Can You Stay Focused?

I doubt it. I left my comfort zone a long time ago. But I’m grateful that my book Rocking Like It’s All Intermezzo: 21st Century Psalm Responsorials will soon be available from your favorite sources, including Wipf and Stock and, of course, Amazon. More details later, when I have them.

I am thrilled with the beautiful Foreword by Sofia M. Starnes, and so grateful for the wonderful endorsements from Mary Ann Miller, Nathaniel Hansen, and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. I have felt the support of these generous, accomplished (and busy) poet-editor-scholars throughout the entire process.

Equally exciting has been taping the audiobook version of the book at Overit Studios in Albany, New York. I decided it was important to read the first and the last poems in my own voice, however quavery it sounds. Deborah Thorne Mazzone read Sofia Starnes’ wonderful Foreword and most of the poems. She was joined for four key God poems by Charles “Chip” Bradley. To be clear, the poems in God’s voice in the book version are italicized, but we needed a sonorous voice to differentiate the oracular voice in the audio version. I know; I’ve already been asked, “Does it have to be a male voice?” No, of course, it doesn't. Nevertheless, let’s say hello to the newest God in town, and he does happen to be a man.

There is much work for an author to do to promote her book, and I will be doing my best. But satisfaction comes more from writing than from book promotion. Sorry, Rocking! Fortunately, I am working on an exciting project (that will probably take me another ten years, says my inner critic). A series of acrostics based on the names of 20th Century religious figures or philosophers. Very work intensive, and probably not accessible or interesting to audiences who don’t already know these figures. (You can guess what part of me made that prediction.) I am researching figures in whom I’m interested, their work and their biographies, and daring to project the Eureka moment of their passing. Persona Death Poems, shall we say?

My thanks to Sarah Law, the editor of Amethyst Review, a journal of new writing engaging with the sacred, based in the UK, for publishing one of this series, Simone Weil.

How Is That Book Coming Along?

Funny, you should ask! Getting close to publication day! Rocking Like It’s All Intermezzo: 21st Century Psalm Responsorials. Resource Publications, 2019. So… I’m squeaking the publication of my first book into this decade, after all.

I’ve had my doubts. Despite a few encouragingly close calls to publish other manuscripts, this one is in a printing queue somewhere. Thanks to the concerted efforts of many people, some of whom I know, but most of whom I’ve never met, it’s happening within the month.

I had my first peek at the cover this week. Designed by Shannon Carter of Wipf and Stock. I’d been wondering what “rocking” image she would build on, and it’s a storm-tossed sea. Perhaps she took her inspiration “Paths” (Psalm 77. 19):

All of which is to say, Lord:

On these great waters of Yours,

how do I not drown?

Unless I hear otherwise, I’m going with that.

And even better, the incomparably-voiced Deborah T. Mazzone will be reading the poems for an audiobook, to be released simultaneously with the publication of Rocking as a paperback and ebook. She will add dramatic depth to what are now words on a page. I am very grateful for her willingness to do this—and excited to hear the finished product!

What Is a Prophet?

My first thought: Whatever they are, we could use a few now.

The word itself is derived from the Greek: pro (for) combined with phanai (speak), so presumably a person who speaks on behalf of another, with the authority, veracity and wisdom of the source, in times past, usually God.

My second thought: Ah, Walter Brueggeman’s Prophetic Imagination, all of us called to be prophets in the sense of resisting the values of our culture and re-envisioning communities in which Biblical values are the abiding norm.

How’s that working out for us? Hogwash is a Middle English derivative, its original meaning being food past its prime and of dubious nutritional value.

Yet every age, especially one as tumultuous as ours, has its prophets, probably going, as Jesus noticed, without honor in their hometowns, which, given the global age, means pretty much everywhere. Time will sort out the truest, although Jesus’ words are still an accurate touchstone. Certainly, Teresa of Avila remains a solid and enduring prophetic voice, notable both for her soul wisdom and her engagement with the world.

The Cresset: A Review of Literature, the Arts and Public Affairs published my poem, “Ode to 1577,” in its Easter 2019 issue. In reading and taking comfort in Teresa’s words, I was struck by the topsy-turviness of her times. Everything changing. Centrifugal forces ripping to shreds formerly-held verities. One researched bit led to another (thank you, Internet). And, I won’t further explain the poem, which is available here online. My thanks to poetry editor Marci Rae Johnson for choosing the poem and to editor Heather Grennan Gary for her support.

Can You Give It a Rest?

Yes, and no. But let’s listen to our man of the month, William Butler Yeats who is all over the Internet as saying, We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us. I will have to read more to find out where he said or wrote this, but I can say that I’m intrigued with the gist of the statement. Certainly not everything, but many things!

