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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Practicing Silence and poetry

A busy, busy life of work and other activities or commitments seldom offer the quietness conducive to writing poetry. At least that’s what I discovered when, as a freelance and assignment writer, I just didn’t have the time or, rather, the silent spaces needed to write poetry.

Writing fiction, nonfiction, and school library resources involved research and a regular writing schedule, which I approached for years as most people approach their 9 to 5 jobs. But poetry happened only on vacation or long weekends of escaping the busy, busy-ness. If that’s true for you, too, you’ll welcome the poetic relief of Practicing Silence by Bonnie Thurston, which the publisher, Paraclete Press, kindly sent me to review.

As Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB (Order of Saint Benedict), tells us in the Foreword, “The first word of St. Benedict’s Rule for Monks is: ‘Listen!’ All the rest is anticipated and contained in this initial imperative. To listen, every moment, to whatever we encounter, to consider it a word of God, and to respond to that word, that is Benedictine obedience. It is indeed a poetic attitude, since God’s Word is not understood as command, instruction, or information, but as a song of praise sung by the Cosmic Christ at the core of every living thing.”

How does this translate into poetry? Many factors help, no doubt, but this book reminds me of the value of simply being aware, especially of those hard-to-hear-or-notice ordinary moments.

In “Suppliant,” for example, the poet contemplates a simple little note that says, “pick up your tray at the kitchen door,” which, “in history’s white light” helps her to “see myself as I am,/ loitering at heaven’s back door/ empty-handed and hungry,/ waiting with the multitudes….”

The next poem, “All Saints Convent,” develops the thought, saying:

We come from darkness,
Bring our hungers and thirst.
We join you, kneel at dawn
Under a single, amber light,
No more strangers,
But sisters in the Silence
Who speaks us all.

“Plainchant” gives us another quiet word that settles deep:

Something about chanting
the Psalms settles the heart
which, indeed, is restless
until it rests in praise….

With praise a choice of words and not of feelings, we hear the “howl of pain” beyond all words as felt by the biblical character “Job,” and we feel the shock of fractured silence in these perceptive lines:

You live in unremitting darkness,
surrounded by an unbearable silence
with which your friends cannot cope.
They fill the air with worthless words,
ugly flies buzzing around your sores.

Those of us who have had well-meaning people try to make things better with words that did not work know how Job felt! And, most likely, we, too, have wanted to warn, “Remember I Am Fragile,” as the poet does in a poem by that name, which says: “I am the brittle reed, the sputtering wick/ flickering in the dark….”

Toward the end of the book, a sequence of poems in “Hermit Lessons” lays out a mélange of morsels to feed on and consider, for example:

The ultimate lesson?
Live simply.
Simply live.
Rise from the dead.

Ending with the line, ”Then, trust the darkness,” the last poem “Little Rule for a Minor Hermitage” contributes to my assumption in requesting this book: that these quiet poems do not call attention to themselves but, like a series of exquisitely wrought meditations, are meant to be read again and again.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is poet-author of Outside Eden, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books, and Living in the Nature Poem, published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press. This summer, Kelsay also published Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, Mary's first book of poems for children.

Practicing Silence, paperback



  1. Sounds like a very good book indeed. Thank you for sharing. I have found the moments of silence with God and my Bible are when I write my best too. :-)

  2. Thanks for reading and taking time to respond, Marcie. Have fun listening and writing poems!