Many Hands Make Light Work: A look at The Work of Creation: Selected Prose

The Work of Creation: Selected Prose by Luke Hankins. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, January 2016. 159 pages. $16 paperback.

The Work of Creation: Selected Prose is a collection of criticism, commentaries, personal essays, and interviews that in sum flesh out the remarkable intellectual life of poet, critic, and well-regarded editor Luke Hankins, a writer whose identity touches all points on the proverbial craft compass. Short of writing fiction, Hankins has done it all: reviewed other poets’ work when he could have been holed up fashioning his own, thought deeply and often about how poetry’s past can enliven and ensure the survival of its future, and translated the gorgeous poems of international authors like Stella Vinitchi Radulescu. In the process, though perhaps unintentionally so, Hankins has done more than simply provide us a record of his own intellectual musings and machinations. He has given fellow writers a template for how to become the best community-oriented versions of ourselves.

What I admire most about this collection of prose is that it focuses less on Hankins the poet and more on Hankins’s relationship to poetry communities—which is for the most part a selfless interaction geared toward shining a light on others’ poetry and what it can teach us about surviving in the world. Whether he is talking about Tarfia Faizullah's first collection Seam and its relationship to Franz Wright's collection F, Claudia Emerson’s use of myth in Late Wife, The Paris Review “Poetry Purge” and his relationship to its politics as a literary magazine editor, or his own experience with exorcism as a child, Hankins uses discussions of the self and its relationship to larger communities to draw us outside ourselves in The Work of Creation and into a realm of ideas that feels necessarily detached. For Hankins, detachment is a strategy that, when combined with the reflexive movement back toward introspection, draws us closer to meaningful ideas about transcendence—what it is and what it can mean—in our lives as writers.

Since Hankins was a student of fundamentalist Christianity from a young age, and speaks often about that experience’s impact on his spiritual and creative life, one might presuppose that a book of prose with a title like The Work of Creation would maintain some degree of metaphysical rigidity in its pronouncements about what is “meaningful,” what is “beautiful,” and what is worth seeking out as “good” in contemporary poetry today. But Hankins never does anything of the sort. I was surprised and enlivened at nearly every turn this collection took. In particular, I am drawn to the unexpected and simultaneously heart-wrenching courage with which Hankins seeks to explain the motivations of the attackers who senselessly beat him in an Asheville parking lot by portraying them as human and capable of love in his explication and poem “The Way They Loved Each Other.” “I don’t feel anger against the perpetrators, only confusion and pity and sadness,” he notes in the introductory remarks before the poem. He continues:

I don’t take credit for not feeling anger. It’s simply the natural course my mind and heart have taken. But I will say that [writing the poem] has allowed me to recover psychologically from the incident in a way that I don’t believe would have been possible if I were plagued by anger and desire for vengeance. I’m grateful for this grace.

Another powerful moment in the collection is the exacting, almost-positivist stance Hankins takes in the essay “Beautiful Truths: Reason and Fundamentalist Christianity,” a carefully considered, well-wrought response I wish I had been able to give the reason-lacking fundamentalist street preacher spitting hell-fire and sin-laden language outside The Quad in undergrad. Its penultimate paragraph effectively conveys Hankins’s primary argument:

When I step back and consider the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians as if I hadn’t been raised to believe them, I realize that they do not elicit my belief. They are self-contradictory and unreasonable, and are based on one primary faulty assumption—the infallibility of the Bible. If one leaves that premise behind, one is left with a religious tradition that, like all religious traditions, is full of moments of transcendent insight and inspiration, but also full of human flaws. 

As moments like this indicate, nothing is turned away from idly in Hankins’s prose. Each idea is considered evenly and artfully. Hankins takes eight pages to painstakingly break down and critique the primary assumptions of fundamentalist Christianity when he could just as easily conclude such narrow systems of belief are meritless in two or three brief sentences. Hankins’s probing patience results in an essay where reason and mystery collide and successfully coexist.

Hankins regularly deploys quotes from other writers to substantiate and support his own claims throughout this collection. His favorite, perhaps, comes from Joseph Conrad's “Preface,” and I think speaks directly to what The Work of Creation contributes to the literary communities it highlights and explores:

[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds us to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.

I have known many a poet (myself included) whose orientation to language and other poets is only marginally community-focused. Even when we participate in literary communities, we do so primarily to benefit our own writing and reputations as writers. In Hankins prose, we meet—in direct opposition to that selfish orientation—a master craftsman hard at work at his proverbial potter’s wheel creating pieces of art about art’s relationship to the communities in which it is created that are meant to be enjoyed not just within his own lifetime but for generations to come. His own writing and reputation run a distant second to Hankins’s primary obsession: shining light on the lives, lines, and imaginations of his fellow writers.

The greatest gift this remarkable young writer, editor, translator, and thinker possesses—and he possesses many—is his fascination with and attention to how language binds us together as writers, both to each other and, by extension, to the era in which we live. In allowing the many hands of other poets, teachers, and friends to help him fashion his own life and thoughts on poetry the past three decades, Hankins has discovered a template for probing the self in The Work of Creation that begins and ends with a collaborative capacity rare in our generation’s writers. Emphasizing personal discovery’s relationship to community throughout this collection, Hankins reminds us that deep spiritual connections persist and sometimes even strengthen between us when we least expect them to do so.

—J. Scott Brownlee

 

J. Scott Brownlee's work appears widely and includes the chapbooks Highway or Belief (2013 Button Poetry Prize), Ascension (2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize) and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County (2015 Tree Light Books Prize) and the full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap (2015 Orison Poetry Prize). Brownlee is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class.