So, while in recent posts, I have been sharing my distress over what I regard as church hypocrisy- treachery - whatever (I won’t get going again), this is not the whole of my religious and spiritual experience. I have been writing Responsorials to the Psalms for a long time, as part of my prayer practice. Little by little, many of them (after a lot of non-prayerful editing!) have been printed in publications whose editors I am most grateful to. But it was always my hope that I could publish a collection of them. They make more sense, when they can be seen as a whole and can play off one another.

I finally have a publisher willing to put out a collection of them titled Rocking Like It’s All Intermezzo: 21st Century Psalm Responsorials. Resource Publications of Wipf and Stock. I have the contract and all the marketing questionnaires etc. etc. It is a daunting new step. But I am happy and, did I mention, a wee bit scared? Something inside of me will soon have a corresponding something outside.

Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad? Part II

And Old Women. Thank you, kindred spirit Yeats!

As I thought more about the Sean Reynold - Dobie Moser analysis of participant reaction to the ongoing church crisis, "How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?” which appeared online in America Magazine (see my April 9 blogpost), I realized that my poem, “Excommunicate,” published February 4, 2019 in TalkingWriting, describes the flight of the Absolute Doubters from a somewhat despairing can’t we see what’s going on vantage point?

While we are on the subject of “Excommunicate,” it contains an etymological leap that I didn’t address in the poem, or elsewhere. If you studied properly for your SATs, you know that the Latin word for wall is murus. Mun can only mean wall through the verb munio, to fortify or protect with a wall. As happens in every language, the root expanded with prefixes in Latin, with the result that English dictionaries take a short cut and use communis, meaning common as in sharing a wall, as the source for excommunicate. Whew! Believe it or not, I actually try to explain the convoluted historical evolution of some words in the etymological series of poems I’ve been writing. I bet you’ll believe this— it doesn’t work. When I reread the more accurate, easy to defend from a linguistic point of view poems, I get lost, think, what are you talking about? Worse, and why are you talking about that? So I cut to the chase with ‘excommunicate’ and have always hoped for an opportunity to explain. Done.

At least the poem is available online. “Apology” is not available, other than in the print version of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (2019). If I'm going to stand by the poem in its double Yeatsian madness, it is only right that I make the poem available to anyone who wants to read it. Almost done. (The formatting was a challenge.)

Beleaguered Church Hears the Call for Apology

Long history, that one. Greek, ye olde -log, word,

with apo-, away from. Think Socrates, charged

with not believing in the right gods. Fending off

the accusation, with a little help from his friends. 

Plato. A po LO gi a. How cool does that sound. 

Followed by centuries of let’s-call-them-erstwhile 

Christian apologists, defending the newly-right-God 

against any objections. Using evidence, hard and fast 

like they like, and a long line of each other. 

If you’re catching my drift, you’re noticing that word 

changing horse midstream more than once. Check

out Shakespeare, where good apologies started


to depend on regret, till now when apologizers and

apologists have fully parted ways. Although really,

don’t they still need each other? Our newly sainted

John Paul got on a roll. Apologies: Come one 

and all, you we burned at the stake, sacked with

our Crusades, sold into slavery, stole with legislation,


converted, persecuted, ignored when you needed

us most. We’re sorry. Mistakes have been made.

Are we missing anyone? Oh, them. Of course.

Papal apologies come to town regularly on their 

honking-big camels, struggling for breath through gagging 

halters, nose pegs, buckling under saddles, weighted 


down with bags of gold and Renaissance art. Not as 

much as you might think. The apologists are there to help 

them pass through the eye of an excruciating needle.



Is That You Spewing Invective?



If you are referring to the publication of “Beleaguered Church Hears the Call for Apology” in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, then unfortunately, yes, that is my poem. I never thought I would be a voice of outrage in and toward an institution that I have loved my whole life and from which I have gained so much, the Catholic Church. But so it is. This poem is not the only one I’ve published lately which looks, shall we say, askance at the church, but it is the best. 



America Magazine published an insightful article online, April 8, 2019, “How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?” Its authors, Sean Reynolds and Dobie Moser, cofounders of Mustard Seed Consultants, facilitate group workshops about the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. They use the work of George Wilson S.J. to examine levels of doubt among the participants. I regretfully see that I fall into the category of Ethical Doubt, which is one remove from Absolute Doubt, people for whom the Church has proven permanently and deeply corrupt and basically irrelevant. This article helped me identify and categorize my own intensity, but also it is helping me understand why I get so annoyed with conversations that try to deal with the issue on the level of behavioral or procedural fixes. I look around at my Catholic kinspeople and wonder, What are we thinking? Can this possibly be okay with us?



We need women priests, married priests— yes, but we need more than that. We need institutional reform, apologies, restitution—yes, but still more. And deeper. We need metanoia, a complete transformation. We need prayer, humility, corporate and individual penance. A whole new presence in the world. We need God. 



