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Etude for Belonging (review)

Lisa Graham McMinn
On Cliques (September 2021)
Etude for Belonging: Poems for Practicing Courage and Hope
by Bethany Lee
reviewed by Lisa Graham McMinn

Curiosity sent me to the dictionary to look up “etude” before opening this poetry collection.

Etude: a short musical composition, typically for one instrument, usually designed as an exercise to improve technique or else to demonstrate the skill of the player.

Bethany Lee’s aptly named collection does precisely that. This is not a self-help book of poetry about courage and hope. Rather, Etude for Belonging helps readers see that we belong to something bigger than ourselves (indeed bigger than the human race) and, in that recognition, offers a chance for us to discover and practice something of courage and of hope. It invites us to practice observing the ordinary in out-of-the-ordinary ways.

In these poems, readers are drawn into refrains of belonging, often in unexpected ways. Lee invites us to begin by paying attention to and cherishing, for example, the way woods smell in the fall. In doing so, we say yes to a good moment, even if that particular one is a harbinger of decay and winter. Lee asks deep and hard questions that name loss and pain and despair, yet open the way for grace to seep into the cracks.

I read this book at a time I needed such words and found in them a balm for my ruffled soul. The poem “Incantation” invites us to take our troubles, fold them up, stick them in our pocket, then go for a walk. Lee recommends ways we might speak an incantation, and then ends her poem by blending harsh reality and hope: 

Your fear will not vanish
your hope will not appear
but as you wait
there will be a transformation

Lee never short-cuts the transformation process, nor sugarcoats pain. Hope isn’t something we can buy or wait for until it shows up; rather, hope requires manual labor, which we have to choose.  In “Recipe for Manifestation,” Lee tells us to “get right in there and mix up a batch” when we need it. Still, her collection offers sustenance for those without enough energy to mix up a batch on their own. 

As all true poets must, Lee is unafraid of challenging the status quo, startling readers awake by turning a thing upside down and shaking it out. In doing so, she brings a prophetic voice that invites us back to Center. Indeed, her poem, “All the Way to the Center” challenges (ever-so-gently) notions around sustaining a trauma. She asks what could be, instead, if we experienced a trauma but also sustained a healing – letting healing penetrate as deeply as heartbreak. 

Friends will appreciate the ways Lee speaks freshness into familiar references to centering, silence, and Light; and they will find affirmations of our testimonies, particularly that of caring for all aspects of earth as an outflow of gratitude. Lee speaks occasionally of prayer and occasionally calls God by name. She expresses a prayerful way of being in the world, a life lived with attention, intention, and gratitude.

Lee’s collection is clustered into sections, and the words strung together to describe each section are poetic themselves, offering nuggets of truth that make one pause. For instance, she begins the section “Labor” with the following: 

Most days
The work we are truly called to do
Won’t feel at all earth shattering

Keep faith and persevere
Who wants a shattered earth anyway?

So, in a non-earth-shattering, but rather profoundly earth-mending way, Bethany Lee keeps faith, weaving wonderment – about heaven and miracles, parenting and confession, heartache and joy – into a collection of words well worth savoring, bit by bit, over and over. ~~~

Lisa Graham McMinn is the Writer in Residence at George Fox University. She also serves as Spiritual Director at Fern Creek Farm in Newberg, OR.

Poetry perseverance Self awareness insight

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