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 Women 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…

 

How Was Christmas?

Wonderful, full of wonder. Wondered and full. My favorite time of year, even though all that fullness and wondering do get in the way of writing. But something writing-wonderful did happen, some personal righting. 

Probably my best poem, or my most prestigious publication, or the poem most publically available, or whatever metric I would use, celebrates my first husband: “To My Husband, Who 33 Years Ago Died at the Age of 33.” Published in print Rattle #41, Fall 2013, it became available on the Rattle site, with audio, on March 25, 2014, which was ironically the 32nd anniversary of my wedding to my second husband. 

Potentially awkward, unless you have a very understanding husband or a husband who isn’t big into poetry. Fortunately, my husband qualifies on both counts, although he graciously read and congratulated me on a publication which meant so much to me. The poem, as the title indicated, was written in one blessed burst, on the day in question, while I was grappling with the failure of memory to keep anyone, no matter how deeply loved, alive. The dead keep dying. 

The transition from committed-to-death-and-the-past widow to okay-I’ll-try-and-move-on was not an easy one for me. In fact, I don’t think I could ever have moved out of my determined exile from life, were it not for the dazzling light my current husband shone on it. And so I opened up to a wonderful new life. And the drama of that time, with our joint decision to throw our lots together, is etched deeply in my core. 

Of course, falling in love again might sound like the stuff of poetry, but trust me—it’s not. Unlike loss, death, loneliness, the failure of memory, all of which have an eager readership. But I tried. Over and over, trying to catch the magic of a time, when clearly, you had to be there to understand how miraculous it all was.

This Christmas, success. I was able to give my husband a copy of the beautiful Australian journal, Rabbit 19: a journal of non-fiction poetry, Prose Poem issue, containing the publication of my poem, “Romance by Number.” I am so grateful to have balance somewhat restored. 

With this poem’s publication or maybe even more compelling, as a result of the changed political landscape, I feel my long foray into personal poetry is ending. I/we’ve got to find our way into other arenas. Or not. Stay tuned.

 

Are the Old Ways Passing?

In many ways, yes. Granted, the problems (might or will- take your pick) always be with us, to paraphrase Jesus, in John’s Gospel. Perennial problems of freedom, justice, equality. Over the centuries, individual cultures approach these universal biggies in the language and images of their particular time and place. Not to belabor the obvious, but cultures change, and ours has changed mightily in my lifetime. 

As I’ve said here previously, I think in categories I learned decades ago, while my mind was eager and impressionable. These categories stuck because they made sense to me at the time (they were certainly better than anything else I’d heard) and because in subsequent reading, I sought out writers who think using similar terminology. A rarer and rarer breed. 

I’m not complaining. Really. If I casually inject a classical allusion into a poem, especially one which, to my mind, works on multiple levels, I must be willing to live without the readers who feel shut out of that poem. It’s a big world with lots of readers and lots of writers. Fine. The only lesson to be drawn is that with the erosion of mythological, historical, Western Civ-type allusions and their ability to blast open huge philosophical and age-old moral quandaries, political poetry has lost a major tool.

Preaching over. Now, a what-on-earth-are-you-talking-about example. My gratitude to Lori Desrosiers, editor of Naugatuck River Review, for recently publishing “Take with a Grain of Salt— cum grano salis.” Lori does an outstanding job curating narrative poems, many of which begin in a moment, of equal narratable and surreal potential. 

For example, on a recent visit, my dear sister-in-law Kathy (wife of Phil Casey of Scuppernongaree fame—Like them on Facebook) asked a simple-on-the-face-of-it question, where did I keep my salt. Since the dedicated salt cellar location in my kitchen had not yet been established, this question set the universe spinning. On a bad day, I’d berate myself, “What kind of an idiot doesn’t know where her salt belongs?” On a good day, I’d quickly pronounce, “Here,” and point to any old vacant spot. But on a truly excellent day, I’d take a mental sidetrip and realize how incredibly interesting and multi-layered a question that was—and how telling that yet another domestic event led to questioning morality in the public sphere. 

Take with a Grain of Salt
    cum grano salis

After frying her morning egg
the Turkish way—rolled cigar-like,
my sister-in-law cleans my counter,

Where do you keep your salt? 
Oh, I answer, stick it anywhere.
My mother kept her salt

next to the cinnamon she’d mix
with sugar for special-day toast,
far in front of the summer salad

paprika. My grandmother kept
hers on the counter, next to the gas
stove where she browned Sunday’s 

pot roast. I don’t know if my great-
grandmother had a special place for salt, 
but according to all accounts, 

she herself was salt of the earth. 
I have one daughter whose salt
never wanders and another whose

salt floats free.  Women in our family
are worth their salt in the kitchen. 
Roman soldiers were paid in salt

from which we get salary, necessary
perks and lucre. None of the above for
Cincinnatus. Our George Washington 

thinks that’s cool. Back to the farm after war. 
No, to power, to dictatorship. No to salt, 
not even to rub in an enemy’s wounds. 

