The Necessary Poetics of Atheism by Martin Espada, Lauren Marie Schmidt, and J. D. Schraffenberger
Twelve Winters Press, 2016. 76 pages.
Reviewed by Naoko Fujimoto
I encountered this book coincidentally at University of Northern Iowa’s North American Review Conference. My husband and I were dining at the hotel with a fellow RHINO editor, John McCarthy. We were talking about atheism and John suggested this collection.
Along with various interpretations of faith, The Necessary Poetics of Atheism offers approachable paths toward understanding atheism, exploring it through essays and poems by Martin Espada, Lauren Marie Schmidt, and J. D. Schraffenberger. Each author traces how they’ve shifted and changed their religious views throughout life as seen through their works.
Because of my parents, I practice both Shinto and Shinshū Ōtani-ha, a Japanese Buddhist movement. Many Japanese believers land somewhere between Buddhism and Shinto, believing that everything has a god-like spirit and feeling a sense of reverence for nature and ancestors.
The first time I encountered the concept of atheism, I was confused. If God doesn’t exist, who do I thank? And where? I had a religious crisis of sorts. Reading this book, I found solace in Martín Espada’s similar line of questioning: “Where, then, does an atheist poet put his or her faith? Where do we find our salvation? Some poets would say: Poetry.” This idea rang true for me.
In her poem, “I Have Learned so Much,” Lauren Marie Schmidt writes:
So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of Itself
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even pure
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has freed me
Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.
In the final chapter, J. D. Schraffenberger mentions how a professor from Oxford University was expelled because of the publication of “The Necessity of Atheism” in 1811. “An atheist poetics is not necessarily hostile to particular religions or religious people…Atheism is lack of a belief—not the presence of one…For me, an atheist poetics is actually not all that interested in the question of whether there is or isn’t a god.”
Naoko Fujimoto was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan. She studied at Nanzan Junior College and received BA and Master’s degrees from Indiana University. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in POETRY, Kenyon Review, Seattle Review, Diode Poetry Journal, and PANK. Her poetry collections include Where I Was Born (Willow Books 2019), Glyph:Graphic Poetry=Trans. Sensory (Tupelo 2020), and three chapbooks: Mother Said, I Want Your Pain (Backbone Press 2018), Silver Seasons of Heartache (Glass Lyre Press 2017), and Home, No Home (Educe Press 2016). naokofujimoto.com.