Updated: Aug 18
I founded Orison Books with the conviction that there is no time when the metaphysical or spiritual impulse is irrelevant to a culture. But our culture is at risk of forgetting the indispensable place of beauty and the human drive for transcendence, which are wrapped so tightly together. Every religious and spiritual tradition values beauty as a means of communing with God or the realm of the spirit, whatever vision of it that particular tradition holds.
I was recently looking at the website of my graduate school alma mater, Indiana University, and I came across this amazing statement by Patricia Clare Ingham, Chair of the Department of English, in which she describes a photo of poet (and former professor of mine) Ross Gay, wearing a shirt that quotes Audre Lorde:
In a favorite photo of mine, Ross Gay…wears a tee-shirt with these words: Poetry is not a luxury. It’s not a slogan, but a philosophy, one that captures who we are and what we do in the Department of English. Our students, faculty, and graduates specialize in indispensable things: the joy of a gratified imagination; the persuasive elegance of rhetorical dexterity; the shifts in literary or narrative movements; the spark of interpretive nuance; the gift of a creatively rendered great idea; the pleasures of studying the most remarkable linguistic achievements of humankind.
It is so heartening to me to hear such things—imagination, narrative movement, creatively rendered ideas, linguistic achievements—described unabashedly as indispensable things. What these things all have in common is beauty—that mysterious, soul-deep force each one of us knows but can never fully explain or express—the force that propels human culture and the human spirit. Beauty has always been the gateway to transcendence and a cornerstone in all religious traditions. But today, both beauty and the spiritual impulse are too often treated as embarrassing signs of naivety or as mere luxuries—as if what really mattered were the pragmatic and only the pragmatic.
Orison Books seeks to re-valorize and re-validate beauty and the spiritual impulse. Unlike other presses that are affiliated with a particular viewpoint, we are open to the most beautiful work that comes from any and all traditions and perspectives. And we want our physical books to be as beautiful as their contents.
“Orison” [ȯr-ĭ-sən or ȯr-ĭ-zən] is an archaic word that means “prayer,” and as the word indicates, our focus is on exceptional literary work that engages the life of the spirit. But what does “spirit” mean? The words “spirit” and “spiritual” are problematic, as they mean such a wide array of things to different people, and for many these words have been polluted by religious disaffection or trauma. In using such words in our mission statement, we risk being mispercieved in a host of different ways—misperceived, for instance, as a thinly disguised religious publisher, or a wishy-washy New Age publisher. But what we mean by spiritually engaged literature has more to do with a writer’s openness to exploring the most mysterious aspects of our existence, and their ability to cause the reader to step into a timeless place of meditation, where the usual operations of our daily lives are suspended—a place where an abyss may open beneath our feet (“the art of not being,” as our first author, Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, puts it in one of her poems: “barefoot I stepped on the grass already a dream”), or where an unanticipated radiance might enter our consciousness (“with my voice,” Radulescu writes, “I scrape / the window / of nothingness / like a small / child // new / pure light / is coming / inside”).
Such work is not merely about spiritual contemplation, but itself leads the reader into profound contemplation. It is not merely about the sublime, but itself has a sublime effect on the reader. It is not merely about the mystery of being, but itself heightens the reader’s sense of the mystery underlying the fabric of our daily lives. This is a space where the artful use of language itself becomes a means of transcendence. This is not the space of ideology, but a space where we most fully and honestly engage the uncertainty and mystery that lie at the heart of the human condition. As Simone Weil says, “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.”
Through the vehicle of language, this sort of spiritually engaged literature can do something truly remarkable. Joseph Conrad, referring to the writer as “the artist,” says:
[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.
Likewise, James Baldwin observes:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
To my mind, this is the highest and most essential function of literature—not to provide the so-called answers that ideology attempts to, but to delve fully into the unknown, to accept it, to bravely meet it. And by doing so, to convince those who encounter one’s art that they are not alone, that there exists that invincible human solidarity that Conrad and Baldwin so eloquently describe.
And that leaves the field wide open. We can’t predict what will have that sort of effect on us. John Keats says that “poetry should strike the reader as a wording of [one’s] own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” That’s one of the qualities of what I term “spiritual literature.” There’s a shock of recognition, as if someone else is using words that you’ve been wanting to use, been meaning and intending to use. There may be music that does this for us, or works of art, so this isn’t restricted only to language. There are those moments in art and literature that have a resonance one can’t necessarily explain and which feel like nothing else. The term “spiritual” is insufficient for it, but it exemplifies the impact we at Orison Books hope the work we publish will have, and our hope is that over time the books themselves will become what defines us and our mission to the world, more than any mission statement we might devise. So I hope you’ll read our books and enter the process of discovery with us.
The poet Gjertrude Schnackenberg, in an interview with Jonathan Galassi, beautifully articulates a perspective on literature that resonates with our mission:
When I said that poetry tries and wants to make contact with reality, that is, with uttermost-being (truth, God, whatness, somethingness-nothingness, chaos-order)—to the Veda seers, the vibrating void; to the eighth-century Chinese poets, that-which-is-self-engendering; to mathematicians, a veil of numbers; to the Jewish mystics, the Ein-Sof; to Christian mystics, the indwelling of God and emanation of Christ in all things; to the animal kingdoms on earth, the starry night; to contemporary physicists, the excitation of superstrings; to cosmologists, the residue of an explosion of something to whose pre-explosion existence there is perhaps, as my friend Elaine Scarry once said to me, “no door”—I am referring very specifically and particularly to the material we are made from, this animated-in-us matter which we, in turn, express such a passionate drive to know (and which, in turn, has evolved a way to be known, through us, and is the source and object of our wonder and compulsion).
It's my prayer that Orison Books will be, for many years to come, a home for writers and readers who seek to know that source and object of our wonder, which is animated in each of us, and which we can come to recognize in one another ever more fully.
Luke Hankins Founder & Editor Orison Books
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