And God Said Let There Be Evolution
publication date: Sun Jul 01 2012
NYQ Books - 2012
And God Said: Let there be Evolution! was written during Steve Henn's sometimes relieved, sometimes reluctant, and ultimately aborted return to the Catholic church. The poems express faith, doubt, the conflict between dogmatism and reason, and a disdain for orthodoxy that Henn picked up while teaching 1984 over and over to public school students. Some of the poems, though, are about a bad beard trim at Great Clips, or a bunch of made-up reasons why California doctors grant medical marijuana licenses. You never can tell what Henn will think of next, but then again neither can he. And God Said: Let there be Evolution! is heretical yet nevertheless spiritual, profound yet profane, looking toward salvation even as Henn questions the virtue of religious and spiritual certainty. Henn is hoping the sins of this authorship are ultimately venial from the perspective of Whoever's In Charge, and not mortal.
July 24, 2013
By Dan Grossman
Writing in fluid and engaging verse, Steve Henn pokes fun at everything on the American scene from the certainties of televangelist Pat Robertson and his ilk to the way in which high-minded academic institutions dominate contemporary poetry. Henn is at his best when he's at his most generous. In "Letter to a student, just before the Census, 2010," he asks the question to a high school student of his, "Lisa, in essence, are you not immeasurable?" It's a poem that successfully merges a jaded world view with hopeful sentiment.
Henn does go off the rails occasionally with poems that bury themselves so deeply in sarcasm that they seem devoid of all human compassion. In "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Splash Park," the poem's narrator wishes he had a camera ready so he could photograph a man walking around with a urinary drainage bag peaking out of his shorts: "At this point Bag-Of-Piss-Man's existence is about as verifiable / as the existence of the Sasquatch... "
December 2012 - Volume 16 #4
By John Berbich
What are the poems in this book about? Some sex, some philosophy, some music, lots of humor, and lots and lots of religion. Steve may be from Indiana but he's no Bible-thumper. He does ask questions though - lots and lots of questions. Big questions, like: "Is Christ resurrected?" "Are you / wearing any underwear?" "Do you have this message up on your profile / on Match.com, right next to a picture of your neck tattoo?" "Speaking of / do the good place and the bad place / exist side by side, like sister cities?" "Why can't the world be / entirely the way God intended it / for me?" I'm only on page 24 but you get the idea. These quotes are culled from five separate poems, and I think you can see in them the main themes of Henn's latest collection.
You might suppose that Henn is some kind of heckler of Christianity, but that's not really the case. He sort of doesn't believe, but rather wishes that it all were true, wishes that Christianity's promise of peace and immortality could be more than seductive spiritual fantasies. He's not quite sure he wants to escape his Catholic upbringing. Sex and humor work well to stave off doubt - for a while, at least. In his version of the second coming, Jesus lays "hands on hamburgers / making them moo again." See, it's a sweet vision.
Steve also has room for political and social rants - he's fed up with capitalist hucksters, technology, and people who are too God-damned-sure of themselves.
Favorite topics are drinking, basketball, and agnosticism. Henn writes in long rambling lines which build the tension until the final punch line. I love it when he says, in "God's Plan," that "Catholics / put the dog in dogma."
And God Said: Let there be Evolution!, all 75 pages of it, is available for $14.95 from NYQ Books, an imprint of The New York Quarterly Foundation. Check the website for ordering info.
By John Gardner
After I received the book And God Said: Let There Be Evolution! by Steve Henn in the mail, I told my friend Tara I was excited to read it. She replied, "Oh, Steve's a good guy. I think you two would get along." Turns out that Mr. Henn is from the same small Indiana town that I am, and several of my friends and relatives know him. I was of two minds with this news: one part of me was amused at the journey these poems took: from Indiana to New York, New York to California, then back home again in Indiana. That the title of their collection was enough to draw me to this man's work with such a small degree of separation between us was funny to me. The other part of me was saddened that a book of poetry could come out of my home town to very little fanfare. How had I not heard of this book before now?
But isn't that really the way of poetry? Wallace Stevens' coworkers had no idea he was a poet, so it shouldn't have surprised me too much that a guy from Warsaw, Indiana, wouldn't receive enough attention to set off my radar. Henn's work shows a poet who isn't surprised either. In "Acrobats at the Laundromat and Incidents Less Noteworthy," he writes,
That's all right. I read poetry in bars
to satisfy an urge to feel like the rock star
I'm not on the drums, and try not to think
of how rarely the experience measures up
to the anticipation.
This book goes by fast, coming in at 75 pages, with most of the poems being less than the full length of the page. Additionally, the poems in this book are wonderfully light-hearted and unpretentious. Henn is a poet who seems to understand that using one good word is more powerful than thirty long ones. But these are not shallow poems; on the contrary they contain depth that is easily overlooked. These poems tackle big issues with an eye for small details. For example, in "The Guy Who Heard the Call," Henn writes about a man standing in the cold screaming at cars from a street corner because "God told him to."
Listen, you don't have to preach
to convince me God's ways are not Man's ways,
His/Her/Its Will a mystery wrapped in a conundrum
topped with Tabasco chased with Pepto-but
if this is God's marketing plan
He really oughta hire a p.r. firm!
