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I WITNESSES

When it comes to literature, many critics say Mormons do their best work in essay and poetry. It would make sense. All those sacrament meeting talks, Sunday School lessons and testimonies are basically "essays out loud" - fertile ground for any budding word-smith.

But more than that, the essay and poem tend toward personal testimony. And members of the LDS faith have always been quick to give spiritual depositions. In Mormondom the pulpit is the witness stand where everyone adds a piece to the story.Witnessing to personal experience is part of the culture.

"Occasionally someone will ask if I have ever contemplated writing a novel," writes Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her new book. "I haven't . . . For me, writing fiction, as Robert Frost once said of writing free verse, would be like `playing tennis with the net down.' "

So it comes as no surprise that four LDS women with new books for sale have written books driven by a personal, first-person voice.

Kathy Evans, author of "Imagination Comes to Breakfast" (Signature, $9.95 paperback), is in the news because she's coming to Utah to be the keynote speaker at the Utah State Poetry Society's annual awards festival.

The event is Friday, April 21, and Saturday, April 22, at the Quality Inn City Center (154 W. 600 South). Evans will address the gathering on both days. For information phone Elaine Ipson at 882-5183.

As for Evans' book of verse, most readers will finish it with a sense of surprise. And with good reason. Surprise is the way Kathy Evans saw the world as a young girl in American Fork. It's howshe sees the world now as a San Francisco houseboat owner.

"For the longest time I was home raising children," she said in an interview from Sausalito, "and I figured a person should be able to transcend their daily routine. I suppose that's why my poetry has so many twists and turns to it."

Whether she writes about carving pumpkins, putting kids to bed or simply taking a "Lunch Break," Evans has a knack for giving domestic life the freshness of foreign travel. Her chief tools are a cautious sentiment and an artist's affection for sensual experience.

"For me, sensuality - using all your senses - is the only way to take in the world," she says. "I try hard to write that way. As for feelings, I've always thought there has to be emotion at the center of the poem, but to avoid sentimentality I often make my poems a little quirky, I look for ways to pull them back."

For the most part she does keep away from sweetness. At her best, Kathy Evans doesn't just "write for herself" - as poets are wont to say. She is a bard, a poet speaking for us all. She is an "I" witness.

This from her poem "Pigments":

If pigeons can scatter like seed

in black calligraphy upon the sky,

then I can fly from this winter husk

toward something holy and blue -

oracle,

wind bell,

jay.

`All God's Critters Got a Place in the Choir" (Aspen Books; $14.95 hardback) would seem, at first, to be a new collection of verse by Maya Angelou. There's a Southern, spiritual, hand-clap rhythm to the title. Discovering the book is really the work of two white, middle-class Mormon women may come as a sur-prise to some.

But then - like Kathy Evans - these two authors deal in surprise.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian currently teaching at Harvard. Emma Lou Thayne, of course, has been a prolific writer and pinpoint observer of LDS culture for many years.

Now they've pooled their talents in a collaboration - a gathering of their correspondence, poems, personal essays and addresses. And though such books can quickly turn into a hodgepodge - become a catch basin for things an author never got into print - here the high quality of thought and prose makes the book more of a tide pool - a random sampling of small, living things.

The insights into the concerns of women and an expansive spirituality are the selling points of the book, though there are a good many minor pleasures as well. Watching the way the two writers "work," for instance; the way Thayne - the poet - makes sense of a splintered world by taking it down inside and bringing it back whole, while Thatcher - ever the historian - prefers to piece the fragments of the world together like a puzzle or patchwork quilt.

And both writers take time to introduce us to dozens of other interesting souls: Helen Keller, Eliza Calvert Hall (the Kentucky local colorist), Henrietta E. Williams (chronicler of pioneer domestic life) - even Ted Bundy, the serial killer. Thayne knew him personally.

There are a few drawbacks. Getting any continuity in such an array of thought and writing is next to impossible, so the book tends to wobble at times, and the groupings feel understandably contrived. Also, to hold down the price of the book (admirably), the publisher has printed it on inexpensive paper (less admirably). One longs for a quality bond paper to mirror the quality bond between these two women.

Still, overall, this potpourri of prose and poetry could very well become the most important book published in the state this year. It is already my favorite volume of the 1990s.

And when it comes to soul, the writers offer plenty - more than enough to please Maya Angelou.

I believe it was painter Al Rounds who said that an artist can change the way the universe looks simply by taking one little step back.

Chieko N. Okazaki of the LDS Relief Society General Presidency has won a legion of readers because she sees LDS culture from that one step back. Her latest book, "Aloha" (Deseret Book; $14.95 hardback), should do even more to enhance her popularity.

Raised as a Buddhist in Hawaii, Sister Okazaki joined the Mormon Church at age 15 and quickly brought a fresh point of view to her new religion. In her ability to appraise the Mormon world with new perspective, she is like the pilgrim who understood the mountain by looking at it from the valley.

"Aloha!" with its gentle sermons on "Keeping a Balance," "Rain and Rainbows" and "The Way of the Christian," is conventional in its attitude toward Christian living, though often unconventional in its style. (Who else in the church could write a chapter for teenagers called "Banzai to Bonsai"?)

Mormon, Hawaiian, Japanese, Buddhist - the author is like those popular Russian figurines: full of many inner selves. "Aloha!" (like her books "Lighten Up!" and "Cat's Cradle") is her testimony to the world that inside her many layers burns an unshakable trust in a loving God.