Words and Faith

By Anne Pierson Wiese

LSU Press poet Anne Pierson Wiese explores how an early love of books informed her unwavering faith in reading and the written word.

Photo of books by Patrick Tomasso
Photo by Patrick Tomasso

Before I could read, I learned to love words and books. Words existed in the air and passed in and out of my mind like fireflies, sometimes singly—a luminous citron NO hanging in place like a lantern—and sometimes in clusters, such as questions asked and answered, my mother’s singsong rhymes, names of things one could do: think, sing, draw, hop like a bunny. Before I could read, words were migratory and molting, flashing and fusing, electric and transforming—untethered. I was never confident that this word or that would be within reach when I wanted it. Words such as escalator, traffic, vestibule. But I loved them, their beauty—pavilion; their power—for shame; and their music—delicatessen.

Books I loved—before I could read—as magical objects. I knew they contained words, much as teapot-shaped lamps contained genies, but since I hadn’t yet mastered the secret to decode the message inside, I willingly worshipped the physical object. I would sit at the foot of one of my parents’ tall bookshelves and touch the spines of the books—smooth, pebbly, cloth—and when I came to one I thought was unusually beautiful, I’d pull it out and examine it. Was its binding loose or firm? Its paper creamy or dry? Its cover busy or plain? Were there pictures? Was the book old or new? I loved old books best. My favorite—the one I invariably saved to look at last—was a pocket-sized volume with a dove-colored, gold-tooled leather binding. Its smooth cover, front and back, was patterned with pale-yellow flowers, green leaves, and a tracery of gold on an off-white background. Its pages were thin as dried petals, its contents entirely unknown, except that I knew it was poetry—a word pronounced always reverently and with a wealth of meaning by my mother.

Imagine my surprise and disappointment when, once having learned to read, I confidently opened that book of books—the one with which I had been enamored for so long—and discovered that it contained the writing of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet whose poor, wee Mousie, auld-this and auld-that, and quaint eighteenth-century rhymes did not please me. And yet my steadfast affection for this book as a mystical compendium of once-ripe speculation and evergreen expectation of revelation—a talisman with the enduring power to conjure hope—is such that, to this day, with some small part of myself, I expect that the next time I remove it from where it still lives on my parents’ bookcase, I will find that its secret message—meant for me alone—has at long last appeared.

Even now, I am childishly susceptible to the look of a book. Many are the times I’ve stood, stooped, kneeled, or sat in a quandary in the narrow aisle of some secondhand bookstore, clutching an ornately bound edition of The Rubaiyat or an elegant little volume of Victorian sermons, knowing that I’ll never actually read the thing but wanting it, anyway, because it looks and feels so divine.

Regardless of the content of a book, there is a sacred nature to its production. The act of plucking words out of the air and placing them on pages between bound covers where they will reliably remain to be read (or not, as the case may be) is a gesture of faith. Faith is what it means to put two independently understood concepts together in order to form a third without allowing either to be subsumed by its rearrangement.

Whether it is words being organized into books, or Self being organized into Other, it is essential that throughout life one’s conceits, beliefs, and loves go on combining and recombining themselves to make new categories and shapes of thought, feeling, and expression. As one grows older and more familiar with the state of being alive, the results of these combinations may become subtler than one’s earliest revelations were (I can now open a book and read to myself without making a sound!), but the process is the same: whatever matters—just as my book of books, at once sacred and pedestrian—must yield to reinterpretation and also remain as it originally was. I don’t know if it’s more like praying for enlightenment or spinning plates; either way, words need to keep going into books, children need to keep exploring the world, and every adult needs to keep making faith afresh and then believing all over again.

Photo of Anne Pierson Wiese

Anne Pierson Wiese was born in Minnesota, raised in New York City, where she lived for many years, and currently resides in South Dakota with her husband, writer Ben Miller. Her first poetry collection, Floating City, received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Additional honors for her work include the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship and a Discovery/The Nation Poetry Prize.

Available Now

Cover of Which Way Was North

In Which Way Was North, Anne Pierson Wiese juxtaposes poems from her years living in New York City with work written after her relocation to South Dakota. By exploring local, historical, and personal sources, she invites readers to see an unmapped territory of the mind informed by these distinct regions of the United States.

Suggesting that mundane physical places and daily routines can possess significance beyond the immediate, Which Way Was North offers elements such as wild grapevines and country cemeteries, along with subway preachers and weeds emerging from sidewalk cracks, as vital starting points for reflection. Fundamentally, Wiese’s poems show that our individual powers of observation remain the most life-affirming response to the existential questions posed by our surroundings, regardless of where we happen to call home.

Follow LSU Press on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.