Linking Faith and Art

Poetry rings through the halls of the Divinity School.
Poetry rings through the halls of the Divinity School. // Creative Commons

The Yale Divinity School sits on a hill overlooking the New Haven skyline. At 5:15 p.m., the sunset is a brilliant blend of burnt orange and magenta. The city’s church spires and houses are silhouetted against the sky and the mild weather belongs more to spring than late January.

But, of course, I don’t really notice any of this.

I’m running from section. I’m late for an event. I’m focused on the long night of problem sets lying ahead, not on the stunning vistas of a New Haven evening.

Brad Davis’ poetry seems a bit like a diagnosis prescribed to the typical overcommitted Yalie. At a reading of his work this Thursday at the Divinity School, he told the audience that, through his writing, he tries to make sense of the beauty of ordinary moments. Borrowing images from Christian texts, he uses his poetry to identify the holiness in everyday scenes and interactions.

But listening to Davis read his poetry feels more like opening the pages of a friend’s diary than flipping through the Bible. He brings images from the Old Testament into modern-day contexts with unabashed irreverence. At the start of one poem he takes his readers to the top of a holy mountaintop, only to reveal that we are actually at the peak of a ski resort in British Columbia, “delivered by chairlift/ … / [to] worship at His holy mountain.” In another poem, he weaves images of the ancient city Jerusalem together with descriptions of Times Square in downtown New York.

The crowd laughs in delight, taken by surprise each time he twists religious language into a contemporary context. For Davis, religion is beautiful not because it is mysterious, but because it is comforting and familiar. His casual use of religious language is refreshing — he is openly critical of overly complex discussion of God and faith, the moments when “we speak in tongues.” Similarly, he refuses to overcomplicate descriptions of his family and loved ones. The poem he reads about his grandmother’s death is strikingly plain and lacking in pretension. He explains that he wanted to write a tribute to his grandmother because she loved him more than anyone, and let him watch TV whenever he wanted.

“You don’t pull out intellectual googahs when trying to tell someone who ran a Laundromat ‘I love you,’” Davis explains.

Sometimes he interrupts his own poetry readings with admissions of his own insecurities. “I feel like to read these things I’m taking off clothing,” he says at one point, midpoem. “I’m exposing parts of myself I don’t want you to see.” The personal elements in his poetry make the reading feel like a conversation with a close friend, as he walks the audience through the parts of religion he finds confusing and the members of his family whom he doesn’t understand.

But Davis is not just in conversation with his listeners — he seems to be in dialogue with a long list of writers whom he admires. In a poem about the gates of heaven and the New York skyline, he refers to “Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn,” and another of his writings references the pond in Thoreau’s “Walden.” He was particularly excited to introduce a poem that explicitly brought together two of his favorite artists: Bob Dylan and John Berriman. He explained that because he so admired the two writers, he wanted to explore a scene in which Berriman visited Dylan in the hospital after Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident.

“The Lord accepts prisoners/ in the hospital Berriman to Dylan August 1966,” Davis reads. And perhaps he doesn’t realize it, but this poem is actually about a meeting between three great artists: Berriman, Dylan and Davis. Davis inserts self-effacing remarks during the reading — “There are too many great writers, thank you for indulging me,” he exclaims at one point, seemingly oblivious to his audience’s excitement about the raw, moving quality of his work.

As I am leaving the reading, I walk a little slower and take notice of the Divinity School’s beauty when it is lit up at night. Davis’ passion — for nature, faith and poetry -— is infectious. After the reading, one audience member, similarly affected, asks him to explain how he maintains his state of constant exhilaration.

“I have ADHD,” Davis says. “I can’t stop getting excited about new things.”

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