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Reduced to Joy

Reduced to Joy
by Mark Nepo
Berkeley, CA: Viva Editions from Cleis Press, 2013
156 pages
Reviewed by Karen L. Erlichman

Poetry is a well-loved and powerful resource in spiritual practice, and includes psalms and other liturgical poems as well as secular poems with spiritual themes and imagery. Mark Nepo’s most recent volume of poetry, Reduced to Joy, is a marvelous collection of rich textures, voices, and images that dance with the senses and entice the reader to consider her or his own poetic autobiography. “And our job—in finding God, in / being God; in finding truth, in / being truth; in finding love, in / being love—is to meet the world / at the surface where Spirit / slips / out through every cut” (from “Way of the Dolphin,” 15–16).

Every poem contains a memoir, a story, a snapshot that invites the soul of the reader into conversation and reflection. Nepo’s grandmother and other friends and relatives appear frequently in this collection, which, for me, evoked memories of my own grandmother. “When Grandma made potato pancakes / on her small stove, it smelled like burnt / French toast. I’d sit on a stool in the corner / and she’d mat one on some napkins, blow / on it, and give it to me. She’s been gone / twenty years. But I love how she / cooks them for me in my dreams” (from “What Others Have Touched,” 77).

There is an intimacy in these poems that comes from the smell of the pancakes, the image of the writer perched on a stool in the kitchen, and the presence of his grandmother in his dreams. There are also signposts for spiritual practice here, such as this excerpt from “Made from Bone”: “When I can be the truth, / it grows more and more clear / then it is necessary to tell the truth” (44).

Truth, love, essence, loss, connection to nature—these are just a few of the themes that Nepo weaves through the collection. The book ends with the title poem, ripe with compassionate wisdom: “We never know when we will blossom / into what we are supposed to be. It might / be early. It might be late. It might be after / thirty years of failing at a misguided way. / Or the very first time we dare to shed / our mental skin and touch the world” (146).

My very favorite line from the book is one that has become a meditation practice for me: “Love everything in the way” (8). Spiritual directors will find these poems helpful to share with spiritual directees, with supervision groups, and in their own spiritual practice.

Karen Lee Erlichman, MSS, LCSW, lives in San Francisco, California, USA, where she provides psychotherapy, spiritual direction, supervision, and mentoring. She is a core faculty member in the Spiritual Guidance Program at Sofia University in Palo Alto, California.

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