This lovely book by Regina Walton, which Paraclete Press kindly sent me to review, won the first Phyllis Tickle Prize in Poetry and no wonder!
Christian poets, poetry students, and all lovers of poetry won’t want to miss this highly recommended anthology by Paraclete Press.
If you’ve ever thought about reading or writing a biography in poems, this new offering from Paraclete Press gives an excellent example of exquisite poetry by William Woolfitt, who wrote in the persona of Charles de Foucauld – a Christian saint and martyr.
In his new book, Accidental Grace, poet-rabbi Rami M. Shapiro transforms Psalms, Jewish prayers, and Bible poetry into fresh lines that send us thoughtfully reeling into spiritual realms.
Published by Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a copy to review, this highly recommended book brings wisdom, humor, and spiritual insights into ancient biblical truths, which the poet reveals as relevant today.
Take, for instance, Psalm 1, which many of us know in the King James Version (KJV) as beginning: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.”
Notes in newer translations of the Bible often acknowledge that the word “Blessed” at the beginning of Psalm 1 is not the same Hebrew word that’s usually rendered “blessed” but, instead, is more akin to saying, “Oh, the joy!” or “How happy.”
In his smoothly written lines running roughly parallel with Psalm 1, Rabbi Shapiro wakes us up with this rendition:
“Do you want to be happy?
Ignore the counsel of the selfish;
avoid the path of the cruel;
refuse the company of nihilists.
Do you want to be happy?
Delight in life unfolding;
immerse yourself in what is as it is, from morning to night.”
In considering a Psalm that’s even better known, Rabbi Shapiro begins his poetic version of “Psalm 23” like this:
“You alone shepherd me,
lessening my needs and fulfilling them.
Lying delighted in lush green pastures,
I know You are all.”
Then he closes the poem with these thought-inducing lines:
“When I walk with You and know it is You who walks as me,
I leave only goodness and mercy in my wake,
knowing every place is Your place, and every face is Your face.”
Following the section of contemporary psalms we find a group of insightful “Poems” to welcome such as “Welcoming Angels,” which contains these lines:
“In the deeper quiet
I sense the greater Life that is my life.
I do not live only; I am lived.
I do not breathe only; I am breathed.
I am not only the one I appear to be
but also the One who appears as me.”
Another poignant poem, “I Am Loved,” begins:
“I am loved.
Too easy to say, perhaps.
Too fleeting a feeling upon which to anchor a life.
And yet it is so.
I am loved. Though not always by me.”
To give you one more example of the meditative moments that arise with each reading, I’ll print “One Without End” in full:
“Below the birth of becoming
There was the Source of Being.
When all is ended, that Source remains.
Alone without second, the One is all.
This One is my God, my redeemer, my refuge, my shelter.
This One is the cup of life from which I drink daily.
When I wake, as when I sleep, I rest in This.
One Substance in infinite manifestation,
One mind in infinite variation.
Know this and fear not.”
Amen! Then, the last section of the book, entitled “A Parable: Reenvisioning the Book of Job,” is set as a script or screenplay centered on Job’s encounter with God. Although the story ends shy of redemption, the dialogue between God and Job shows a sense of humor, which our One God and Creator of All Types and Seekers, surely has.
© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer of traditionally published poetry books and new editions of the Bible, is also a freelance writer in all genres and poet-author of 3 books of poems: Living in the Nature Poem, the children’s book Beach Songs and Wood Chimes, and her book of Bible-based poems, Outside Eden.
Accidental Grace, French flap paperback
Scott Cairns collected his poems in a new book entitled Slow Pilgrim, which recollects his pilgrimage as a Christian in many of the poems.
Using the concept he refers to as “sacramental poetics,” Cairns brings together theology and poetry as did poets of the past, who saw this connectedness in the “Logos.” Indeed, as the Introduction to the book reminds us, “The Greek word for ‘word’ is logos, familiar to us from the opening of the Gospel of St. John. But Cairns believes that in modern Western thought logos has too often reduced ‘word’ to disembodied abstraction. He prefers the Hebrew word davar, which means both word and thing – and even, as he notes, a power.”
And “yet one of the key milestones along his pilgrimage has been his embrace of the Orthodox tradition of ‘apophatic’ theology, which is an expression of humility before the inadequacy of language.” This apophatic theology helps us to know God by stating Who or What God is not, rather than Who or What God is. For example, when we say God is immortal, we’re saying God does not die. Or if we call God a Spirit, we’re saying God isn’t confined to a physical form as we are. Or if we say God is truth, we’re saying God does not lie.
