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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems, paperback

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