Rachel Rinehart’s new collection The Church in the Plains is a historical, cultural, and religious journey, as Rinehart explores her German Lutheran roots in a richly reflective and imaginative book of poetry. With a knack for rendering human peculiarities and foibles, Rinehart writes poetry with echoes of Robert Lowell and the confessional poets, but with a streak of heritage and flair all her own.
Chronologically, the book is split into two sections: “These Lands Not Yet Ancestral” and “Learning to Pray in a New Tongue.” As its name implies, the first section chronicles the early immigration experiences of Rinehart’s real and imagined ancestors—with an emphasis on their cultural, linguistic, and religious challenges in the New World—or subjects bearing strong thematic connections to these experiences. The second section then explores the settling and assimilation of these younger generations of German Lutherans—the generations succeeding those who could not “learn / to pray in a new tongue.” This gorgeous little poetic flourish takes culture, language, and religion very seriously, as it implies that the mark of true settlement is the ability to pray fluently and naturally within a new land and language.
The book opens with a dramatic monologue called “At Death Luther Dreams of the New Country,” where Martin Luther, the father of Lutheranism, dreams of immigrating to a new land—a reverie which simultaneously prefigures the German immigrations to America and symbolically gestures toward the Christian notion of heaven as a new country. As the poem comes to an end and the speaker nears the moment of death, he makes a poignant closing statement: “There can be no heaven without a little grief / for the old way.” Herein lies the tension between the first and second section of the book—new lands and cultures sometimes hold great promise for immigrants, but not without some grief over the rich traditions often lost in the transition.
Stylistically, Rinehart’s poems in The Church in the Plains tend to be historically and religiously allusive, syntactically wild, and rich in diction and figurative devices. In fact, one of Rinehart’s greatest strengths as a poet involves tailoring her diction and images to her subject matter. For this reason, the poems in the first section of the book tend to borrow from a vernacular much closer to their historical and cultural context, whereas the poems in the later part of the book reflect more contemporary idioms. A prime example of these features is the poem “Milky Way Nine Patch.”
In this poem, set in the first section of the collection, the speaker imagines the conditions of her origin. Borrowing celestial imagery for the mysterious life cycle—such as “star-bellied” as a descriptor for the mother and “terrestrial tethers” as a descriptor for an umbilical cord—the speaker is lulled in the womb to her parents singing Rock of Ages and her mother knitting. Within these cultural and religious happenings, the speaker says, “I, yet unmade, roil in my mother / another day.” Even here, the antiquated term “roil” conjures an image of churning butter or whipping cream, solidifying the rural setting and the rich series of traditions enveloping this new life.
The bookending poem “Wherever the Carcass” is a plea for God’s mercy in a fallen and faithless world. The title to the poem is an allusion to Jesus’s words in Matthew 24:28 (in the NIV): “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.” In context, Jesus is foretelling the bleak signs of the end of the age and forecasting the kinds of violence and lawless behavior that will mark the apocalypse. Split into four separate scenes, this final poem is part elegy for the loss of faith in the contemporary world and part prayer for God’s merciful intervention.
In the first fragment, the speaker describes the “vestigial” schoolhouse attached to an old church—a place of religious instruction which has fallen away from common use. Lamenting the lack of faith in the younger generations, the speaker says:
There is no one left
to tell them they have forgotten the Old Ways,
only widows doddering at the coffers,
to whom they will not listen.
In this new age, the faithful are reduced to a few old widows, although the poem also implies that their faith is a hidden treasure. Poems like this are rich with Christian images and biblical allusions, although one need not be a believer to appreciate the artistry and insight of Rinehart’s work.
In the second and third fragments of “Wherever the Carcass,” a “young pastor” tries to rid his church of a herd of vultures who keep returning. In a passage reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” the birds, gathering around the church, “do not dazzle, though Sundays / the bells clamor above the benediction.” Though he dreams of “electric wires” and “the pop of birdshot,” the pastor cannot rid the church of the vultures with those means because “law, being with the birds, forbids it. So it is.” These birds are a pesky reminder of a world that is fallen, and sometimes in ways that cannot be mended.
In the fourth and final section, “a farmhand and his family” all die tragically in a Saturday evening car crash, except for one young infant. Again, vultures come to feed on the dead, but the next morning, as the police arrive and shoo the birds away from the scene, the infant, “pristine, / gathers her face and squalls.” Even within this tragedy, there is the mercy of one miraculous and spared life, and the resurrection theme is evident as this is now Sunday morning in the poem. As the speaker closes this final poem, she mentions the intercessory prayer coming across the plain from the nearest church:
Far off, the wind-whipped Kyrie rises
on the plain.
Lord have mercy upon us.
Christ have mercy upon us.
Well-attended or not, this church is still a means of God’s mercy and grace in the fallen world.
From Martin Luther to the end times, blizzards to funeral pies, Rinehart’s poems are as insistent about suffering and loss as they are about God’s mercies. This collection is not for the fainthearted, but it is for the faithful, and those who know that life is as bitter as it is sweet.