The Hope College Academy of American Poets (AAP) Prize award is funded by the University and College Poetry Prize program of the AAP. The academy began the program in 1955 at 10 schools, and now sponsors nearly 200 annual prizes for poetry at colleges and universities nationwide. Poets honored through the program have included Mark Doty, Louise Gluck, Joy Harjo, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Charles Wright. The winning poet receives $100.
Judged by Brian Barker
Brian Barker is the author of The Animal Gospels (Tupelo Press, 2006) and The Black Ocean (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as American Poetry Review, Poetry, Diagram, Kenyon Review Online, Indiana Review, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, and Pleiades. His awards include an Academy of American Poets Prize and the 2009 Campbell Corner Poetry Prize. He is married to the poet Nicky Beer and teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where he is a Poetry Editor of Copper Nickel.
Dr. Barker writes:
What a pleasure to read this fine group of finalists for Hope College’s Academy of American Poets University and College Prize. All the poems were quite strong, which made the final decisions difficult.
Dr. Barker writes:
I love the way “Coelacanth” yokes together a colloquial voice with a probing meditation on otherness and beauty. The second person address to the coelacanth is playful but intimate. The poem surprised me more than once with its metaphoric and narrative leaps that weave together an examination of being, beauty, race/ethnicity, and belonging. An ambitious poem.
I have been meaning to tell you, you should google yourself sometime.
Your pictures are all over the internet. Even the Smithsonian
thinks you are worth preserving, although they call you USNM 205871
or “a living fossil”
but it’s just because we only had your great great great great great great
uncle’s imprint for decades.
We assumed you were gone from our living, swimming world, and then we pulled you up,
all grey and yellowed and ghostly, and you had bones extending into limbs that don’t quite move
like fins, and extra fins compared to Koi and Nemo and betta fish lagging on grocery store shelves.
It’s hard to fit you into the places we’ve made in our minds for what
fish are supposed to be.
Like when Columbus landed in San Salvador, and the people
weren’t Indians, but there couldn’t be any land to the West
other than India in his mind. And their different skin made them not
European and so Indian.
We found you in the Indian Ocean, and we keep finding more
except never alive by the time they reach the surface, because you live
in that twilight zone depth where the pressure could kill
us in so many ways.
And we already do such a good job of that, with the pressures
to be something that fits into people’s minds.
But if you dive a little deeper, past all the negative comments on the internet, you might find your scientific name: Latimeria.
You’re named after a woman: Miss Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer,
who noticed you in a fish market among all sorts of sharks, she said,
you were the most beautiful fish she’d ever seen.
She knew your characteristics were special because they’re “ancestral”
which could sound a lot like other bad things like primitive or old or out-of-date,
yet so many of us humans—The Chinese, some Africans and Native Americans (who we used to call Indians)
—worship ancestors with hazy pictures and food and the smell
of spice and the past, and these days, antique stores and department stores
raise prices on “vintage” items that are really just out-of-date or old or primitive.
And Miss Marjorie, she got it, after hours alone at the museum, setting specimens in place, waiting for the reason she left nursing school
for this museum at the bottom of Africa, with a bottled
piglet with six legs, and six sick birds,
waiting for someone to tell her it was the right choice. Maybe
when she saw you, she saw the way your silver scales, scattered
like bald spots, mirror the sky.
Maybe she knew that the data
and comparison to fossils and lab work would mean more
than the color of your fins, but at first that didn’t matter.
She just wanted someone to say, you’re beautiful.
Dr. Barker Writes:
I admire the way “Flower Body” takes familiar symbols of sexuality—blossoming and ripe fruit—and refashions them in a lyric exploration of vulnerability and eroticism. I love the metamorphosis in the last stanza of the blooming body into the dangerous brambles, but a danger met, ultimately, by a lover’s tenderness. All of this is wrapped up in a rich poetic music as sensual and visceral as the imagery itself.
I like to talk about hips and curves.
Imagine my body not weeping but blooming
like blossoms on the cherry tree
or falling, heavy and swollen, to the earth
like the overripe fruit on my sister’s chest.
In a spoon, I glimpse my lip bulging
in a ribbon of silver and think myself
a figured thing. Fruit bruises in a bowl
on the counter and my hips open
against their skin – petals of bone spreading
into a shape you can hold. A smudged edge
curling in the pink of your palm
like the infant bud of a bellflower.
