Journey of faith and discovery
By Mark Ward Sr. - Guest Column
April 4, 2017 at 9:30 p.m.
The work of a scholar is to honestly consider the claims of others and then critically pursue the evidence where it leads.
By contrast, some claim that religious faith is incompatible with a spirit of honest and critical inquiry. Yet the poetry of Martha Serpas, a professor of English in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, shows that faith and inquiry can be complementary.
Serpas says that, for her, writing is prayer, an unmediated experience of the Divine. That experience has led Serpas, a native of the Louisiana bayou country, along her own winding journey of faith and discovery.
In a foreword to her first collection of poetry, "Cote Blanche," Harold Bloom described Serpas as a "Catholic devotional poet from South Louisiana." But this characterization, wrote Kate Daniels in a review of Serpas' second collection, "The Dirty Side of the Storm," "seems far too constrictive for a poet of her range and interests." Indeed, in a blurb for that same book, Bloom added to his earlier assessment by declaring Serpas a "Cajun visionary."
Understanding Serpas' poetry starts with her vision of faith. In a recent interview she said, "I think the connectedness that we feel individually and that we also feel as a community comes through faith. That is consoling, and it's also not consoling."
Referring to the writings of Saint Augustine, she added, "There are parts that fall away and are replaced by other parts to maintain a wholeness and consistency. That's related to the environmental aspects - poetry, like faith, can raise attention and also hold up a part of the whole that always falls away."
Thus, she explained, "What falls away will be replaced by something else, so the whole is consoling, and yet, the necessary loss is devastating."
These truths are seen in the very soil of her native southern Louisiana, a place built by silt washed down from other places. As she observed, "So something somewhere was destroyed in order to build this land, and something will be built out of this loss."
This theme runs, like a meandering bayou stream, through Serpas's poetry. Reviews of "Cote Blanche" praised it as a "book of love and death in a Louisiana landscape" and "unflinching in looking into the contemporary quandaries facing her faith."
Similarly, "The Dirty Side of the Storm" both venerates and grieves over the vanishing bayou country, exploring the paradox of transformation and death, both environmental and personal.
In her latest collection of poetry, "The Diener," Serpas investigates, according to the publisher's description, "loss and healing, change and permanence, in a hospital trauma center and in the eroding landscape of southern Louisiana."
Serpas' academic credentials are impressive: degrees in English and creative writing from Louisiana State University, New York University and UH, as well as a master of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School.
In addition to her three books, Serpas' poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Southwest Review and Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, as well as in a number of anthologies including the Library of America's American Religious Poem and The Art of the Sonnet.
Serpas is praised, in the words of one reviewer, as "a quiet, thoughtful poet with a love of simple diction, conventional form, and strong, regular rhythm" and whose "greatest gift is for description of this [bayou] landscape, and she gets all the details right."
She also is an advocate for the environment. In the feature-length documentary, "Veins in the Gulf," which Serpas co-produced, she interviews residents of southern Louisiana as they deal with the disappearance of their bayous and way of life. The documentary was an Official Selection of the 2012 Arizona International Film Festival.
However, the setting of The Diener, which is a term for morgue assistant, is inspired by another aspect of Serpas' biography. Since joining the UH faculty in 2009, she has served as a trauma chaplain for Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. She sees an inherent connection between poetry and chaplaincy, pursuits that both require deep devotion.
Serpas will share her journey in a free public reading from her works, as part of the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series at noon Thursday in UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. The public is cordially invited to attend.
Mark Ward Sr. is an associate professor of communication at the University of Houston-Victoria. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.