Simple Weight by Tania Runyan. Cave Spring, GA: FutureCyle Press, 2010. 74 pages. $14.95, paper.
In Simple Weight, her first full-length collection of poetry, Tania Runyan turns to Christianity for much of her subject matter, but to call these poems religious would be reductive. Her use of the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, and her persona poems in the voices of Biblical characters do not cause us to reflect on what it means to be holy; rather, they ground us in the human experience.
At the birth of Jesus, for example, Mary is not as concerned about her son’s destiny as her visitors, who seem to “expect him to suddenly / spill coins from his hands / or raise a gold scepter / and turn swine into angels.” To her, the real miracle is not that she’s holding the Son of God, but that he is her baby boy, whose hands she can’t stop touching. “Isn’t this wonder enough,” she asks, “that yesterday he was inside me, / and now he nuzzles next to my heart?”
Motherhood is a central theme in Runyan’s poems, and she doesn’t shy away from confessing what a painful job it can be, how parenthood can bring out the worst in us. She is only a human being, after all, trying to raise another human being, and having faith in a higher power isn’t always enough. “It is hard to speak to the capital LORD,” the speaker states in “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit,” “who deals in mountains and seas, not in a woman / rewashing her mildewed laundry while scolding / her toddler through gritted teeth.”
The speaker’s love for her child is powerful, however; so much so that she doesn’t trust the Amish parents who seem to easily forgive the man who murdered their children in a schoolhouse. In “Blessed are the Merciful,” she doubts the honesty of their compassion, but then wonders if it’s her own human failings that cause her to feel this way.
Tania Runyan’s Simple Weight is a brilliant and moving book that will be hard to forget. I must admit that the poem “2086: Instructions for My Daughter’s Nurse,” has traumatized me. Much in the way the speaker in “For Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” wishes she’d never heard the story of the tortured dog, I wish I’d never had to think of my own daughter as an elderly woman, being cared for by a stranger. But then I remember that this is what good poetry does. It disturbs us. It breaks our imperfect human hearts, even as we hope to be blessed.
[This review originally appeared in Mid-American Review, Spring 2011]