In a car, you slip a hand around my waist
and I am the bramble you are caught in,
my suckering roots around your fingers,
but you are kissing my thorns
with the diligence of a gardener
tending the flourishing forsythia,
wrapping my edges
with the soft of your hands.
I admire writers who boil down to a (relatively) brief essay the arguments they have elsewhere explored in long books. This is my attempt to capture the gist of my new book, “Piers Plowman” and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology.
What kind of truth do we seek in literature? Readers of literature are looking for many things. In a post-truth era, it is getting harder even to count truth among them. But the question of literary truth has always been difficult. The oldest answer in Western letters hangs on the term enigma.
In the golden age of Greece (fifth century BCE), before terms like symbol and allegory had come into literary studies, ainigma identified what the language of the poems associated with Orpheus and Homer have in common with Delphic oracles. Ainigma is often translated “riddle,” but Greek had another term, griphos, for verbal puzzles that involve mere puns and tricks with letters—and that mostly lose interest once they are solved. The riddle of the Sphinx, by contrast, merits being called an ainigma: “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet at dusk?” This complex metaphor not only challenges ingenuity but opens contemplation of human life, all the more so in the light of the story of its famous solver, Oedipus.
The point of a griphos riddle is the contest, something ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed as after-dinner entertainment. An ainigma, on the other hand, aims at a shared insight into something mysterious—what we still hope will happen in literature classrooms or after attending a good play or movie. The difference is important enough that Latin borrowed its word aenigma from Greek and English borrowed it from Latin, so that riddle and enigma still mark a distinction within the core idea of verbal puzzles (though in medieval usage, the native Germanic word redel encompassed the whole territory). Enigma remains an essential term for writing that projects a surplus of meaning and elicits the kind of interpretive attention that distinguishes what we value as literature.
The uses of the term enigma in classical, medieval, and modern literary culture suggest recognition of a mode or style, the enigmatic, that I find it helpful to define over against what I call the didactic and the esoteric. Didactic texts, which make up most of what is ever published, have an agenda, whatever literary means they use, to impart a settled message or reinforce an established view. Esoteric texts, on the other hand, aim to exclude all but an elite from privileged knowledge. Both tend to draw a line between insiders and outsiders, whereas the enigmatic mode invites readers into never-ending contemplation that grows from new interpretive voices while still being centered on a reality that transcends articulation.
Enigma reached modern English by three intertwined paths that each inform what the enigmatic mode can be. As the most common Latin word for a riddle, it implies a playfulness different from the serious intentions of didactic instruction or of withholding esoteric secrets. In the teaching of literary arts (what the ancients called grammar and rhetoric), enigma was defined as a deliberately obscure allegory, something between openness and hiddenness, between transparency and opacity.
What might be the purpose of such playful difficulty? While older authors rarely ask this question outright, they often suggest a process of reading that leads to gradual growth both in understanding and in desire for what is understood. This kind of understanding is not simply owned by insiders and lacked by outsiders, as with the didactic and esoteric. Rather, enigmatic reading is open to beginners yet always finds more and more to be understood. That such reading is possible and valid, without dissolving into endless deferral of anything that could be called truth, depends on a sense of reality as mystery, one still captured by “enigma” and supported by its third line of inheritance, along with riddles and rhetoric: theology.
Augustine of Hippo, in his influential treatise On the Trinity, quotes one verse of the Bible more often than any other: “We see now through a mirror in an enigma, then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). More familiar as the source of the idiom “though a glass darkly” from the King James Bible, this sole instance of ainigma in the New Testament captures both the limits of human knowledge of the divine and the value of contemplating its obscure reflections, the way one would play at possible answers to a good riddle. Noting that nothing is more enigmatic to us than ourselves, Augustine probes the experience of consciousness in order to find vestiges of the persons of the Trinity. Ultimately he finds the participation of the human mind in the incarnate Word, as the second person of the Trinity is called at the beginning of John’s Gospel, to be the most mysterious enigma and the one that grounds the possibility of truthful contemplation.