Back to the poem: I’m grateful to Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (2019) editor Mary Ann Miller for choosing to publish this poem in a venue for readers and writers interested in Catholic poetry and, presumably, Catholicism. For whatever reason, I have felt morally obligated to get into print these jeremiads. I hope I’m done.

Anything Else?

Yes, Talking Writing will publish another from the etymology-based series for the Women and Faith issue, “Ellipses.” At its core, another climate change poem.

For those of us who believe the dire warnings of scientists and who agonize over ongoing weather disasters, this is a surreal period. The Nero-fiddled- while-Rome-burned syndrome. It is especially difficult for scientists involved in climate research, who are supposed to remain objective and emotionally detached, yet they, more than anyone, understand the weighty import of their research results. A couple years ago, Esquire published an article about the existential angst experienced by climate scientists with the provocative title, “When the End of Civilization Is Your Day Job.”

Throughout this period, the number of climate change deniers mysteriously grows. Researchers have uncovered a scary paradox: that the more definitive the scientific research, the less concerned the public in most Western countries become. How can this be? I submit that this denial then contributes to the feelings of powerlessness and advancing doom that non-deniers experience, and so the vicious cycle proceeds.

Eco-anxiety, pretty much as the word suggests, an anxiety disorder focused on climate issues, is a recently recognized psychological disorder. A field of professionals is emerging to help— eco-therapists who work with clients trying to restore a lost connection with the earth and its systems. In my June 1, 2016 post, I wrote about a climate poem I had written that veered on the sentimental, “Go Ahead.” That poem will soon be reprinted in an anthology of poems, all of which reinforce the value of that essential connection.

I don’t know if I could write that poem today. “Ellipses” is darker and resonates more deeply with me at the moment.

Here is the backstory. I attended a panel discussion which included Clark Strand just prior to the publication of his book, Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age (2015). I found him so insightful. He opened up how holy the darkness can be and how terrible its loss has been in our light-obsessed world. But that’s not what made me order his book. He also talked about a Mary figure who visited him, analogous to Black Madonna who has always fascinated me, and a prayer she communicated to him. Although reluctant, he said he’d share the prayer at the conclusion of the panel. When the time came to read it, he refused. Seemed it was too sacred and/or too personal to be read at this gathering of very lovely, open-minded people.

Aha! This was a prayer I wanted to know about. I ordered his book, read the prayer, and let me hide behind a cliché: my hair stood on end. I copied the prayer and say it most mornings. And if this Mary has ever met Mother Earth, what shall we say? They are of one mind about climate change. Like the old commercial said, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Words from this prayer flit in and out of my mind frequently. Ellipses is one such word, ellipses, ellipses, and then came the rest of the poem.

Have You Moved On?

In a way, yes. As I previously mentioned, the widespread and worsening political, economic and environmental realities have rendered me disgusted, heartsick, mute and overcome with powerlessness. I’m still dealing with the powerlessness, but the muteness has abated. While I’m more heartsick than anything else, disgust is easier to articulate.

The best antidote to powerlessness, which dehumanizes and creates exponentially more problems, is positive action. Developing and using whatever talents you have. Doing something and sharing it. Yes, I’m getting all preachy here, because the main person I’m trying to convince is myself. Writing matters. I can readily believe that writing helps the writer herself. When I’m not writing, I feel even more unmoored. But it is harder to believe that it helps the world, that the product has use beyond the process. Who is going to read yet another poem, or care? But I stick with my two-pronged program, whenever possible: do the work and share it.

Which leads me to “Excommunicate,” my soon-to-be-published poem online at Talking Writing, as part of their series on Writing and Faith. According to the definition provided at Wikipedia, excommunication is “an institutional act of religious censure used to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a religious community or to restrict certain rights within it, in particular receiving of the sacraments.”

Yes, excommunication still happens today in the Catholic Church, and if my views were to be closely examined, I, an entirely observant cradle Catholic, would be in danger of being excommunicated. And, believe it or not, I would care deeply. But most people would not care; in fact, the Church tribunal’s decision arriving in their mailbox would garner as little interest as a fundraising solicitation or a piece of junk mail. (This juxtaposition fuels the poem, another from the etymology-based series.)

Things change, with time and patience. (How many years have I been saying that?)

I read, with pleasure, of this week’s canonization of El Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was gunned down in 1980 for his solidarity with the poor, while saying Mass. It reminded me of a September day in 1998 when I attended a talk by the former Jesuit Marxist Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal and thought any vestige of Liberation Theology was dead. And now we have Saint Óscar Romero. (Note: Atlantic has made available online Paul Elie’s excellent piece, What Óscar Romero’s Canonization Says About Pope Francis. Worth finding and reading.)

Change is always possible.

It also reminded me that theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson retired this past spring from her teaching position at Fordham University. I attended a talk she gave shortly after the publication of She Who Is, well before the time in 2011 when the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine discovered her book The Quest for the Living God (2007) strayed too far from traditional Catholic teaching. Fortunately, like Teilhard de Chardin, another of my heroes, she was able to allay their suspicions.