This is not a mocking poem, however. It pokes fun at the concept that God would command someone to preach from the street corner, but never judges the man as to whether he is crazy or not. In fact, the poem ends questioning our own perceptions of the man, asking us to assume "the voice the man heard was actually The Voice . . . would you respond, / 'Here I am, Lord. I have heard You calling." Or would it be, / 'I'm not the one, Lord, I'd rather burn in Hell than suffer out in this cold." When the story is looked at from that point of view, it becomes a very different one than the one we started with. Henn takes a look at the bigger issue of faith through the microcosm of the man on the street corner.
And this is the line that the book walks. It is far from blasphemous, unless one goes in looking for blasphemy. It is far from a denouncement of religion, unless you are looking for it to be. It satirizes the dogma of religion without denying the mysteries of the human experience that lead some to the path of faith. The humor is not snark for snark's sake, but rather it is there to highlight the absurdities of our political and religious choices. Perhaps the book's loudest cry, amidst the masturbation jokes, pop culture references, and political satire is "think, for the love of God."
This is also a book about identity: the speaker identifies as a poet, a Catholic, a Hoosier, a father, and a teacher, among other things. One of the highlights for me is the poem "I'm from Indiana." For a small town Hoosier like myself, there is something exciting about seeing "the hicks/ from Silver Lake who rent the house across the backyard/ and who we think are cooking up and/or selling meth" mentioned in a book of poetry (Silver Lake is a small town not far from where I live, approximately the size of a book of stamps.). However, the speaker also expresses the idea that we are more complex than just our geographical location.
I'm from Indiana and I believe in equal rights for
gays. I don't hate atheists. I don't hate Christians.
One of my best friends is Mormon. I dislike hippies
because they're usually using the "kind brother" routine
to get into somebody's pants. I try not to be an asshole.
Sometimes I am anyway.
The speaker not only plays against the images that come to mind when Indiana is mentioned (conservative, Christian, homophobic), he plays against the idea that one has to be the opposite. The poem is a deconstruction of the labels we put upon ourselves and others. And while Henn is unapologetic about where he is from (which seems to be, in my experience, a rare thing for anyone from Indiana), his identity is also unapologetically more complex than that.
This is a very entertaining read with some great ideas. If you are a reader who dislikes cursing or adult content in their poetry, then you should probably avoid this book. I personally feel it is used purposefully, and is not gratuitously, but different people have different standards, and it would be a disservice to ignore that. If those things don't bother you and you enjoy really good satirical poetry, then this collection is a well worth your time.
WhatzUp Magazine, Fort Wayne, IN
By Evan Gillespie
If someone asked me what the poems in Steve Henn's And God Said: Let There Be Evolution! are about, I'd have to say they're about not knowing. Well, first I'd try to avoid answering the question at all, because answering such a broad question in such a definitive way is counter to the spirit of Henn's poems. But if I were pressed, I'd say the poems were about not knowing. They're about not knowing the answers to big questions or small questions, and they're even more about being impatient with those who think they do know the answers to questions big or small.
Henn is in the perfect place to make his observations about the qualities of knowing. He teaches high school English in northern Indiana. He's surrounded by populations - teenagers and rural Hoosiers - who often take pride in not knowing things but who are also often pretty sure that they know more than you do. The poems in And God Said were written when Henn was re-examining his connection to Catholicism, so there's also the element of conflict between religious mystery and dogma. The intersection of all these circumstances is inhabited by absurdity, and Henn notices all of it.
Many of the book's poems, as the title suggests, focus on the contradictions in popular expressions of faith. As much as he wants to plumb the depths of spirituality, Henn is also awed by physics, so he's likely to pull string theory into his consideration of Heaven. In the title poem, he argues that evolution can be rationally fit into an understanding of God's plan, especially since no one understands God's plan, not even Pat Robertson. It's all a big mystery, and you can even say something like "The Voice of God Told Me Agnosticism Is the One True Faith," and no one can really prove you wrong. Elsewhere, Henn points out the silliness of pious musings by irreverently bringing spiritual figures down to earth. In "What would Jesus really do?," he wonders whether, if Christ were here with us right now, would he be as ego-centric and superficial as the rest of us. Conversely, in "Note to my Atheist Friends (who will be coming over for a party)," he proclaims, "The fact that we don't know if God is is not proof of His/ Her/Its/Their inexistence, but I do know this," followed by a list of social trivia; in these things that he and his friends will do tonight, "I have everlasting faith." And that's all he knows for sure.
It's not all about religion, though. Sometimes it's about the things that some of us believe that are demonstrably wrong. In "Political Will," he pokes at people who hold strong opinions about things they don't understand, and in "Margaret Hires a Personal Thinker," he envisions the ultimate outcome of our journey toward proud ignorance.
Sometimes it's just about ridiculousness. The poem "I can't wait until J.D. Salinger dies" is followed two pages later by "I Killed J.D. Salinger"; apparently Henn wrote the first poem less than a week before Salinger died, and the experience leaves Henn feeling "pretty good" about himself because "I didn't know I had that kind of pull in the universe."
But even if he holds a higher than- expected position in the universe, he still has to endure grocery shopping, hair cuts at Great Clips and the infuriating customer service at Verizon, all of which are examined in other poems.
When your world view revolves around uncertainty, you're not going to be serving up many answers, and these are not the sort of poem that offers anything approaching an ultimate truth. Overall, Henn seems to be fine with the realization that there are some things we can know and many things that we can't. It seems, though, that he wishes that most of us would try harder to sort out which is which.