Transcendent Mundane

Modern poetry is frustrating. It’s often fragmented and anything but straight forward. It doesn’t even rhyme! But contemporary poetry has a project, it has an objective, and it isn’t just to frustrate you. I promise. Part of the goal of modern poetry is to find the transcendent in the mundane, or to reconnect the two. This is an important project for the Christian: to see God in the everyday and to point others to Him.
Point. Nudge. Hint.
This is what poetry does. That frustrates us. We’d rather art just be plain spoken. The problem is, if a poem just put it out there, it wouldn’t likely change us. Those who agreed already with the truth presented would nod approvingly; those who disagreed would walk away still disagreeing. Poetry leads us to water, but it won’t try to make us take a bath.
Poetry also forces us to slow down. We don’t like that either. But this is yet another project that should be important to Christians.Slow down. Find God in the least likely places.

Contemporary poet Karl Petersen helps us do this, and with his help, I’m gonna put into practice what I’ve been preaching. Join me. You won’t regret it.

Transcendent Word of the Mundane: An exploration of Karl Petersen’s Urban Fits

Petersen paints his city with a generous view: generous in scope, taking in the “gutters and the limos,” and generous in feeling, writing poetry often lined with humor and hope. His latest collection, Urban Fits (which itself employs Petersen’s hope-woven wordplay), draws attention to the subtly significant, even sacred, quality of everyday comings and goings in his city and his soul.

Urban Fits is divided into four untitled sections, each of which opens with a poem embodying the collection’s two major themes: the city and the sacred. Inviting us to see and hear and experience what he sees, hears, experiences through the frame of his window, Petersen introduces us to this collection with “Pigeon Matins”:

passing wings
grace the window pane
at the parting of curtains
the angels arise
in a tidy choir on wires,
mumble matins–
a summons…
to the powers that be (6-12, 17)

By answering the church-choir call of pigeons outside his window, Petersen summons his readers “from dormancy” (13) to journey with him in meditative contemplation of the uncommon commonplace.


Employing the rhythms of person and place through sound and image, Petersen’s poetry is engaging and provoking in a style which remains largely accessible to the everyman and woman of whom he writes:

a baby navigates
the pre-dawn of its birth–
twisting and somersaulting
like an astronaut
in a cramped capsule
eager to stretch his legs
in outer space
we’ve all been there
restless to escape the comfort
of watery solitudes
for exotic constellations
as we rumble and bump along
in this tin womb of a bus (“Navigating the Dawn” 2-8, 19-25)

While birth and death, love and friendship, poverty and community, truth and beauty are all explored in the broad scope of Urban Fits, the most recurrent motif in Urban Fits is the Vancouverite daily commute. Petersen’s city bus and traffic jam embody the transient city life: the drab and quotidian, the seemingly insignificant and disconnected congregation of the people within a particular time and place. Petersen views traffic jams and bus occupants as sacrosanct congregations because, refusing to be contained within the cathedral, it is Petersen’s Catholic faith which informs his day-to-day:

Drink it in—
brake lights stalling you
in a memory that nags from last night’s quarrel,
bumpers snarling—you’re daily wine.
You can only wait and curse and cry for mercy. (“Morning Mass” 12-16)

We come to gather that the narrative of Petersen’s faith as it regards the human condition does not leave us waiting and cursing and crying, for Petersen does not leave us there:

On a nearby chimney,
an orphan squirrel of bygone wood groves, survivor,
raises little hands to offer up your absolution—
dashing over the housetops with deft invocations
in the twitches of his tail, into a tree,
like an arrow prayer at morning mass.
Then he is gone again, into a confessional of firs. (18-20, 23-24, 27-28)

Karl Petersen’s poetry is full of humor and hope, the occasional exhortation, and ultimately, faith that the daily grind which can make us feel, almost ineffably, that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, is itself laced with profound laughter and grace. Urban Fits is a delightful invitation to its readers to slow the moving picture of our lives frame by frame so we notice and consider our own daily liturgy.

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