Change can be swift or painfully incremental.

Did I mention that Pope Paul VI, author of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the church’s opposition to the use of artificial birth control, was canonized on the same day as Saint Óscar Romero?

Are You Enjoying Spring?

You know it. Especially when the days fill with the flowers of my youth. Not the gasping-against-the-elements little bulb tulips that the hungry deer are waiting for. I like the wild, weedier, more indigenous flowers that blossom maybe from the selfsame plants of my youth, or their offspring. And are fragrant in a way that is missing in so many otherwise beautiful gardens. 

It’s the smells I like. Walking along and unawares, them surprising you. Slightly past now, the season of lilies of the valley, closely followed by lilacs, both of which formed the core of my May Mary bouquets. How pleased I’d be to plunk a bunch of them in front of the ceramic statue in my bedroom. Then the peonies, which I can never see or smell without remembering the ants crawling in and out of the blossoms around my grandmother’s foundation. And my grandmother. Next come the wild bridal wreath spirea…and their sweet, sweet breath.

Which will soon be gone. Because much as I love flowers, it’s their transitoriness that haunts me. Not exactly an original thought, this over-used trope in English poetry, and probably most other poetic traditions. The Bible got there first. Think of the Psalmist singing, the life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more (Psalm 103. 15-16). The brief bloom time of the most long-lived flower is, without a doubt, the perfect metaphor for any human life.

So when your dear, dear friend brings you a flowering plant on the same day she is sharing dire medical news, you know this is the season of watching and waiting. You don’t know how it will end, either her life or the necessary poem whose lines are thrumming in your head for months, until the day of her funeral. When saying goodbye, the assembled mourners take their leave and a flower to remember her by. Then you know, and it is not Thy will be done, o Lord

The resulting poem, “When Blooms Are Brief, and Friends, One Fewer,” has been published in the recent (2018) issue of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry. After it was accepted, I asked the editor, Mary Ann Miller, if she thought the poem would be stronger if we removed the last stanza, which embodied the rookie last stanza error, hammering home the point of the poem in one loud summary statement. Yes, she agreed, let’s end on an image. So we did, and the poem is the better for it.

But I still want to shout out the last stanza for Lisa, and for everyone in my life, and everyone in your life, who has died too young.

To stand up on behalf
of the living and dead, bawl no, 
neit, não, nein, yo no tengo. No!

Notice Anything Different?

Of course, you do! My new, vastly improved website. 

I needed a change. The heart-breaking, destabilizing political and economic realities of the moment have robbed words (and that exquisite repository of words, poetry) of their previously soothing and seductive power. Why, my friend asked yesterday. I’m not sure, but it’s something like the entitled should hold their piece for the time being. They should read, march, pray, contribute—whatever they can do in the public arena. But their personal angsts and oh-so-precious insights—well, save them for another day.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the mind and computer-twitchy fingers. Enter a renewed interest in photography. I have always taken too many photographs. You’ll miss the experience, I’ve been told, but I actually see a scene better through a camera. It galvanizes my focus, and the photos themselves allow me to return to at least some version of the moment over and over again. 

So, for the time being, I’m in the a picture is worth a thousand words camp. 

So far, so good. Photography allows me to bear witness to more nuance and profundity than words can. At least, for the moment. The banner photo on the website is a macro shot with my new Olympus camera, out an airplane window. Despite the facetious title at my Redbubble shop, “Bubble Off Center,” I really think, wow, a Willy Blake moment, If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. Or maybe, to see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.

That’s the profundity bit. Now, here’s a nuance story. My photo "'Pray for Our Troops' Reminder on a California Roadway” was just a Top Ten Challenge Finalist in the United States Monthly Theme contest. Whatever my views on war, I am grateful for the opportunity to express loyalty, respect and gratitude to the men and women who serve our country in this capacity. 

My previous website template didn’t have a sidebar option or any easy way to direct visitors to the photography work. I reached out to Julienne Des Jardins, a Square Space Circle member, and she patiently ferreted out my wish list, found the appropriate template, transferred earlier material, and set up new links. Thank you, Julienne, thank you!!

Do you like leggings?

Yes, I do.

Do you wear leggings?

No, I don’t. (to be sing-songy sung)

Anyhow, I wish I did wear leggings because they are fun to design over at Redbubble where I have recently set up shop under the name of Fortuitous Photos. Why that name, you might ask, and I’d answer that Lucky Shot was gone.

For years, I’ve used my photos to design notecards, pillows, cutting boards, various utilitarian products as gifts for family and friends. Generally, these one-of-a-kind items are expensive and totally lacking in quality control, not to mention frequently weird. When I visit my daughter, I have to wonder why she has a cutting board from her Hawaiian vacation consisting of a half inch of a beach scene and the rest of cloudless blue sky or a serving tray featuring the enormous head of a giraffe with a disgustingly protruding tongue, or a garish peacock feather pillow. What was I thinking? She has been more victimized than gifted by some of my creations.

