Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

Stonework Journal Home

Letters to the Editor

Stonework Staff

Submission Guidelines

Editorial Philosophy

Our Favorite Links

E-mail Stonework:

  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Friday, May 05, 2006

Thom Satterlee: an Appreciation

David Perkins

I first met Thom in college when his parted hair swept even more poetically across his brow. Twenty years later, Thom has won an award for best first book by a poet, which gratifies me very much because he is my favorite poet, so naturally I think he is the best.

I am a math teacher and read more fiction than poetry, but I believe I can recognize a poetic imagination when I see it. A hundred years ago, the German mathematician David Hilbert learned that one of his students had stopped attending his lectures and had gone off to be a poet. Hilbert shrugged and remarked, “I never thought he had the imagination to be a mathematician.” I think Hilbert would have been pleased to make this remark no matter what field the student had wandered off to study, but I suspect he was especially pleased that the student went to poetry. A poet needs a fertile imagination, which gives Hilbert’s comment its punch.

I think Thom approaches poetry not from the crazy side of imagination but from the quieter side. Some people come to a party and start out trying to be the party’s life, and eventually simmer down to a tolerable level. Others stay calm and only speak when they have something worth saying, and afterwards people recall, “That person was witty, wasn’t he?” I’m usually the first kind of person, and Thom is the second. His poetry has the same characteristic: it’s not until his poems are over that their creativity washes over you, and you look back through the poem to find the lines that struck you as honest or clever without you knowing it at the time.
Here is my favorite poem by Thom. I first read it at a friend’s house; this poem was framed and hung on the wall of the entryway.


Why a trumpet? Why not a mole
whispering in their ears, or the sound
of footsteps on the earth
above their faces? I could imagine a rock
that shifts underground and knocks
on each coffin: “Come out! Come
out!” For the man who loved bees,
a swarm of them to serenade him
back to the living, their stingers
gone, fallen into a lake and turned
into minnows. For the woman
who complained, her pastor
never visited her, the crunching of gravel
as his car stops outside her door.
Still others will want a certain voice,
maybe your own, to bring them back, saying,
“You always hoped, now you can believe.”

I like how there are impossible events in the poem that, in the context of the rapture, don’t seem so crazy. I am perfectly willing to grant that a mole can whisper, that a bee’s stinger can transform into a minnow, and that a rock can knock on a coffin like a little fist, because after all, the dead are being raised, so nature is of course going to be tipped on its head. And in contrast to the blaring visions of robes and trumpets that we are accustomed to, Thom’s waking of the dead is quiet and motivated by love.

These observations did not come to me as I read the poem the first time; instead, I simply imagined the mole, the rock, the dirt they were moving through, the darkness surrounding each coffin, and then the trip up into the brightness of day, the bees, the lake filled with minnows, the sound of gravel. I felt uplifted as I finished the poem, but I didn’t detect (until later) how Thom had led me from underground up into the light and the sounds of voices I know. That’s the sort of subtlety that pervades Thom’s poems, which is why I like them so much.

For some reason, Thom is very funny in person but not so much in his poems. I don’t know why this is. To illustrate his wit, I need only tell a single story. Thom, his wife Kathy, and my own parents were visiting an intentional community together, and the people living in the community were generally serious, and at times even dour. Certainly they were intensely committed both to the Gospels and to the life they believed the Gospel asks of us. Thom was helping out in the candle-making shop one morning and the other three had lost track of him. After searching the community’s common areas, they found Thom making candles, working side by side with a few young community men with their long beards and hair tied back. When they said, “At last, we found you!” Thom replied (as I imagine things, holding a small bucket of wax and a partially completed candle), “Didn’t you know I’d be about my Father’s business?”

Then, as I imagine things, the other young men managed to achieve even deeper levels of dour. Fortunately for me, Thom and I still hold frequent conversations, and I can ask him why his poems are as sensitive as he is, but not as funny. For now, I can content myself with reading the poems chosen for this issue of Stonework, as can you.