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The Poet of Thanksgiving

Reynolds Price gives thanks in his latest collection

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Though I can't do a computer word-count to prove it, I'm willing to bet that the two words that appear most often in Price's new book, Feasting the Heart, are "gift" and "gratitude." At least once, they show up in the same sentence: "Gratitude," he writes, "is the most welcome gift of our species." Note the subtle Pricean play on the word gift, used in the sense of "offering" as well as "capacity." In Feasting the Heart, Price makes us a generous offering of his gift for gratitude.

This collection of 52 short pieces, originally written as sporadic three-minute radio commentaries for NPR, proves Price's quick mastery of a new literary challenge. At 67, he's done just about everything except the epic poem and the clerihew, though I might have missed those. The radio spot suits him well: It allows him a casual flexibility of subject matter, and to project a tone that is at once personal and mandarin as he turns adroitly from reminiscence and reflection to pointed editorial--arguing, for instance, for consideration for the disabled, or higher quality programming on PBS.

Throughout, the bass note is that of thanks. Thanks for solitude and meditation (including a memorable mystical experience in a Santa Fe cave). Thanks for teachers (especially those who turned him on to literature) and students (about whom he worries for tendencies to alcohol, herd-mentality and depression). Thanks for caring parents and relatives, and for childhood caretakers, including the former slave "Aunt Minnie," whose blessing is balanced, in a vivid coming-of-age piece, with that of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. And, of course, thanks for his long good health after a struggle with spinal cancer 15 years ago--a struggle that left him paraplegic, and ushered in the most prolific and creative period of his writing career.

For such enormous acts of grace, gratitude is the truly healthy response. This simple Christian economy is plainly the theme in the collection's first piece. "A Christmas in Rome" is an especially fine short story--the only fiction in the book, it was commissioned by NPR for a holiday broadcast in 1993 and gave Price, he says, the radio bug. After spending a drowsy morning in the Colosseum, amid ghosts of martyrs and lions, a young man walks across the Circus Maximus--to echoes of chariots!--where he encounters a child whom at first he takes for a beggar. The child makes him a gift of an old Roman coin and, refusing to take anything in return, redeems a lonely Christmas morning in the quiet, strangely empty city. This story--told in the first person, in the personal tone of the other pieces, so that it seems almost to be memoir--parallels the bigger, cosmological story of the Christian "good news" arriving in the pagan world.

For Price, the good news is always breaking in--sometimes, I think, a bit too easily. If the writer has had dark nights of the soul, he does not write about them. Even the most painful moments of A Whole New Life, the moving 1994 memoir of his illness and conversion, are suffused with a confidence in divine purpose and presence. Price is a mystic--and like most mystics, he is less interested in human paradoxes and foibles than in those moments when one is lifted up into transcendent mystery.

Like most mystics, he doesn't much like church. Price says he stopped churchgoing in his 20s when he realized that Southern churches were "mired up to their eyes in racism." This rings a little false, since Price has elsewhere lamented that he wasn't more active in the Civil Rights movement in the '60s, and because race or racism (as opposed to the occasional black character) barely figures in Feasting or elsewhere in Price's work. Price is critical of the "the country club church," as he calls it, "where you can't be a member without a social calendar," but he doesn't seem any more interested in social gospel or liberal ministries, of which there were several in the South in the '60s and, of course, lots more now.

Even as a child, Price seems to have chosen an imaginative solitude in which he could wander, read and draw, and, when a spiritual mood descended, set up his own altar and personal icons. The disposition survives: "Sure as I am of a lifetime's errors," he writes in a piece called "Private Worship," "I never feel more deeply at home on this blue planet--in the whole universe--than in those solitary moments, trying to face the mind of God in a grove of trees."

So much happy solitude might suggest, to some, a touch of neglect. So much insistence on how much he was loved as a child, a hint that something was missing. We know from his other memoirs that Price's father was an alcoholic who gave up the bottle the day Reynolds was born. That there was any lasting hole in his family life is something one has to read between the lines.

Price throws a veil over personal suffering, which he occasionally lifts for a tantalizing peek, as when he talks about a three-year period of "grief" from which he's surprised that he "survived." All he says of this, by way of explanation, is that "the two young men who were my tormentors soon went their own way." He laments the fact that his parents neglected to sit him down and tell him "that the very nature of life is change--often change for the better," for they might have taught him what he needed most at that age, hope. Others might say that "inner resourcefulness" or "confidence in others" is really what a child most needs to learn--that hope can't really be taught, but grows as one masters the difficulties of living with and loving others.

Still, even when he raises difficult questions, Price continues, with inexhaustible productivity and tireless gentleness, to offer the very quality he sought: hope. Evidently, and to our lasting benefit, he found it along the way. EndBlock

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