READING BOOK OF WALLER CAN MAKE A BRAIN TWITCH
by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Albany regional columnist
Imagine, if you will, poet and painter Richard Waller in the book-strewn office of his two-story, century-old town house. Out his office window you see the parking lot of a Baptist school. On the wall in the hallway is a brass marker: ON THIS SITE IN 1897 NOTHING HAPPENED.
In this cluttered room, using his King James and New Revised Standard Version Bibles, Waller, 72, worked doggedly for three years on 64 poems, The Famous God Said Sonnets."And while the slim self-published poetry volume, his second, hasn't gotten the kind of attention Reynolds Price's biblical examination recently inspired, Waller's work has provoked strong response. Family members have thrown it in the trash. A Baptist college president praised it. A few friends pointedly ignored it. You can find it at his website.
"The stuff you wrote, which I have read carefully, makes no sense to anyone who is not an infidel," a retired Baptist minister and former high school classmate of Waller's wrote in response to a gift copy. (Waller, by the way, is an Alabama native who grew up Baptist in Newnan.)
"You will be glad to know that one of your sonnets was read at a Unitarian Easter service in Maine, wrote a fan.
"Whether one considers his accomplishment within the realm of Bible poetry, Bible criticism, or simply a fine jest of Bible humor missing since the days of Moliére and Voltaire, one is sure to walk away from the text with a profound twitch in the brain..." raved a Washington DC reviewer, Gabriel Thy, who also happens to be Waller's nephew.
In the sonnets, God reacts book by book to the Old Testament, which, Waller believes, is filled with both "cruelties and absurdities." (Waller gives entertainer Steve Allen credit for the original idea. Allen has written a couple of prose books on religion.) Waller's God denies having written certain passages of the Old Testament, and sometimes entire books. God does, however, proudly claim Ecclesiastes. Here's an example from Numbers:
Of all the things they say I said, God said, the dumbest
is my alleged command to stone a man outside the gates
for gathering sticks on a quiet country Sabbath day.
It's libel and I categorically deny ever saying a man should die
for sticks picked up. Whatever do you take me for?
It's unbelievable even as metaphor.
I, who lit the fuse for the Bang
that you call Big, have better things to do
in other galaxies than anything
as cruel, savage, and arbitrary as that.
It's a wonder the Bible's read at all.
Next Sunday afternoon, go shop the Mall.
"The local newspaper runs a daily Bible verse, and they have to be very selective so readers don't get shocked," Waller muses. He refers to the rampant sex, violence, and gore sometimes ignored by casual theologians. Waller has a degree in Italian from Columbia University and is retired from the land title insurance business. He started writing in 1990, including a poem inspired by a Haydn concert at the Roman Forum. The head of the Newport Music Festival at the time was so taken with that poem that he ordered 300 copies of Waller's first book, Beethoven's Brain and Other Poems.
"I might have treated MY poetry privately, except for that incredible encouragement," Waller says. Waller is now Unitarian -- "which means driving to Tallahassee" to the nearest churchand chief caretaker for his elderly mother. People either love or hate his book, he says, which satisfies him. Sonnet 59 seems to encapsulate his main thesis:
Thank goodness for the age of science and reason
Religious superstition has had its season.