Often Christian poets and writers rely on metaphor or analogy to equate God with this or that. Or perhaps we present a particular point-of-view or communicate an experience. Conversely, Cairns’ pilgrimage is more inclined to take us from communication into communion, slowing us down, so we can listen between the lines and hear the silence that arises into worship or poetry.
This is not, however, a devotional book, nor collection of inspirational writings. As the Introduction tells us, these “poems address us in our quotidian experience of life: they are best experienced in an armchair, not in church.”
For example, “Taking Off Our Clothes” strips us down to our real selves where:
“We’d talk about real things, casually
and easily taking off our clothes. We would be
naked and would hold onto each other a long time,
saying things that would make us
grin. We’d laugh off and on, all the time
unconcerned with things like breath, or salty
skin, or the way our gums show when we really
smile big. After a while, I’d get you a glass of water.”
This use of the visible, the tangible rather than the abstract, calls us to recognizable truths, such as how getting real with ourselves and each other makes us feel naked. In these times of vulnerability, we might do nothing more God-like than bringing each other a cup of cool water in Christ’s name.
Since the poem just quoted in part comes at the beginning of the book, readers will know upfront not to expect anything sentimental or puritanical. Having squirmed through too many of the latter types of poems or flat statements of belief or long-winded diatribes, a subtle invitation to find God among real people in real life can, itself, be as refreshing as that glass of water.
This time I knew to expect such an approach as the publisher, Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a review copy, had done the same last year for Cairns’ book, Idiot Psalms. However, to claim familiarity with the work of this respected poet would be misleading as I suspect I’ll never fully catch what’s compressed into each poem.
Sometimes this slowness to comprehend occurs because of differences in male and female perspectives but also because of the poet’s artistry in drawing negative spaces that may or may not be filled with God’s invisible presence. That said, Cairns can use metaphor well when he wants to as shown in the poem “4. Mortal Dream” where “It is not a very clean city, even the air has fingerprints.”
For the most part, though, I found the poems accessible and occasionally amusing. For example, “5. My Imitation” begins:
“I sold my possessions, even the colorful pencils.
I gave all my money to the dull. I gave my poverty
to the president. I became a child again, naked
and relatively innocent. I let the president have my guilt.”
But what seems to be humorous turns into a common union with Christ as the poem continues:
“I found a virgin and asked her to be my mother.
She held me very sweetly.”
“I rose again, bloodless and feeling pretty good.
I forgave everything.”
Unlike the sweet greeting card verses that assure us all is well even when it isn’t, I’m more attuned to the hope we have in Christ when reading such lines as: “And still I have suffered/ an acute lack of despair.” Yes! How true!
Besides our lack of despair, aren’t we all archaeologists? As shown in “Archaeology: A Subsequent Lecture,” we see:
“…the pleasure lies
in fingering loose ends toward likely shape,
actually making something of these bits
of persons, places, things one finds once one
commences late interrogation
of undervalued, overlooked terrain –
what we in the business like to call the dig.”
In addition to digging through our collective or individual past, these poems give us a new take on familiar Bible stories such as told in the poem “The Entrance of Sin.” In its departure from the Genesis 3 story, the second paragraph of this prose poem offers a prior scenario:
“For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.”
I love that a man wrote those lines! And I welcomed the insight into relationships today. I also enjoyed the dry humor, as in “Possible Answers To Prayer,” where:
“Your petitions – though they continue to bear
just the one signature – have been duly recorded.”
Then these exquisite lines in “I. Nativity” give us a glimpse of that biblical scene as told from the perspective of a man gazing on a woman beloved:
“As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend
the tiny God is wrapped
in something more than swaddle. The God
is tightly bound within
His blessed mother’s gaze….”
The poem continues:
the famous star is all
but out of sight by now; yet, even so,
it aims a single ray
directing our slow pilgrims to the core
where all the journeys meet,
appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,
where crouched among these other
lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers
receive that creatured air, and pray.”
Slow Pilgrim, quality paperback
As a long-time lover of poetry by priest-poets, I was delighted to receive a review copy of Eyes Have I That See: selected poems of Fr. John Julian, which Paraclete Press kindly sent me to review.
According to the back cover, Fr. Julian’s work has been compared to other priest-poets such as George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but that may be like comparing peaches and pears! Besides the differing forms and styles, the poems of the two G. H.’s flow with succulent phrases and sweet praise, whereas the poetry of Fr. Julian has a contemporary bite.
As soon as I said that, however, I opened the book again and re-read the first poem, which, yes, makes me think of the Episcopal priest George Herbert in a beautiful litany appropriate for liturgy! The poem, “Anima Christi,” begins by calling:
“Soul of Christ, O, consecrate me;
Flesh of Christ, emancipate me;
Blood of Christ, intoxicate me;
Water from Christ’s side, repair me….”
