The Poetry Editor and Poetry: The Yearning Life: Poems

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!

Source: The Poetry Editor and Poetry: The Yearning Life: Poems

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Accidental Grace: Poetry, Prayers, and Psalms

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
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Christian Poet Scott Cairns

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.”

And ends:

“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:

“…Overhead,

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.”

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer in all genres and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and poetry

Slow Pilgrim, quality paperback

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Eyes Have I That See: review of selected poems by priest-poet, John Julian

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
You act;
In all that I say,
You speak;
In all that I wish,
You will;
In all that I am,
You are.”

©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

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Practicing Silence and poetry

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:

V.
The ultimate lesson?
Live simply.
Simply live.
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

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Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems speak of a quiet life

This new offering of poetry appealed to me enough to request a review copy (which Paraclete Press kindly sent) because of the unique perspective I expected to find in the Unquiet Vigil of a Trappist monk, Brother Paul Quenon, OCSO, who once studied under Thomas Merton.

Let’s face it. We live in troubled times. And, even in our every-daily-ness, most of us have hurried, often harried, lives, not at all conducive to writing or reading poems. As I’ve found in my own writing life, poetry seldom screams to be heard.

In the “Author’s Note,” Br. Paul gives us a glimpse into his environment of peace and unrest through these words: “To keep vigil is literally to watch. ‘Watch’ is that one-word command given us by Jesus, much like the one word that opens the Holy Rule of St. Benedict: ‘Listen.’ The monastic life is a lifelong practice of both watching and listening.” And so, these poems circle “around silence to see and watch what is heard, a use of words to fix in hearing what is not quite seen.”

Unexpectedly, however, the opening poem shows us that we need to be on watch for the poet’s self-effacing humor. As “Gone Missing” says:

Kindly reader, I am a poem without a poet.
He has gone missing for weeks
and my house is empty. Suffer me awhile,
or go, and if you meet him –
he with a distant look and shambling gait –
tell him the hearth is cooling down.

Most poets can identify with that verse – an amusing yet sad reminder that poetry does not happen when we’re missing from our poems or evading our own lives.

“Lark Ascending” informs our poetry writing too, speaking of and for those poems that call to us from our deeper yet higher selves:

Not how high he goes it is
but from where he ascended,

where he hid, and when
he followed his music when
it escaped, and had to catch up with it
just to stay alive.

Conversely, the lowliness of a “Sad Possum” or “Sleepy Serpent,” keeps us as grounded as the prose poem, “Groundhog Extraordinaire,“ which begins with a confession that might well speak for us too: “In my prime I was a groundhog with attitude.”

Watching, listening to the quietness of nature often connects the poet – and us – to much more than what’s seen or heard. For example, in “1 July,” we’re given this insightful sight and persistent sound:

With its single note, single note
a common sparrow cleanses space
for meditation.

Not only animals cause us to pause as, in a “Cricket’s Reverie,” we see this Autumn scene:

Trees stand like harps,
strings bare just to the top
where golden notes hang caught
as song departs.

The section of the book entitled “Monkswear” might not sound as though we’ll connect to a monastic life so unlike our own, but then, amusingly, we discover a “Monk’s Cassock” has “Pockets deep enough/ to smuggle two wine bottles/ right through the cloister.”

Levity, loneliness, and worries speak – in various times and places – for almost everyone, but ultimately Br. Paul finds “My Silence Is The Lord.”

My silence is the Lord,
I listen, his silence speaks at all times.
When I listen not, my hearing is filled with words
and my tongue takes to rambling.

In the waiting silence, the poet and those who listen will hopefully hear a voiceless voice, saying:

I seek a heart that is simple.
With the peaceful I spread my tent.
I will wash your feet and dry them,
my silence will be their perfume.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is also the poet-author of Outside Eden with poems that speak to and for Bible people and Living in the Nature Poem in print and in an e-book on Kindle that speaks to and for nature – from wildlife to human nature to our spiritual nature too.

Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems, paperback

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Centering Prayers

Focus! Focus! We’ve said that to our children and ourselves, but the catch is knowing what, or rather Who, to focus on — and also how or when.

As I look at the review copy Paraclete Press kindly sent me of Centering Prayers by pastor-writer, Peter Traben Haas, the poetic words enable me to see the focal point and adjust my sights clearly to get centered on God.

Each month of the book’s year-long daily devotionals begins with a timely word “as if God says to me _____.” Then each day of that month includes a theme in the title, followed by a brief prayer that comes from the Christ-given heart we have in common-union at the center of ourselves.

To provide you with examples of what to expect, I turned to the preface for my birthday month, July, and read:

It is as if God says to me:

You are a lamp and my love is your fuel.

I love you and wish to anoint your life with the
kind of light that heals your deepest darkness.

I am with you on your journey.

Follow the Son who knows the way and is always close.

Once I’d read that, the inevitable interruptions and morning routines occurred, but after the children had safely caught their school buses for their first day back to class, I turned to the centering prayer for today, entitled “Returning to you in surrender.”

Beloved One:

Bless all students returning to school.
Bless all teachers returning to teach.
Bless all leaders returning to lead.
Bless all workers returning to labor.
Bless all beggars returning for more.
Bless all heart returning to you in surrender.
Remind us all that your gift of grace takes us all the way home.

Amen.

Hopefully, prayerfully, that amazingly timely word to me speaks to you too, and yet we cannot help but be aware of the troubling times around the world where too few choose to surrender to God’s way of love as revealed to us in Christ. And so, after closing this highly recommended book, I opened its pages at random and found a prayer dated June 27 that speaks to current needs, too, in the prayer “The miracle of many voices becoming one.”

Jesus Christ:

Refresh me by your Spirit.

Lead me into peace and understanding with others and help me experience the miracle of many voices becoming one in you.

Amen.

Yes! and amen. So be it in Jesus’ Name.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, Bible Reviewer, poetry reviewer, and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem and the Bible-based poetry book Outside Eden

Centering Prayers, paperback

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