 

Is Everything Blear, Smear and Toil?

No. “The Importance of Feeling Special” appeared on the *82, issue 4.3 earlier this month. One of my favorites from the prose poem series, so it is gratifying to see it out there. Star 82, or as above *82, edited by Alisa Golden, is available online and in a print edition. The website is clean and attractive. Altogether satisfying. 

Contributors can purchase a print version of the issue at a reduced rate. Of course, I missed the window of opportunity in which to exercise this option, so needed to order it from Amazon like a non-special person. No problem. I’m interested in these proliferating models of publication. *82 is published by Create Space, an on-demand publishing platform affiliated with Amazon. From the looks of the online version, the publication contains quite a bit of visual art, so I look forward to seeing the print version.

Weirdly enough, the graphics on the site are similar to the Hopkins cover on the August 28 blog. Which emboldens me to ask the question posed in this last set of blogs: Is this a Catholic poem, despite its wacky persona and lack of theological references? Well, it was written by a cradle Catholic, one who was educated in Catholic schools at a time when the nuts and bolts of the faith were minutely examined, in a way that I doubt happens much today. If the truth be told, I’d have to have a lobotomy to excise my Catholicness. Am I then writing ipso facto Catholic poems? By Dana Goia’s definition, in The Catholic Writer Today (see August 15 blog), I am. One of his starting points: “Surprisingly little Catholic imaginative literature is explicitly religious… What makes the writing Catholic is that the treatment of these subjects is permeated with a particular worldview.” 

Shouldn’t any classically trained Catholic, worth his or her salt, be able to identify Catholic themes in almost any piece of literature? Because aren’t these universal human struggles? So, for an easy bit of cherry-theme-picking, I see in “The Importance of Feeling Special” the longing for intimacy and validation (Isaiah’s God who calls us by name) and those analogically rain-challenged sacramental azaleas. And as women’s humor, however formulated, must be based on inner confidence, rather than self-deprecation, so Catholic writing is challenged to walk a similarly thin line between fullness and lack.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Mary Ann Miller, editor of a new independent journal, Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, affiliated with the English Department at Caldwell University, New Jersey, will soon find out. It is the only publication, of which I’m aware, exclusively devoted to Catholic poetry. 

According to the website, the idea for Presence emerged at a panel discussion at the 2015 Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination conference, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at UCLA. Conference participants, Dana Goia, Paul Mariani and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, join Susanne Paola Antonetta, William Baer, Paul Contino, and Judith Valente to form an amazing board of advisors. 

Presence opened to submissions on September 1. According to the mission statement, the journal is interested in work “of artistic merit,” “informed by the Catholic faith,” with the goal of eventually fostering “a community of writers who recognize Catholicism as fertile ground for the flourishing of contemporary poetry.” I am thrilled. And wish everyone connected with this new venture abundant grace and blessings.

Because they, we need it. Imagination. Catholic Literary Imagination. 

I went to Mass this morning, a Wednesday. What was the first reading, if not the Corinthians passage suggesting, “brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.” I know we can do a song and dance routine to force this passage to make sense, but should we have to, on a relatively frequent basis? How many times is this reading used in the liturgical cycle? Or is it my luck to always hear the Scriptural advice to hold my breath and wait til this thing called life is over?  On this beautiful morning, did we in the pews not shoo these words away, blah, blah, blah, best not to listen to this one, because we’re sticking with our Catholic program, however annoying and off-putting it is at times?  

A cherished assumption among Catholic artists is that art has the potential to be incarnational, exploring, as the Presence mission statement puts it, the many “ways God’s presence is communicated to and experienced by human beings.” And only imagination bridges that gap. Imagination not the stripped-down economy trip, but free and unfettered, on the wings of an extravagant, intrusive dove.


Presence website can be found at http://www.catholicpoetryjournal.com

 

Who is the Greatest Religious Poet of the English Language?

I admit to phrasing this question for maximum annoyance. I want the fun of saying, unequivocally, that the correct answer is Gerard Manley Hopkins. I still have the 1961 Penguin Poets selections of his poems and prose, much the worse for wear, which blew me away (before those words entered the lexicon) while I was in high school. And provided my first authentic experience of poetry. (This is not fair to Emily, who actually was my first love, but Hopkins out-sprung and out-alliterated her.) 

In that mythical afterlife where we get to meet the dearly departed, I hope Hopkins shows up in my neighborhood. I know he can’t possibly live next door to me, but maybe he could pass through my circle and we could catch up a bit. I’d tell him how much we had in common and hope for his forebearance, how I too taught Latin and tried my hand at ancient Greek and studied Chaucer and Beowulf, how none of it took in my own poetry, but at least it primed me to recognize a guy who rocked. The word play and alliteration, I’d tell him I know they come from a strangling bottom. And the distillation of all that angst and spiritual ambition, the dribble into the world of the best, the purest. 

