Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review of A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief

Sheila Bender is an award-winning poet, writer, writing coach and teacher. She has published essays, poems and reviews in numerous literary magazines, anthologies and newspapers as well as articles and columns about writing in Writers Digest magazine and The Writer. She is the author of many how-to writing books including Writing and Publishing Personal Essays; Creative Writing Demystified; A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery; Writing Personal Poetry: Creating Poems from Your Life Experience; and Perfect Phrases for College Application Essays. She teaches classes and coaches writers through her website and online magazine, Writing It Real. She has published three poetry collections including her most recent, Behind Us the Way Grows Wider, and is co-author with Christi Killien of Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down: A Unique Guide for Writers. Through donations and proceeds from her book, New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Sheila helps support the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s Seth Bender Memorial Summer Camps Scholarship Fund founded in honor of her son who was killed in a snowboarding accident. In 2009 she published the book to help others  cope with loss in their lives. She will lead the Story   Circle Network’s Lifelines Writing Retreat in March of 2013.

In A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Sheila Bender offers a deeply moving account of the untimely loss of her young adult son, Seth, in a snowboarding accident just months before his anticipated wedding. Writing in present tense, Bender pulls us into her experience with an immediacy that is both painful and healing, universal and intimate. Interspersed in the narrative are poems she wrote both before her tragic loss and afterward including the villanelle, “A New Theology” from which she draws her title.

 As the book opens we are transported right into the Denver hospital room where the curtains are drawn against bright sunlight and the respirator “whooshes” with the rise and fall of Seth’s chest as the respirator breathes for him.  Watching and waiting for the angiogram that will prove her son’s brain is no longer receiving blood she wonders why she is not angry at him for not wearing a helmet or angry at those who were with him for not insisting he do so. “Anger will trivialize this day, make what I need to do impossible,” she
writes. “Today, more than ever, my boy is an altar to which we bring our love. His shocking early death not a shock at all, exactly, but a finished poem….” (p. 25)

In the months that follow as she grieves, exploring the painful “what-ifs” and working to accept Seth’s death while honoring his life, as she struggles to return to her teaching and writing and the business of living, Sheila turns again and again to poetry as a vehicle to move her beyond her terrible loss to a sense of continuing connection with her son who now “has no likeness of a body and has no body.” (p. 102) Her writing is rich with details that draw us directly into her experience as she sprinkles Seth’s ashes at the beautiful Gold Mountain Resort site where his wedding was to be and in the waters of Discovery Bay in Port Townsend where he liked to kayak, or as she reminisces about his unique take on life with family and friends and attends memorials in his honor, as she cooks chili from Seth’s favorite recipes or walks through the home he designed. In and amongst the exquisite detail are poems—poems she read and poems she wrote on her journey to accept the unacceptable. The power of the written word and especially of poetry to capture, hold and transcend her experience and memories becomes a pathway, a kind of map for all who have suffered loss and tragedy and sought to both overcome and honor it.

This review first appeared at, a site devoted solely to books by, for and about women.