Eric Pankey looks like an ascetic. With his long beard and short hair the poet looks as if he would be as comfortable in a monastery as at George Mason University, where he is an associate professor of English. His fourth book, The Late Romances, initially seems to be written in the spirit of religious poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, but Pankey’s works are edgier in their metaphysical queries.

“I think there are some poems that are much more humble and others that are much more accusing and confrontational with whoever the spirit is,” Pankey says. “Certainly the trajectory of [The Late Romances] and [1991’s] Apocrypha are all about trying to come to terms with [the fact that] I once held a strong religious belief,

and now seem somewhat, as they say in the Baptist tradition, backslidden.”

Pankey didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household, but he admits that as a teenager he had a “conversion experience”: “A rather strange and mystical thing happened to me at a Baptist revival. Something that was in me sort of vanished, and this other thing filled me up. I was, as they used to say, saved. It was real and it was a physical phenomenon….I really felt that whatever I was slipped out of me, and this other thing, for a short period of time, filled me up with this sort of density. I don’t know; it’s actually more a horrific experience than a blessing, I think.”

Such experiential duality is a common theme in The Late Romances, in both the religious poetry and the pieces that contemplate human relationships. “Those narratives about relationships, at least in their tonality and their concern, have the same kind of nostalgia that the spiritual poems have. There are those moments of intensities in relationships, with another or with a God that one longs to reclaim, and yet they’re harder and harder to reclaim,” Pankey explains.

“With both [Apocrypha, and] particularly The Late Romances, I was really trying to create a meditative trajectory that all the poems would add toward,” which they do with a haunting intensity.

“I think this book is the most personal book I’ve written,” Pankey says. “Where most people would hide obsessions, I tend to accent them and to call attention to them.” —Christopher Porter

Pankey reads at Chapters May 19 with James