Since the rest of Creation was also seen, especially in the Middle Ages, to participate in and manifest the divine, all of nature and history are full of enigmas. Monastic practices of reading and meditation took the Bible as the key to reading the book of nature as well as the action of God in history down to their own time and in the end. Medieval encyclopedias and devotional works exemplify the same approach, as seen in frequent titles that include the Latin word for mirror, speculum. A Christian view of the world as enigmatic became literature in the marvelous Latin riddles of St. Aldhelm (recently published in a brilliant translation by A. M. Juster) and the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book.
Further, the uses of enigma for playful entry into mysteries both divine and human offered a rationale for other efforts to stretch the resources of poetic language. No text has pursued the potential of the enigmatic to represent depths both divine and human—both vertical and horizontal, so to speak—more successfully than Dante’s Divine Comedy. For the legacy of the enigmatic in English literature, however, equally important is William Langland’s Piers Plowman.
Deservedly overshadowed by his younger fourteenth-century contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langland has been increasingly recognized for audacious experiments in what Middle English poetry could do. If Chaucer is the father of English literature, Langland has a good claim to being its grandfather. And, as one might imagine with a grandfather who spent decades writing and revising different versions of what became an obscurely allegorical poem of around 7,000 lines made up of several dreams and dreams within dreams, he is very much an enigma. Scholars often call his poem enigmatic, in a loose sense, in order to suggest what makes its difficulty worth reading. It is enigmatic, in a medieval sense, on every level, from lines that use schoolroom riddle tricks to its overall ambitions as a theological vision. At his best, Langland pioneered English poetry that could evoke mystery, not merely as a puzzle to be solved nor as mystification, but as what, increasingly in the modern period, we have come to seek in literature.
In Langland’s time, what pushed writing toward either the didactic or the esoteric instead of the enigmatic was primarily the massive influence of the medieval church. His visions often remix the doctrine that filled volumes of catechetical verse. He also satirizes the growing seductions of academic elitism. In the end, he seems to have lost confidence that the institutional church could foster the kind of inner conversion and peaceful, inclusive community that Christianity calls for. Piers Plowman finally envisions an extra-institutional remnant gathered around the scriptures and the sacraments, engaged together in an endless, figurative pilgrimage, which could also be served by the kind of poetry its author was trying to write.
Though Langland has been claimed since the sixteenth century as a proto-Protestant, the national churches born of the Reformation remained just as prone to the abuses of authority he critiques, and the religious climate became even less friendly to a poetics of enigma. Entrenched doctrinal controversy is no better for the enigmatic than institutional hegemony. As common culture became increasingly secular, this became the place for play with enigmatic modes, now directed more to the horizontal, human dimension. Such a shift could be seen already between the theological visions of Piers Plowman and the human comedy of The Canterbury Tales (or between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boccaccio’s Decameron).
The story of the enigmatic in modern literature is more complex and yet to be told. It becomes in part an alternative to neoclassicism, since classical rhetoric preferred the elegant and clear over the obscure and difficult. Thus the enigmatic is an element of the metaphysical style of John Donne over against the classicism of Ben Jonson. Similarly, it is part of the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge in response to the neo-classical standards of the eighteenth century. Yet it goes deeper. The mysteries of individuals and their places in history, whether or not seen as infinitely meaningful because of their divine author, are what interest enigmatic human authors. When religious discourse does not favor the kind of play needed to cultivate such a view of reality, literature becomes more necessary as a supplement or alternative, a view seen in Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, or the New Critics.
Since the New Critics, however, literary studies have been dominated by the hermeneutics of suspicion, a phrase coined by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur to capture a posture especially identified with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. As necessary as it is to read for subtexts and unconscious agendas, Ricouer’s point is that this can only take us so far (an argument recently reasserted by Rita Felski and others). Suspicious reading needs to be balanced by a more affirming, imaginative, and empathetic stance, a dynamic captured in Ricoeur’s aphorism, “To explain more is to understand better.” Teachers and students of literature and other arts who seek to keep suspicion from stealing the show, or at least the ways we talk about it, can find valuable resources, and a helpful word, in the ancient poetics and hermeneutics of enigma.