Now, however, the whole world can partake of these moments in time. I can put the images “out there,” and they will live or die, according to their desirability. Great freedom in that. However, while feeling no responsibility for the images themselves (because on the site, the customer is choosing them), I do feel the heavy burden of making sure that the product is of good quality. That means I’m making a lot of Redbubble purchases myself and tweaking accordingly, that is, removing products that don’t work. I suspect I will be my own best customer.

The impetus to go public with my photos was provided by my 21-year old grandson, immortalized in the “One Blazing Glance” song cycle. Here’s what happened: My most recent holiday gift was Dump Trump memorabilia (cups and tote bags) from the 2017 Women’s March in Albany. My grandson suggested that if I wanted wider dissemination of this photo (which I was indicating I did), I should try marketing them on the internet.

 I did a lot of research and decided to start with Redbubble, under the name, as above, Fortuitous Photo. The images I’ve added to the site are trending away from the brash and weird toward delicate florals. I expect I will be adding and subtracting images to the site frequently because it is so much fun and my taste is rapidly evolving. I may even get brave enough to someday wear one of my wearables— if not leggings, one of my divinely inspired orchid chiffon tank tops.

In the meantime, if you are in the market for an amazing Dump Trump tote bag ($22, shipping included), contact me at fortuitousphoto@gmail.com. Quantities limited.

Do You Speak with One Voice?

Usually.

Sometimes.

Depends.

Voice is hard to describe, but a poem can rise or fall because of it. Flying without a net here, but let me try to expand on the topic. Voice is not synonymous with the poet; it is more the mask she or he assumes to speak the poem. The Latin word is persona for mask, and the persona of a poem needs to work always in service of and in tandem with other elements of the poem. 

How about a cooking analogy?  What can I liken to voice? Salt? Without it, the poem and comparable dish might be insipid. Too much salt, and what else you might taste or hear in the dish/poem is lost, destroyed, overwhelmed. You need just the right amount for any given recipe to achieve a pleasing result. So it is with poetry. 

Of course, not all poems are as voice-driven as others. You might even need a series of poems for the voice to become obvious and effective. Or, an entire oeuvre, if you’re actually a successful poet, with a consistent body of work. And reading tastes vary, as an individual’s tolerance for salt does. I personally like salty, voice-heavy poems. And memoirs and first-person novels.

Probably because I’ve kept journals and diaries most of my life, I’m comfortable with first person riffs. The voice that I adopt in these blog entries is some hybrid amalgam of the way I talk and think, neither one nor the other. It is a private persona, not my public one. 

Poetry is obviously more difficult, but I’ve had one delightful experience— a voice that worked, one I understood, but didn’t identify with, a voice that demanded to be locked down into a particular form (prose poem) and to build with clichés, euphemisms, hyperbole, contrast, irony. She knew her themes equally well. She knew that the only response to life’s vicissitudes is, as she does, to “put the egg on the mantle and dance.”

That voice is gone, but I remember her fondly. When she first arrived, I was embarrassed to share her without telling my writing friends, “she’s not me.” I think I’ve become more her, as time has gone on, but she has said all she wanted to. I have tried to honor her two-year sojourn with me by publishing the poems that resulted. With the recent publication of five of them in Vine Leaves Literary Journal: a collection of vignettes from across the globe, edited by Jessica Bell (Melbourne, Australia, 2017), most of them have seen the light of day. I’ve mentioned them in this blog, as they were published, but those days are officially over. I have one more that I’m especially fond of, and a couple more that I don’t fully identify with, or endorse. And then, the big question—should I try (or try harder) to publish them as a collection? 

Read Any Good Books Lately?

As a matter of fact, I have: Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Still Pilgrim: Poems (Paraclete Press, 2017), for one.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know Angela and think the world of her, as a person and as a Catholic artist-intellectual. I’ve also read (and frequently reread) everything that I’m aware she has written. But I hope that doesn't preclude my being honest about her work, so let me say boldly that  Still Pilgrim, a 58-sonnet sequence, is her best work yet. I wrote a review which was just published in Adanna, Issue 7, 2017. Some excerpts from the review provide a good summary:

    In this collection, O’Donnell takes up the challenge of probing the tensions and insights in the oxymoronic persona of a “still pilgrim,” using the stuff of her own life…
    Unlike the traditional Pilgrim’s Progress, O’Donnell’s contemporary pilgrim need not advance under the rubric of steady improvement, yet develops in her own way from one section to the next. Rather than negotiating a larger universality as the allegorical hero Christian does, this pilgrim, clothed in particulars, manages the same. Many of O’Donnell’s poems play off Catholic-Christian references, as well as familiarity with literary figures, Keats, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Frost and, of course, Flannery. To enjoy the subtleties, the poignancy and even the humor of this book, readers need to share the pillars of O’Donnell’s spiritual-cultural-intellectual world, but not her dogma. 

