Film and Book Reviews

Poetry to savour through your liturgical year

BookThe Swelling Year: Poems for Holy and Ordinary Days, by Matthew Pullar (Consolation Press, 2019)

By Wei-Han Kuan

April 15 2020Matthew Pullar, an English teacher and Melbourne Anglican, reveals in his preface that this collection of some 70 poems has been seven years in the making, originating in a Lenten discipline of writing a poem a day reflecting on the season. What he has produced is therefore an intimate insight into his spiritual journey through the Anglican liturgical year. In this volume he invites the reader in and hopes that we will be helped and enriched in our own faith.

This is a work that knows its audience. The Anglican or Anglican-aware reader will delight in the very many familiar references and echoes. Those unfamiliar with the cultural landscape will remain bemused and unaware. This is not a weakness of the volume; it is simply the way poetry often works. Especially poetry of such a personal and reflective kind. It is best read as it was written – reflectively.

This is a work that invites a deeper engagement with tradition. Pullar displays his intimacy with a range of theological sources and personalities from Christian history. There are reflections on St John of the Cross and Nicholas of Myra (Santa Claus to most of us), references to John Keble, Thomas Becket, Thomas Cranmer, and several others besides. This is a strength of the volume. For example, the acrostic poem “Alphabet” is a paean to Bible translation and doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, dedicated to the missionary translators Cyril and Methodius – a jewel in the volume!

Admittedly, some appeals to history felt more successful than others. I appreciated the juxtaposition of John Wyclif’s translation of the Scriptures and persecutions against the Christmas incarnation, flight to Egypt, and ransoming work of the Cross, in “Lords and Lollards”:

Into the real of princes and thieves

comes the child, comes the child,

hay on his brow.

Into the darkness that knew not the light comes the Word, comes the Word, truth in His flight.

Into the sheep-pen where shepherds dig deep comes the Cross, comes the Cross, ransoming sheep.

Into indulgence and folly and pride

comes the King, comes the true King;

duplicity dies.

This is a work that experiences faith in suburbia. Several poems utilise images of everyday life for urban dwellers. Stuck in traffic, window-shopping, life with young children. These are typically thought-provoking and occasionally delightful. “Suburb has its own time”, Pullar writes in “Long Shrift”:

 … Roadwork

punctuates the day’s first lines.

Promises in orange signs declare:

something soon is happening. Prepare.

You may have left your lunch behind …

There could have been a more extensive exploration of the suburban experience of faith through the year, but perhaps that will be his next volume.

This is a work that mirrors the function of the liturgical year: it reminds us of the highlight times of Christmas and Easter, the incarnation and crucifixion, and drives us towards prayer. The majority of the poems either refresh and deepen our vision of those events, or call us to prayer. Both are worthy reasons to treasure this volume.

Finally, and by way of appreciation, this is a work of poetry. And poetry is the art of words. Pullar turns out some truly evocative turns of phrase that ought to be more widely read and appreciated:

 “I gospel my slack hearted refusal of the gospel/ Though Christ plays/ in ten thousand places, I/ fragment my mind in ten thousand spaces.”

“The best laid plans of priests and men/ cannot contain what God has raised.”

“They will look on Him they have pierced/ If they can look him in the eye.”

“I was not ready:/ You came when I was sleeping.”

“…footsteps following where he treads,/ to see where God makes a home.”

A book to savour through your liturgical year.

The Revd Dr Wei-Han Kuan is State Director of Church Missionary Society – Victoria.