are certainly not known to be a “sober” people. Rather, we are caricatured as sunny, naive optimists with plastic smiles. A far cry from “sober…quick to observe.”  In Mark Oppenheimer’s recent article about Mormon literature in the New York Times[3], the insinuation is made that Mormons have a difficult time creating “literary” work because of this cultural characteristic. As Mormons, should we have more sensitivity and tolerance towards the tragic instead of keeping up the façade of indomitable cheerfulness?  Is there a case for Mormon tragedy? Continue Reading →

Break It Down!

Like Lehi of old, I stepped from the front door of my house and found something beautiful sparkling in the sunlight. It was not a Liahona; it was the final proof of iPlates Volume 1, a graphic novel based the Book of Mormon that Jett Atwood and I produced. (Note: this book keeps kids quiet during sacrament meeting).

I say I found the final proof there because I had gone through two unfinal proofs previously, their beauty having been marred by the difference between the black produced by Photoshop and the black produced by QuarkXpress. But I had fixed the problem, and now we had a perfect proof. (Note: you can buy this book with its pure tones of black on Amazon or from our shop page.)

But I could not rest. Like Lehi, I needed to venture into the wilderness—in this case, the wilderness of Kindle. Continue Reading →

in verse # 18 : a monstrous fable

Like many a medieval manuscript, Piers the plowman has no title as such.  Walter W. Skeat, who gave it that title, notes, however, that, in the manuscript he used as the basis for his Oxford edition, “we find here [in place of the word Prologue] ‘Incipit liber de petro plowman,’ nearly obliterated.”[i]  In the introduction to his edition, Skeat spends the first seven pages clarifying his title — a necessary labor in 1869, when he first published his “student’s” edition, but one indicative of a modern preoccupation with titles.  Perhaps because we have no titles of nobility in America, we are very particular about the titles of our own works.   Continue Reading →

In Tents # 4 The S(k)in of Blackness

Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.
–Isaiah 54:2

On one of Bob Newhart’s albums (The Button Down Mind Strikes Back?) Bob has a routine where he’s talking on the phone, repeating back what the person on the other end says. “Oh, Reform Jews aren’t real Jews?”

I thought about this recently when I came across a Salon article called, “Meet the Man Who Changed Glenn Beck’s Life,” which mentioned the Reform Mormon movement.

Reading further I thought, “Reform Mormons aren’t real Mormons,” and looking at The Book of Michael, I kept thinking, “this really doesn’t match up with even the least revelation in The Book of Commandments” (See D&C 67:6-7).

Thus my arrogance gave me an unsettling glimpse of how other Christians view Mormons, how Jews and Samaritans viewed each other, how Nephites viewed Lamanites, and how the Lamanites viewed themselves and the Nephites.
Continue Reading →

In tents #2: The Primitive Church

In The Primitive Church

(Note: This is not a formal review, but I’ve included the bibliographical information because I like this book a great deal and want people to know where to get it. I posted a review to AML-List Feb 11, 2011 and cross-posted it to A Motley Vision. My thanks to USU Press for the review copy.)

Title: Southern Paiute: A Portrait
Author: William Logan Hebner, photographs by Michael L. Plyler
Publisher: Logan Utah, Utah State University Press, 2010
Genre: Oral History
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 196+xii
Binding: Cloth, or e-book
ISBN: 978-0-87421-754-4
ISBN e-book 978-0-87421-755-1
Price: $34.95 cloth, $28.00 e-book

South Bend, Washington is about 70 miles southwest of Olympia. You take 8 toward Aberdeen, which becomes Highway 12, and turn off onto 107 at Montesano, which runs into 101. You go past a nuclear reactor on the way to Montesano (I don’t know if it’s ever been commissioned). 101 winds through 20 miles or so of mostly Weyerhaueser tree farms. You get out of radio range pretty quickly. I spent a lot of weekends there while Donna and I were courting.

One Sunday afternoon on the way back to Seattle I came back into radio range, or maybe I was already in Tacoma, and paused the dial on a radio preacher who was taking Pentecostals to task for using the spiritual gifts you read about in the New Testament, gifts that were only authorized to get the church started–not for continual use.

That gave me an inkling that there are divisions within Protestantism as sharp as the divisions between Mormons and other Christians. I again came across the sense that spiritual gifts are a bit scandalous in Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, when the father takes his son to a charismatic gathering, and I sense some of the tension over spiritual gifts in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain.

There’s also a glimpse of religious differences in the 30 oral histories collected in William Logan Hebner and Michael L. Plyler’s Southern Paiute: A Portrait, Continue Reading →

On-Screen: Filming the Book of Mormon

Last Saturday, at the AML Annual meeting, we had the privilege of seeing a public screening of Corianton, probably the first Mormon feature film.  Based on the play by Orestes Utah Bean (if there were ever a perfect name for a Mormon playwright, it would be Orestes Utah Bean), the film was produced in 1931 by Lester Park, who, as it happens, is also Orson Scott Card’s grandfather.  It was long thought that no prints of Corianton existed, but the Card family did have one, and it’s now been digitally restored and can be seen at the BYU library.  James D’Arc, who oversaw the restoration, was kind enough to allow AML members to see the film.  It’s a corker.  Of course, it’s old fashioned to our eyes; reminiscient of the early silent Bible epics of Cecil B. DeMille, in particular his 1923 Ten Commandments.  The acting style is one we make fun of today–everyone in the film sounds like Margaret Dumont (Groucho Marx’s comic foil), and they do blather on.  And the film really has alarming amounts of skin.  Of course, the story of Corianton is also the story of his seduction by the harlot Isabel, which in the film is accomplished with the aid of numerous half-naked dancing girls, cavorting about in what appears to be a 1931 attempt to capture Native American dance.  Continue Reading →