Still Pilgrim: Poems
By Angela Alaimo O'Donnell

I reviewed another book by the well-known Irish-Catholic poet Micheal O’Siadhail, One Crimson Thread (Bloodaxe Books, 2015) for the first issue of Presence: Journal of Catholic Poetry. It very honestly chronicled the last year or so in the life of Brid, his wife of 44 years. My review provides, once again, a summary:

The book opens, as all good books do, in medias res. While Bríd has suffered from PD (Parkinson’s Disease) for years, her husband admits that something worse has now intruded, “I stammer it: Dementia.” This, the result of all his prayers? “I ask and ask but do I ask in vain? / Have I received a stone instead of bread.” He interprets this as the true separation, “Unravelling our long-ravelled crimson thread. / My Bríd have you begun to take your leave?” Thus, in the first poem, O’Siadhail, a Catholic, sets up what is to follow: the possible severing even in life of their sacramental oneness, the gradual leave-taking necessitated by death. God is part of the equation, but God is not part of the separation. 

One Crimson Thread, like Still Pilgrim, consists entirely of sonnets. Maybe it is a self-selected group, but it seems to me that a lot of Catholic poetry is formal. Why, I always wonder. When I asked a friend’s opinion, she speculated that a sense of order, akin to the medieval great chain of being, still prevailed as part of our faith.  If so, the sonnets being written today have quite a challenge. It is not obvious in this blog, but I’m generally not a fan of sonnets. Or maybe I am and don’t realize it. Reading the work of these two poets, who fill formal vessels with longing and disorder as only sonnet masters can do, I certainly become a fan.

 

Have You Written Any Other Songs?

Now that you mention it, I have. “Sweet Baby Grand” and “Touch Dirt,” as detailed in the June 4, 2017 blog, were both collaborations with my singer-songwriter-instrumentalist brother Phil Casey. Both songs are available for download at several sites, including Amazon, Spotify, and iHeart radio. 

But a couple years ago, I was thrilled to discover that one of my poems, a straight-out lyric, was set to music in a song cycle with parts for soprano, flute, viola, harp and marimba. It has been performed in Boston, Glasgow, and elsewhere. 

Here is how that came about: A while ago, I had written “On Learning That My Daughter Was Pregnant,” in the aftermath of that startlingly wonderful event. I’m talking before the turn of this century! The poem appeared in the lovely Carquinez Poetry Review, which ceased publication in 2006, but in the meantime, was chosen by Beth Denisch, a contemporary composer at Berklee College of Music in Boston for use in her 17-poem lifecycle of women composition, One Blazing Glance. The title of the entire piece was taken from a line in my poem.

In addition to the thrill that my first grandson’s entry into the world was so celebrated, I found it especially meaningful to have written a lyric that called out to be sung and performed. As the name implies, in the ancient Greek tradition, a lyric poem was one intended to be accompanied by the lyre. 

And speaking of unusual stringed instruments, I collaborated with Phil on another song, "Double Luck," which is not yet available for download anywhere.

Demo Song on you tube "Cross Picking Demonstration on 3 string cigar box guitar.”

Demo Song on you tube "Cross Picking Demonstration on 3 string cigar box guitar.”

It is awaiting companion songs on a second album. However, if you are interested in listening to it, he sings and plays it as the demo song on his you tube video, “Cross Picking Demonstration on 3 string cigar box guitar.”

So, yes, I have written a few songs, very few, but their current whereabouts I’ve gathered into one spot, the Songs page on the drop-down menu. Songs are cool; they get sung again and again.

Do You Like Occasional Poetry?

Occasionally. Especially if it’s occasioned by an event of personal importance. And especially if it is set to music by my singer-songwriter-performer-master of guitar, mandolin, ukulele, harmonica, singing-strumming brother, Phil Casey. Also of Scuppernongaree fame. 

In 2014, our father’s life was coming to a close. On his last cogent weekend, my daughter was flying to Florida for a last goodbye when she got another long-awaited phone call. She had an invitation to meet with a birth mother to discuss adoption. What to do? No contest. My daughter cancelled her flight to visit her grandfather and met with the birth mother. As my father said, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. "

A time of great intensity, when the boundaries of the beyond seemed to lift. Tears and joy, no longer at odds. I wrote what I hoped would be a song to celebrate the upcoming birth of our new granddaughter, and my brother obliged by putting to music and performing what I think is one of the most beautiful songs ever written! An act of generosity for which I am profoundly grateful. 

“Sweet Baby Grand” became available as an MP3 download on Amazon today, our father’s birthday, link here and lyrics below. Another occasion, to note! It is part of his new album, The Tidewater Fishing Report, self-produced and performed, conceived and created. Many of the songs are rooted in local Virginia history where he and his family now live. Fun, fun, fun. I also wrote the lyrics, with some tweaking by Phil, for “Touch Dirt,” but at least, if you’re reading this, sample “Sweet Baby Grand.” 


