“To everything there is a season,” Ecclesiastes tells us. Katherine Bode-Lang, local poet and national winner of the Honickman First Book Prize, understands this deeply. In her award-winning collection, The Reformation, she gets her hands dirty with what matters: resistance and acceptance, regret and impenitence. “All day, my hands smell of remembrance,” she tells us. With fierce, lyrical poems, she digs up questions and plants experiences. She weathers through our physical and spiritual seasons. At year’s end, she arrives at love.
Born and raised in western Michigan, a graduate of Hope College and Penn State’s MFA program, Bode-Lang now works at Penn State as an IT Trainer. Her poems merge the intellectual and emotional, the highly personal and powerfully universal.
As her book’s title suggests, The Reformation focuses on action, particularly the process of separating from or cleaving to. Many of the individual poems work as companion pieces. These examine not only her Calvinist upbringing but also her parents’ relationship to her and to each other. In the selection “Daughter,” the poet explains, “I am all my mother’s no’s.” In “Daughter II,” she says of her minister father, “[I am] the poem he wished he’d always written….I am his favorite hymn….” but “not/the sign from God he’d asked for.”
Eventually, in “Waiting for the Church to Burn,” we see “the buildings of [her] childhood…come down one/by one.”
In several poems, she examines photos and letters. There is “the photo of the day [her] mother meant/to leave [her] father” but stayed. There are the love letters her grandfather sent throughout the war. “This is why we believe in heaven—//,” the poet asserts, “because we want to believe that the sweet twine/that held the letters might also hold us/to each other and to this world./That the silken threads of love survive/and pull us to the next life.”
There is vulnerability and strength in these proclamations. There is also courage and hope—particularly in poems examining acute physical pain. In the title poem, the author cries out, “They do not know how you hold me as a teacup,/how you are so gentle as you sip the porcelain rim.” Love and persistence—this is what Bode-Lang finally comes to accept and believe. In “That First February,” she explains, “We did not know then/that it was possible for love to stay, even through/the winter, even when the roof buckles under ice.” In the midst of our own icy winters, may these poems of reformation light a needed fire that warms us in our darkest seasons.
That book is “The Reformation” by Katherine Bode-Lang, published by American Poetry Review. It received the Honickman 1st Book Prize.
Katherine Bode-Lang will be doing a reading at Lock Haven University on Thursday, February 25th, at 5:30 pm in the multipurpose room of the Parson's Union Building.
Our reviewer, Marjorie Maddox, is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently “Local News from Someplace Else.” She is also a professor of English and the Director of Creative Writing at Lock Haven University.