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Can one find words for God?

16 November 2010

A poet’s exploration of this mystery is risky but worth while, says Martyn Halsall


Lovesongs and Reproaches: Passionate conversations with God
L. William Countryman
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

WILLIAM COUNTRYMAN dares to fail as he tracks parallels of human and divine love through this collection of 50 poetic meditations. Seeking and communicating love through such “passionate conversa­tions with God” invites risk.

Countryman acknowledges that we work through an inadequate vocabulary — humanity phrasing perceptions of the divine, balancing research with revelation. Halfway through his exploration he asks: “How can we speak of you at all In human language?”

Even his chosen medium threatens failure:

Poetry is least adequate
to the task because its weaknesses are so palpable.

So he renegotiates through the given: “the closest thing to your mystery Is our own.”

The natural world awards meta­phors of identity, such as the “fires of leaf-fall”; yet “we know you Above all in one another.” And there are per­sistent disclosures by

the author of those love notes
that keep coming to us with no return address.

Such intimacy awards a balance to the ambition of this book, which reflects the biblical journey. Themes include creation, the emergence of monotheism, prophecy and dis­cern-ment, and God’s initiatives:

Or perhaps you reached towards us.
Who can ever tell
how a friendship began?
Who first saw whom and loved?

Countryman writes with a novelist’s disclosure and a poet’s insight to illustrate the development of a majestic redeemer from a “two-bit desert god”. His poetic agenda is comprehensive, including Hebraic concepts of a “chosen people”, free will, and the person of Christ, in this rich and absorbing collection.

Above all, there is the constant refrain of divine friendship: “you do not compel But you keep offering the hand.”

This book would prove a stimulat­ing retreat companion, and a poetic prayer resource. It ends in elegy, mourning our abused world, yet still holding out the hand of hope:

What if it’s autumn? You
don’t stop working.

Dr Halsall is communications adviser to the Blackburn diocese, and poetry editor of Third Way magazine.

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