What Is This Really About?

Over the course of the last six months (!), I’ve been working on shaping my collection of poems. It has gone through a number of transformations and two title changes, and right now I have six stacks of paper in the kitchen – one stack for each “theme” I think my book has. (Six. Hm. Maybe this is where I need to start – too many themes?)

I do believe that there is a thread running through all of these poems… perhaps several. The trouble is finding the thread and discovering how all of the poems are connected to it. So as an exercise tonight, I’ve decided to try to explain what I hope my poetry collection as a whole accomplishes, what all of the poems add up to. Wish me luck.

I have titled my manuscript, “Pruning Burning Bushes.” The poem titled this is the first poem I had selected for publication, by my good friends over at Relief. The poem is based off of the passage in John 15 that talks about bearing good fruit and being pruned. Pruning removes the dead and broken branches so that new and healthy growth can be formed. The pruning in this poem is rather extreme – the shrubs are cut back very far, and then the gardener stands back and waits to see where the calluses will form — calluses on trees are the scars left once a branch has healed over the cut.

The other side to this is that I am pruning “burning bushes” – an obvious glance back at the Old Testament appearance of God in the burning bush. So what does it mean to prune a burning bush? I’m not sure – that’s why I’m writing this. Here’s some ideas for what I think this could mean. First, Moses was a classical whiner. He tried his very best to get out of the mission to save the Jews from bondage. He kept trying to defer responsibility and calling on to other people. He was talking to a bush that was burning but not being consumed! I mean, come on, talk about guts and cowardice crashing against one another simultaneously. You would think Moses would have been terrified to disagree with God given his self-doubt, but he questions the God of the universe’s plan at least three times. Silly, silly Moses.

So maybe pruning the burning bush is our attempt to cut back the calling, slim it down to something more manageable and less miraculous.

That’s one idea.

But I don’t think that’s what this is about. I think this is more oriented around the idea for the poem in the first place, the idea that we ourselves are being pruned and shaped, not only so that we can bear more fruit but also so that God’s calling, plan and purpose can be evident in our lives. Perhaps we ought to embody the burning bush, so to speak. We are supposed to “let our lights shine,” aren’t we? What light is that? Why, the light of the Holy Spirit! *bells and whistles*

This really does relate to my book because in general, the poems are all either personal or thematically applicable to this pruning and shaping idea. The shape that feels natural for this is almost chronological – it feels as if the book should move from the innocence and delight of childhood into the heavy pruning, to healing, to rejoicing, to teaching. Maybe that’s it.

Right now, the “arch” of the book is close to this. I have family/cycle of life poems in the first section, darker struggling poems in the second, rejoicing/marriage poems in the third, and seeds/planting poems in the fourth. It kind of follows the movements I’m hoping to accomplish. Kind of. I’d like to think more about where the “circle of life” poems belong. Do they belong in the first section with the other poems of place and family? hm.

The best and most frustrating part about this is that lots of people don’t care. Poets and non-poets alike are completely uninterested in whether the book hangs together as an aesthetic whole. Are the poems good? Do they have the same voice? That’s enough. For some. I can’t decide if I’m one of those people. I want the poems to make sense together – there are poems I’ve written that are not in the same voice and simply don’t belong in this book – but I also want variation and modulation (as the boss would say). Should the book move somewhere? Does the reader end up somewhere other than where they began? Hmmmm.

I think I’ll go and fiddle with the order some more now that I’ve unloaded all of those blatherings.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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