Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review: Help Me Be

What follows is a brief review of Dale C. Fredrickson's book, Help Me Be: Praying in Poems (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013; 48 pp.) for Speakeasy. For those interested in learning more about the book and its author, I've pasted in links from a Speakeasy email at the conclusion of the review.

Watch a video of Dale Fredrickson giving voice to one of his own poems, and you'll see at once that he's gifted with words as well as with their delivery. The earnestness of his poetic prayers -- now aching, now joyful -- comes through with enviable clarity and conviction.  Unfortunately, not all of that translates well onto the written page.  Not that that should necessarily dissuade one from buying the book; there's much to savor and digest here.  I'm going to be adding the book to the collection at the Scaffold, and I can easily see how Fredrickson's words would nourish the prayer life and language of anyone who hears or reads them.  I'm only saying that they're more nourishing when spoken or heard than when read (which shouldn't surprise us, as the same is true of so much of Scripture, not least the psalms and other prayers).

For each of its three sections, Help Me Be borrows and paraphrases the categories of biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann's Spirituality of the Psalms: "Orientation (Life's Good)," "Disorientation (Life's Not Good)," and "New Orientation (Life's Good Again)." A richly textured painting by Lindsay McLean helps to introduce and set the tone of each section. The standout poems of the first section include "You Amaze us God," with its profound reflection on the Incarnation; the title poem, the cadence of which corresponds to its Trinitarian focus; and the eager, jubilee-evoking abandon of "This Is The Year." The darker section two features moments where the poet's spoken-word skills leap off the page, as in "Stuck," a piece that echoes Psalm 40 and other biblical cries for help: "You must remake this: / You can courageously face this / You can learn to embrace this / You can trust the grace in this" (22). The third, re-orienting section celebrates renewal and resurrection, turning Easter into a verb in "God Of New Life" (33), citing and rewriting Scriptures such as Isaiah 66:13 in "God the Good Mother" (36-37), and juxtaposing memorable images of baptism and evangelism in "Message in a Bottle." In offering new ways of phrasing age-old, ever-new expressions of prayer, Fredrickson is clearly at home.

As I noted above, however, some of his work is hurt by the transition from spoken word to printed page. The problems are largely limited to inconsistent editing and unclear employment of language, but they're so pervasive that they often intrude on one's enjoyment of the poetry itself.  There are punctuation issues (and a few typesetting ones, too) from the introduction onward, and Fredrickson's overuse of capitalization is frequently distracting; instead of drawing attention to particular words, capital letters become unremarkable, ubiquitous, as in the lines, "Divine embers start smoking Dazzling Dreams, Deep Dimensions, / Dynamic, Durable, Delightful, Drawing" (40). I found myself stumbling over homophonic and typographic errors such as "I want a will that wills you, / Half a heart won't due" (15), or the evident confusion over the distinction between breath and breathe, or aid and aide (19, 30). These wouldn't be apparent in spoken delivery, so why risk confusing readers with them in the printed version? One hopes that this volume of stirring poetry proves popular enough to be re-issued by a major publisher, and that this might present an opportunity for Fredrickson and others to revise his poems again so that they can shine a little brighter.

Dale's website.
Dale's spoken word on YouTube.
Dale's messages on Vimeo.
Help Me Be on Amazon:

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


  1. I also got this book from SpeakEasy, so I'll be blogging about it soon, too...though I doubt my critique will rival yours in professionalism!

  2. I'll look forward to reading your review, then. The customer reviews on Amazon are glowing, and there is indeed some good content, it's just often obscured.

  3. Hi Matthew,
    Just wanted to drop you a quick note and thank you for this thorough and honest review. For me, trenchant reviews are like hummus and falafel. Good reviews are fresh and nourishing. And who doesn't love Mediterranean food? The time and care that you put into this is much appreciated. As a writer yourself, I am sure that you know how hard it is to get this type of feedback. I've taken your blog and will correct everything you have named. Would you be willing to take one more step with me and send me any other specifice notes that you had so that I can make these humble words "shine a little brighter." In particular, what typesetting errors did you see? And what's a "homophonic" error? I genuinely want to get better at this writing thing and figure out how these poems can come to life on the written page. Here's what I'd love to do for you. When I make the correctios I would be happy to send you another personal copy and a copy for the Scaffold (What a cool project!). Best to you,


  4. Dale: Thanks for your gracious and thoughtful response! I will send you more complete notes as soon as I complete a few projects that are on the go right now. I did truly appreciate your work, and I do indeed hope that it gains the broader hearing/reading it deserves.

    Grace and peace,