The didactic and the esoteric modes each serve ideology and power, which is mostly what the hermeneutics of suspicion are suspicious of. Suspicious critique that finds an agenda behind everything often takes the further, deconstructive step of showing that this agenda is an arbitrary construct that does not bear scrutiny but dissolves into self-contradiction. Critique tends to set itself up as a privileged, esoteric discourse that renders everything else either didactic or esoteric. One way or the other, the hermeneutics of suspicion risks excluding the possibility of the enigmatic.
Yet “enigmatic” remains a member of what seems a dwindling species: an almost unreserved term of approbation for ambitious literary or other artistic works. It has survived the loss of theological consensus that nurtured a sacramental approach to the world. It gained strength in opposition to revivals of classical decorum. And it seems to be weathering the rise of suspicious critique in the humanities, as well as the accompanying ascendance of science as the language of truth.
But how can we still talk about the enigmatic? One answer is by recovering its vertical dimension. One of the fruits of suspicion in the humanities is suspicion of suspicion: not so much suspicion turned on itself, perhaps, but mutual suspicion among different schools of critique (Marxian, deconstructive, psychoanalytic, Foucauldian…), so that eclecticism and radical pluralism open the way again for theological perspectives. The history of the enigmatic suggests that a rich affirmation of horizontal, human meaning may depend on an equally rich vertical reference.
At the same time, however, the Christian understanding of the enigmatic is fully incarnational, in the sense that it affirms the accommodation of divine truth to the conditions of human embodiment. It also reckons with human finitude and fallibility. Enigmatic language reminds us of the limitations of all attempts to articulate what transcends scientific reduction. What these limitations withhold behind the curtain of mystery, however, they also give by opening the entire theater of creation and history as moments of potential revelation. In the authors such as Dante and Langland who fully embraced a poetics of enigma, this path brought suspicion of precisely those authorities that claimed to be sacred. It looked for truth rather in the victimized and outcast. In this respect, the critical movements focused on the political margins—feminism, post-colonialism, race and ethnic studies, queer theory, disability studies, even ecocriticism—can find in the enigmatic an alternate genealogy. In the road beyond oneself to the other, there are no shortcuts, either vertical or horizontal.
Just as a riddle both conceals and reveals, the enigmatic invites a posture that combines both suspicion and advocacy. It welcomes new and strange voices into a play of reading whose truth is additive and symphonic, known by the complex harmonies and expanding communion that emerge.
Austria—home of an iconic singing family, towering snow-covered Alps, and Vienna, a sparkling gem of art, music, and architecture, and my heart’s new resting place. Cheesy, I know. But also true. This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to study in Vienna for 3 weeks as part of the 65th annual Vienna Summer School, and I discovered that although I am neither a patron of the arts nor a musician or historian, Vienna will always hold hostage a huge piece of my heart. It’s a strange feeling—I’ve traveled extensively within the U.S. and no city has ever captivated me the way Vienna did. I can’t say what exactly it is about the city—could be the glittering Statsoper filled with women in ball gowns and men in tuxedos. Could be the gardens of Schӧnbrunn palace filled with sweet-scented roses and whisperings of the Hapsburgs who roamed there in centuries past. Could be the Kantnerstrasse filled with bustling people and a veritable Tower-of-Babel array of languages. Could be none of these things, or all of them. I remember being unreasonably excited about a telephone booth when we first arrived—my very jet-lagged roommate was not amused by my “I’ve never seen one in real life!” Whatever it is, Vienna has that intangible “thing” that has been ensnaring Hope students and non-Hope students alike for decades, and I am its latest victim. But what a captivity—our first and only weekend actually in the city, we had the chance to see Anatevka, or Fiddler on the Roof, and the Sound of Music—one on Saturday night and one on Sunday night. The Sound of Music is my favorite musical—my family watches it together every Christmas—and to see it performed in Austria was unbelievable. My journal entry for that day says, “I don’t even know what to write—I just pray I will always remember this.” I think I felt that way about every day in Vienna because every day brought a crazy slew of new experiences. Every day was a new adventure. From Vienna, my housemates and I went to Slovakia and then Greece and France and England and the Netherlands and Germany and Switzerland and Italy. We stayed in hostels, living out of our backpacks like typical college travelers. Before beginning this trip, I didn’t realize how much I would learn—about myself, about life, and about the world. Every country—every city even—was so new and so different, with so much to explore and discover. From the Parthenon in Athens to the black sand in Santorini to the rain in London and the windmills in Amsterdam—the world is so big and it is so full of crazy adventures just waiting to be had. I’ve always been restless, never content to stay very long in one place—always following the jet trails crisscrossing the sky and keeping my eyes fixed on the horizon. But after this trip, I know that’s who I am—a wanderer, an adventurer, always looking for life’s next. It’s both a gift and a flaw. Often, I find that I forget to live in the here and now. I’m always searching for what’s right around the corner instead of focusing on and appreciating the present. It’s something I work on every day. But, conversely, it also means I don’t wait around for life to come to me. As I write this from Holland State Park, looking out over Lake Michigan, I find myself wishing I was back on the black sands of Greece admiring the beauty of the Aegean Sea. But it’s only for a minute . . . I know I’m not finished. Life—the greatest adventure of all—is just beginning.