SWEET BABY GRAND

By the grace, grace, grace of God
Our family’s turnin’ round and right   
Oh, Lord, she’s birthin’ in the cool twilight
And more than her delivery is surely at hand
Our baby, sweet baby grand  (repeat at end)

On Sunday, we’re soaring ever so high
On Monday, we flow to th’ sound of her cry
On Tuesday, her smile’s midsummer’s night
Come Wednesday, no doubt, our princess delight

CHORUS

By Thursday, high noon on mountain tops
We watch when she dances, spins, and then stops
Whoever saw coming, this amazin’ surprise  
 A balm for our hearts, a feast for our eyes.

CHORUS

Come Friday, we’re worried, a shadow falls
Out and about, will she come when we call?
There’s valleys and chasms and trouble out there.
Be safe, cherished girl-child, always our prayer.

CHORUS

On Saturday, what if she seems all grown,
We belong to each other, perm(a)nent loan.
Sweet baby’s remakin’ our world each day.  
Our sunshine and starlight, come what may

CHORUS

                    Maryanne Hannan c 2014

Sweet Baby Grand
Good Time Tunes Va

Noticed Any Random Acts of Kindness Lately?


Back in the ‘80s, when AIDS was a whispered mystery in my part of the world, my aunt had “gentlemen friend” neighbors. One of them, we knew, was very sick. The other one dutifully walked their dog and often stopped to chat with my aunt. She noticed that he wore a suit and tie to walk the dog, even on the weekends. He explained that he dressed up every day for his friend, who found solace in the sight and probably in the spirit which underlay the effort. 

Hearing the story from my aunt, I was moved by the kindness and dignity of the gesture. When all hope is gone, to have the fortitude to continue tending to the smallest detail— heart-breaking and heart-warming. I wrote a poem about it at the time, and when many years later, I saw a call for poems about kindness, I submitted that poem. “Heroics” won Honorable Mention and has been published in the anthology, The Best of Kindness 2017, Jan & Kevin Keough, Editors, Origami Poems Project. Mary Ann Mayer judged.

In his 2015 collection of biographical essays and commentary, The Road to Character, David Brooks calls for widespread moral renewal. Anybody hear Plutarch, writing his Parallel Lives at the beginning of the 2nd Century A.D., snicker: “Good luck with that!” Anyhow, Brooks uses Google Books Ngram Viewer (which I had never heard of before, but check it out. It searches and measures the usage of any word of your choosing over the course of decades). Accordingly, Brooks notes a big increase in the vocabulary of business, economics and personal “I” words and a decrease in the language of morality. We are not seeing bravery, gratitude, humbleness, and you guessed it, kindness, as much as we used to. 

Which makes Jan and Kevin’s efforts to publish this anthology all the more heroic! And makes the likelihood I will find a market for my etymology poem, with the unimaginative title “Kindness,” any time soon!

Who Said “Poetry Is about Grief?"

Probably half of all initiates who’ve taken up the poetic pen, but today we’ll give the credit to Robert Frost, who reportedly said in 1962, “poetry is about grief, and politics is about grievance.” Have the twain now met?, I’d like to ask him. But seriously, there is great satisfaction in a poem that takes raw grief and remakes it, however sausage-factory-like it is behind the scenes.

This past summer, a very dear friend passed away. Six months prior to that, we spent the day together, discussing her decision to continue chemotherapy, but to refuse a probably necessary stem cell transplant. She noticed a handwritten sign on my desk, “If justice be the law of the universe, Lord, I pray for mercy” and loved it. We shared an affinity for the quirky, and this prayer of snarky faithfulness, which I’d written in a moment of contained fury, seemed to resonate for her, in her precarious health situation. I wrote out another copy for her, on the spot, and a flicker of her future might have passed between us.  

She appears only glancingly in “Revelation.” How many times can I rail directly at loss? But she is at the heart of it, she who died at 61, still in her prime. I’m happy to say that this poem concluding with “our prayer” has just been published in The Windhover 21.1, 2017. “Revelation” affirms my belief, that no matter what happens in poetry, politics, in life itself, that Love is at the heart of all creation. 

I am grateful, once again, to Nate Hansen, editor of The Windhover, for choosing to publish this poem and for placing it between Paul Willis’ and Richard Spilman’s excellent poems, in meaningful conversation. That’s what good editors do, I guess, and as I’ve already written in this blog, Nate is doing great work. 

Privately, reading the poem again, I say, “This one’s for you, April! May you live always in the eternal heart of Love.”

Why Do You Need Another Photo of Yourself?

Do you mean that the one currently on my website is fine, even flattering, since both my hair and mood were peaking that day? Yes, but as you know, I don’t really identify with that image.