He’d be very nice to me. I have no doubt. Despite the fact that I’ve stalked him for years, writing inane comments in the margins of books since those high school days. Next to a passage in W. H. Gardner’s Introduction, expatiating on the difference between Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus’ haecceitas and humanitas, I wrote “It seems odd that the Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus had such an influence on a Jesuit priest.” Really now? I ask that naively rounded hand of yesterday. 

I pontificated on many other issues that could easily be used to self-satire, but my overwhelming feeling is gratitude that Hopkins as a person, as a scholar and as a poet engaged me so deeply. Yet I wonder with his obscure references and diction, if his stature as a poet, the best and greatest designation that I’m so eager to award him, will decrease with time.

Well, worry no more! Entering bookshelves everywhere The World Is Charged: Poetic Engagements with Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Daniel Westover and William Wright, published by Clemson University Press (2016). What an amazing testament to the influence that Hopkins has had on contemporary poets! It is a beautiful book, filled with gorgeous poetry, carefully edited, and strikingly similar to the aesthetics of my first Hopkins anthology. Believe me when I say that I am thrilled that my poem “Strife” was chosen to be published in this anthology. Pull up a chair, I’ll tell Father Hopkins when he stops by, and I’ll read it to you.

Not Being Rumi, Did You Say Anything?

Of course. Call it a throwback to adolescence. Call it a Faustian ploy. Call it reappropriation from the pew. Whatever the reason, I was too deeply rankled to let a previously mentioned comment by an editor (“You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi”)  go unexamined. Maybe no one, certainly not me, has the street creds to claim transcendence or, worse, to parlay any fleeting experience. But since William James, shouldn’t we sometimes try?

The poem I wrote in response appropriated the words of spiritual masters, Thomas Merton, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, John Donne, G. M. Hopkins, in collage-like rebuttal. A little self-mockery, mixed with a serious purpose. And that poem was published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature, edited by Dr. Nathaniel Hansen, an English professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. In the same neck of the woods as Alan Jacobs (see August 15 blog).

According to the publication’s site, Windhover, a beautifully produced annual, is gearing up to publish two issues a year. Good news. In the submission guidelines, Windhover describes itself as “dedicated to promoting poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction that considers Christian perspectives and spiritual themes.” Excuse me for saying that this seems a low bar to meet, if we believe along with Paul to the Romans, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things.” Do editors of avowedly Christian publications have a difficult job, deciding when poetry and orthodoxy part ways, which one wins? But even more fundamental is recognizing this Christian perspective, when it’s out of its Sunday best. Hansen is gently trying to steer his publication away from what he calls “the didactic, the melodramatic, the trite, the obvious,” and hoping that poetry wins.  

Sofia Starnes, a powerful Catholic poet in her own right, has helped raise the profile of poetry at Anglican Theological Review, where she is poetry editor. In the Summer 2016 newsletter, Roger Ferlo, President, ATR Board of Trustees, praised the journal’s unfolding commitment to the “rapprochement between theologians and imaginative writers.” In the same newsletter, Starnes explains succinctly, “Whenever I read a poem I seek to be taken to a place that would be inaccessible through prose.”

There are many other excellent religious-art-interested journals out there. I mention these two publications only because I am familiar with them and their dedicated editors whose work is bearing increased fruit. 

What Can You Say, If You’re Not Rumi?

Depends, as does the proverbial red wheelbarrow. Williams’ poem and this editor’s comment (see May 15, 2016 blog where I recount how I once had an editor tell me, “You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi” ) persist as personal rocks and hard places between which I floiter (my new portmanteau for flounder - loiter). I was going to say they are my spiritually aesthetic Scylla and Charybdis, but I’ve come around to agreeing that using obscure classical references locks readers out. Of course, these references will become culturally even more obscure from lack of use, but I’m starting to forget them all anyhow. So we move on…

What can any of us say? And where? And on whose authority? In the September 2016 issue of Harper Magazine, Alan Jacobs of Baylor University concludes his probing article, “What became of the Christian intellectuals?,” with the comment, “I think that, from the Fifties to the Seventies, American intellectuals as a group lost the ability to hear the music of religious thought and practice. And surely that happened at least in part because we Christian intellectuals ceased to play it for them.”

Likewise, I can’t help but ask, where are the Christian poets? And their interesting subset, the Catholic poets? Dana Goia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), met this question head-on in “The Catholic Writer Today” in the December 2013 issue of First Things. He remains hopeful for a renaissance in the Catholic literary imagination but admits “contemporary American letters has little use for Catholicism, and Catholics have retreated from mainstream cultural life.” The solution, “the renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers.” Not only in isolation, but in the forging of new communities. 

I wonder what these communities will look like, with the diminished role of the Catholic intellectual. Or if I can even allow myself to think this, the diminished freedom of the Catholic intellectual. 

 

Jacobs’ article can be found here
Goia’s article can be found here