Humanity has been telling stories for thousands of years. From cave paintings to theatrical performances, people have developed nuanced ways of conveying information. In the 21st century one of the most common modes of storytelling is through the novel, often hinging on the story-telling capabilities of a first-person narrator. Contemporary literature has experienced a flourish of creativity surrounding narrative styles pertaining to the role of unreliable narration as a tool for storytelling. The uncertainty this genre of narration creates affects both the style and plot of the novel while also opening up avenues for political and social expression. Aaron Cully Drake’s first novel Do You Think This is Strange? and Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love utilize this trend, including narrators who are youthfully naïve, intellectually disabled, or bordering senility.
One major function of unreliable narration is to create new ways that readers interact with stories through plot. Drake’s protagonist, Freddy, slowly remembers his mother’s death and the truth surrounding her last hours. Since Freddy has repressed this major incident throughout the novel, the plot propels via the reader’s and Freddy’s simultaneous unearthing of the mystery. Krauss similarly uses the unreliable narration in her books, implementing two first-person narrators, Alma Singer and Leo Gursky. Again, these characters give the audience knowledge piece-by-piece, yet it is always under suspect. Gursky, an elderly Polish man, is sliding towards senility. All his remarks and conclusions as a narration, therefore, are dubious and color the reader’s interpretation of the plot. The most grandiose example of this is when the reader discovers that Bruno, Gursky’s longtime friend present throughout the novel, has actually been dead for over 50 years.
Unreliable narrators also recreate the style of storytelling in books through creative aestheticism. Krauss uses Gursky’s moments of senility to construct aesthetically pleasing passages of confusion in sections of the book. For example, the book ends with Gursky sitting next to young Alma, unable to discern whether she is a stranger or his childhood love. Similarly, 15-year-old Alma’s unreliable narration, spurred from her naiveté and youth, engenders plot changes while also creating aesthetic pleasures for readers. As a young mind, Alma narrates her story through the usage of lists, enumerating her thoughts in an easy-to-follow format. This uncommon mode of script initially shocks the reader out of the common trends of prose writing.
A third and more abstract use of this trend is to help audiences empathize and understand the inner workings of unique identity groups such as individuals with intellectual disabilities. Drake’s novel is one of several novels written in the last 15 years that uses a narrator with an intellectual disability. Many of these authors consciously advocate for this identity group, equipped with personal experiences to create realistic depictions. For instance, Drake’s daughter is on the autistic spectrum. Without defining these narrators by their disabilities, authors such as Drake integrate examples of how intellectual disabilities may manifest themselves, illustrating the unique perspective that these people possess. Drake simultaneously implements humor into this informative process by showing how certain individuals with intellectual disabilities have trouble understanding idioms or figurative language. Freddy describes his complex desire to be alone yet also be accepted in a way that teaches readers certain paradoxes that result from not only his disability but from society’s rejection and exclusion of him. Creative usage of first-person narration opens a door for authors to explain difficult ideas such as complex embodiment theory—the belief that disability is constructed through both medical and social influences.
The recent experimentation revolving around unreliable narration has enabled writers to interact with the written word in entirely new ways. This trend not only questions how people can tell stories, but it reinforces the power of narrative as a tool for bringing awareness to marginalized groups. Only time will tell what other effects this tool will precipitate.