Steven Charleston: Poems That Draw Out the Poison

I am so grateful to Steven Charleston, Episcopal bishop and Choctaw elder for his review of my collection, Bending the Arch: Poems. His serious wrestling with my work is a gift beyond compare. Please consider reading The Four Vision Quests of Jesus by Charleston as part of learning to be followers on the Jesus Road on Turtle Island.

Bishop Steven Charleston

Steven Charleston:

ROSE MARIE BERGER doesn’t know it yet, but through her tour-de-force poems in Bending the Arch, she has become a holy woman of many nations. Among my own people, she would be called one of the alikchi, a sacred healer, a doctor of the people, a woman who can restore balance to lives that have been shattered. She does this through the strong medicine of words.

Berger, poetry editor and a columnist for Sojourners, describes Bending the Arch as “ethnopoetic documentary poetry.” “Ethno” because it speaks with the accents of a dozen different cultures: European settlers, Chinese miners, Native American leaders. “Poetic” because it uses a cat’s cradle of language from different moments, people, and realities. “Documentary” because it covers a vast scope of America’s manifest destiny history, symbolized by the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which is depicted on its cover. All these are contained in layers of history, one on top of another, until the spiritual sediment of Berger’s meaning begins to become clear.

Consequently, you don’t read her poetry, you engage it. Bending the Arch is an encounter that requires something of the reader. It provokes. It reveals. It imagines. It asks for full attention, deep reflection, and emotional response. This poetry does not leave you alone but pulls you in, looking for more and more understanding as the layers of meaning begin to coalesce into a narrative of human triumph and tragedy. You cannot remain neutral to this experience: You must walk away or confront the reality. … — Steven Charleston

Read the full review in Sojourners (January 2020).

Review: Bending the Arch in Franklin Nebraska Chronicle

Bending the Arch is an epic poem about settling the West from the view of native peoples. Several pages are devoted to Rose Marie Berger’s Sullivan/Gingrich ancestors who settled near Riverton, Neb. Many individuals are familiar with the Gingrich and Sullivan names around the Riverton area. Some of the Gingrich family members homesteaded in Smith County, Kan., while others settled in the Riverton area, farming south of Riverton for approximately 60 years. …

She enjoys writing, which she says helps her organize her thoughts. “I want to live intentionally. To do that I need to reflect on my life–and for me that means writing about it What’s happening in my neighborhood? Who are the people involved? Why do they do what they do? What are the larger social or economic forces at play? Or in the case of writing the poetry in Bending the Arch, the questions were: Who were my immigrant pioneer ancestors? how did they arrive in Riverton, Neb.? What was the land like when they first laid eyes on it? Who was already living there? Did they displace anyone to farm the land? What did they suffer? … These kinds of questions help me think more deeply about who I am today, what traits I’ve inherited, and how am I using those traits and my heritage to build strong communities?”

She wants readers to explore more on their own with the hope that the [book’s] end notes will encourage readers to dig into the suppressed historical narratives in their own families and regions. …”–Evone Naden, Editor, Franklin County (NE) Chronicle (20 March 2019)

“Flood Stage” in American Midwest

Nebraska flooding, Spring 2019

An excerpt from “Confessions of a Westward Expansionist” in Bending the Arch (Wipf & Stock, 2019) by Rose Marie Berger

FLOOD STAGE

From the plane I see
acres green with corn
hay rolls full of foam
soy swirling and swaying
the tassels poke skyward
from an ancient interior sea

Before the last glacial maximum
when people were thin on the ground

The planet was in drought
and sea levels fell to expose the plains

The great ice sheets
began to melt

We
are the people

who came after
the ice

Can you hear
the American Midwest
inhaling, exhaling?

Do you desire to enter into life
the baptismal question
to have life in all its abundance?

Earth lodge to sod house to condominium
in less than a hundred years
less than the span
of three generations

–Rose Marie Berger

An excerpt from “Confessions of a Westward Expansionist” in Bending the Arch (Wipf & Stock, 2019) by Rose Marie Berger