To see Cal Grondahl’s Currents cartoon that goes with this review, click here
Long ago, in seminary class, our teacher was playing Book of Mormon Jeopardy with the class, shooting out answers and selecting the first raised hand for the question. He burst out, “Builder of ships!” I was the only one to raise my hand. “Who was Hagoth?” The teacher, bemused, said, “I thought that would be a tough one,” and continued.
That was the only answer I earned in the game. For some reason, the ship builder’s short, obscure reference had stuck with me.
I thought of that moment when I started reading “Psalm & Selah: A Poetic Journey Through The Book of Mormon,” by BYU Idaho writing and literature professor, Mark D. Bennion, published by Parables. Bennion’s slim volume is a collection of poems that deal with subjects and characters in the LDS scripture. It’s an honest attempt to take scripture and allow our own imaginations to decipher thoughts and feelings that go beyond the book’s verses or references in a Gospel Doctrine class.
Bennion’s a talented poet and the Book of Mormon enthusiast will enjoy or find relevance in the poems. Subjects include, Rameuption, the tower where the proud Zoramites prayed, an experience by an unnamed Nephite in the “great and spacious building” of Lehi’s dream, and “Rift,” a poem that details the strife between Nephi, Sam, and others, and the factions following Laman and Lemuel.
Bennion’s poetry is very symbolic, with multiple meanings for readers. Don’t expect recaps of the history of the poet’s subjects. I’m interested in the “other” characters of the Book of Mormon, those who rarely make it into church classes. I enjoyed the poem, “Chemish Explains Himself.” Book of Mormon readers know that Chemish passed on the plates with no more than a verse. Bennion delves into Chemish’s motives, or why he chose a bit part in scripture. Bennion writes:
“Sometimes it’s better to live outside
your posterity’s verdict, to let them
strive over speculation or a gist of story.”
Through the poem, Bennion is speaking for the vast majority of us who don’t write the histories, but understand that history finds us, whether we greet it or hide. The poem ends:
“They’ll know soon enough
the mind-drumming madness
of what most of us ignore or regret:
spilt blood, pestilence, sin.”
In “The Other 60,” Bennion writes of the Ammonites who joined the 2,000 stripling warriors. The poem is an homage to the horrors of war. The 60 are not spared terror and suffering. The spare prose is powerful without being over-emotional:
“My left arm is gone.
It’s no use to rehash the oily blame.”
I mentioned how interested I was in Hagoth. Bennion does not ignore the ship maker who disappeared while on a voyage. In “Curious.” the unnamed narrator is clearly Hagoth, and Bennion’s creation of him does justice to his scant, yet striking mention in the scriptures:
“until we knew the unknown
would never diminish each time
the hull sprayed its web of water
I held on to the bow
like Lehi did with his sons
withered and bent, still believing
that you have to leave a world
to find what is full of promise.”
I particularly like that last stanza of Bennion’s, drawing parallels to Lehi’s wanderlust for a better world to Hagoth’s aims. Of course, such wanderlust like Lehi’s and Hagoth’s can apply to any of us, in any time.
I’m not a poetry critic but I enjoyed Bennion’s poems. It’s a pity that Deseret Book, the Jabba the Hutt of LDS publishing, spurns books like Bennion’s for dry texts that are vomited back into print every score of years. “Psalms and Selah” is interesting reading. It doesn’t dictate to the reader. It allows comprehension to arrive slowly.
Ultimately, the appreciation level for the beauty of scripture, and its extended families, is enhanced.
This column also appeared in Currents, the Standard’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.