I need a photo that is more real, truer to the me that might show up if we were discussing the state of the world, or something close to my heart, poetry. Or even, let’s say Catholic poetry, as might be found in the upcoming issue of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, edited by Mary Ann Miller, Ph.D., of Caldwell University, New Jersey. The first issue, many months in the making, promises to deliver a jolt of highly seasoned work.

In recent news, Mary Ann has asked me to join Presence as an Associate Editor. Hence, the request for the soon-to-be-posted-on-their-website photo. Of far greater urgency than this symbolic photo, though, is my desire to contribute to the journal in whatever way I can. And also to articulate my sense of the journal’s mission, if that’s not too programmatic a word for a necessarily open-ended endeavor.

I have long lamented the lack of a national journal specifically and solely dedicated to Catholic poetry. Catholic poets do not know where to find each other. Readers hungering for poetry by Catholic poets do not know where to look (probably also true for other art forms. Not just poetry). 

This is not identity politics; it’s about fostering artistic growth and integrity within a cultural community. With no easily accessed circle of writers and readers, we can’t flourish. We stagnate. We feel unnecessarily isolated. Stuck. Unable to move forward. Not sure where forward is.

To proclaim oneself a journal of Catholic poetry strikes me as a brave. Especially when the goal is not to exclude other voices, as Presence’s mission statement on the website makes clear. It’s more about clearing a space where specifically Catholic references can be understood and appreciated without footnotes, where the rich intellectual history of the Catholic Church is still relevant. Where the invisible, when approached, is accessed through the visible. I’m tempted to say “made manifest,” but that’s gonna have to be up to the individual poets.

It goes without saying that the poetry itself has to be good, better than good; it has to be excellent. Be it a pantoum of the Nicene Creed, no matter how Catholic, if it doesn’t work as a poem, let it go elsewhere to seek publication. In fact, the Catholicity of a poem is not always a plus. A poem, by definition, uses language, words, holy, beautiful words. By which, I don’t mean lofty words, but right ones and oh so! exciting when they are right. And a good poem has to be grounded in something real, whole-life struggles and glories, not theory or intellectual history. 

I have faith that a journal, such as Presence with its clearly identified focus, can have a big impact. As above, it creates community, the benefits of which can seep out into the wider Church community and maybe even society, as a whole. In an earlier conversation with Mary Ann, I said I hoped to see a prophetic voice emerge. Not something we can go out and solicit, we decided. But nevertheless one that we aspire to recognize when it comes our way.

What Does It Mean When My Crowd Is Bigger than Yours?

Obviously, that I am a better, more deserving person than you. Or maybe that, unbeknownst to myself,  I am a narcissist, which, using a standard definition, means I partake of an “inflated sense of (my) own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others.” Because of my “fragile self esteem,” I am likely to wreak terrible, self-aggrandizing havoc everywhere I go. 

Several years ago, in my brief, but exciting academic life, I published an article in Psychoanalytic Review, “A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Ovid’s Myth of Narcissus and Echo” (Winter 1992). I had no practical  knowledge of or investment in narcissistic personality disorders per se, but I felt strongly that Narcissus got a bad rap and that Freud was to blame.  I wrote a paper detailing an aetiology of the disorder based on a correct reading of the Narcissus - Echo encounter. Which I won’t get into here, but in effect, it excused Narcissus from his behavior, or at least called for another look at the possible roots of the disorder. 

I never expected the paper to be other than a curiosity. It wasn’t based on case studies or even a strong sense that narcissism was misunderstood, misdiagnosed or inappropriately treated. It was all about Freud playing fast and loose with Ovid! Misappropriating myths. Cheap tags. Anyhow, I was not at all surprised that the paper plunged into the churning moil of everybody else’s pet ideas. 

Until, as happens with churning moils, it reappeared recently. And here’s where I have to ‘fess up to my own card-carrying narcissism. My habit of googling myself, that is. The more specific the search, the better the results.

And what do you know? Me and Narcissism—it’s a go. 

The Societá amici del pensiero Sigmund Freud (The Society of Friends of the Theories of Sigmund Freud, I assume) held a three-day conference, December 2014, in Urbino, Italy (where was I when they needed me???) to discuss NARCISSUS BETWEEN MYTH AND PSYCHOPATHOLOGY - THE FREUDIAN CORRECTION. And, a substantial section of my paper was offered in the Introduction. I’m not kidding. Check it out yourself.

Yup. Another imagine my surprise experience. Which fed into another of my cherished mantras—just do the work, get it out somewhere, somehow. Trust in time. Believe your efforts will bear fruit, or they won’t, and either outcome is fine.  Meaning also, don’t be googling yourself. Let it go… Let everything go. 


Postscript: Knowing what I know now—and even what I knew then, I would never try my tiny hand at rehabilitating narcissistic personality disorder. It's a ticking time…