These exquisite lines continue, focusing on Christ before closing with a plea, “That forever I may praise Thee. Amen.”
As the collection continues, the “I” of the poem could be me, you, the poet, or, most likely, the voice of people since the beginning of time, for instance, as “My golden fruit/ Lies tarnished now” in “The Apple Tree,” and “Gethsemane, BC,” calls on Isaac to arise.
In the poem “’Twixt Dinner And The Tree,” we see “The Beloved gathered” between the Last Supper and the cross and find:
“Old wildly verbal Peter had already felt his words
twist back, his promises stumbling to unanticipated oblivion;
poor James hid dark in tears in some far kosher corner….”
Other poems present contemporary reflections of biblical stories threaded with the timelessness that connects us. Most lines unwind as free verse with others occasionally aligning into traditional meter as shown in this first verse of “Incarnatus.”
“Bethlehem broadened and filled our horizons,
The stable demanded our hearts in return;
God spoke the Word in the flesh of a Man-child
And wrote with that Body what mankind must learn.”
In the last pages, we find thirteen cantos comprising the poem “Ave Maria” as Christ’s Mother Mary accompanies her Son through each crucial moment of His life and death. This long poem provides a fitting way to end the book, and yet, an earlier poem, “Oblation,” made me think of her – and us.
“In all that I do
In all that I say,
In all that I wish,
In all that I am,
©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem, published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press; a book of nature poems for children, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books, and the book of Bible-based poems, Outside Eden, also published by Kelsay Books in 2014. She recently completed a fourth book of poems and is now working on more poems based on Bible prayers and stories.
Eyes Have I That See: selected poems, paperback
A busy, busy life of work and other activities or commitments seldom offer the quietness conducive to writing poetry. At least that’s what I discovered when, as a freelance and assignment writer, I just didn’t have the time or, rather, the silent spaces needed to write poetry.
Writing fiction, nonfiction, and school library resources involved research and a regular writing schedule, which I approached for years as most people approach their 9 to 5 jobs. But poetry happened only on vacation or long weekends of escaping the busy, busy-ness. If that’s true for you, too, you’ll welcome the poetic relief of Practicing Silence by Bonnie Thurston, which the publisher, Paraclete Press, kindly sent me to review.
As Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB (Order of Saint Benedict), tells us in the Foreword, “The first word of St. Benedict’s Rule for Monks is: ‘Listen!’ All the rest is anticipated and contained in this initial imperative. To listen, every moment, to whatever we encounter, to consider it a word of God, and to respond to that word, that is Benedictine obedience. It is indeed a poetic attitude, since God’s Word is not understood as command, instruction, or information, but as a song of praise sung by the Cosmic Christ at the core of every living thing.”
How does this translate into poetry? Many factors help, no doubt, but this book reminds me of the value of simply being aware, especially of those hard-to-hear-or-notice ordinary moments.
In “Suppliant,” for example, the poet contemplates a simple little note that says, “pick up your tray at the kitchen door,” which, “in history’s white light” helps her to “see myself as I am,/ loitering at heaven’s back door/ empty-handed and hungry,/ waiting with the multitudes….”
The next poem, “All Saints Convent,” develops the thought, saying:
We come from darkness,
Bring our hungers and thirst.
We join you, kneel at dawn
Under a single, amber light,
No more strangers,
But sisters in the Silence
Who speaks us all.
“Plainchant” gives us another quiet word that settles deep:
Something about chanting
the Psalms settles the heart
which, indeed, is restless
until it rests in praise….
With praise a choice of words and not of feelings, we hear the “howl of pain” beyond all words as felt by the biblical character “Job,” and we feel the shock of fractured silence in these perceptive lines:
You live in unremitting darkness,
surrounded by an unbearable silence
with which your friends cannot cope.
They fill the air with worthless words,
ugly flies buzzing around your sores.
Those of us who have had well-meaning people try to make things better with words that did not work know how Job felt! And, most likely, we, too, have wanted to warn, “Remember I Am Fragile,” as the poet does in a poem by that name, which says: “I am the brittle reed, the sputtering wick/ flickering in the dark….”
Toward the end of the book, a sequence of poems in “Hermit Lessons” lays out a mélange of morsels to feed on and consider, for example:
The ultimate lesson?
Rise from the dead.
Ending with the line, ”Then, trust the darkness,” the last poem “Little Rule for a Minor Hermitage” contributes to my assumption in requesting this book: that these quiet poems do not call attention to themselves but, like a series of exquisitely wrought meditations, are meant to be read again and again.
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is poet-author of Outside Eden, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books, and Living in the Nature Poem, published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press. This summer, Kelsay also published Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, Mary’s first book of poems for children.
Practicing Silence, paperback