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Monday, April 18, 2016

Charles of the Desert: A Life in Verse

In Charles of the Desert: A Life in Verse, award-winning poet and college professor William Woolfitt takes us into the life of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)– a Christian saint and martyr I might never have heard about were it not for the review copy Paraclete Press kindly sent me. And, if it were not for my welcoming almost any book of poems produced by Paraclete, I might never have become familiar with the exquisite work of William Woolfitt.

Throughout this biography in verse, the “I” of each poem comes to life in Woolfitt, the poems, and us as though we’re inside Charles’ head, experiencing, observing, sensing, enduring.

In the opening poem, for example, Woolfitt envisions the very young Charles as seeing “My Father as Weather Formation” – a man who adversely affects those around him, and “Then his whims enslave him. He stuffs his valise/ with jars and papers, flees to the city….” Nevertheless, memories of the absent parent linger in a “Man of fidgets/ and glances, soon to appear in the clouds as beasts/ for me to name, and fall on his woods like snow.

Subsequently, in “My Mother as Harp Seal, as Sacristan,” we learn that young Charles and his mother “had knelt that morning/ to give daisies and asters, to kiss the feet/ of the pale, poor eggshell man who hung/ on the church wall, his weight webbing/ cracks through the plaster….”

Orphaned by school age, the boy arrived in “The House of Bones,” where “Grandfather filled in as my father./ We lived in a repository of Roman coins,/ pinned beetles, leather-bound books/ that crumbled if touched” and where an assortment of visiting “officers, scholars, priests” admired the grandfather’s “cases of animal skulls.”

Within those first few insightful poems, Woolfitt gives us a clear picture of an other-than-normal childhood, which, the “Chronology” in the back of the book tells us eventually led to “a reputation for gluttony, drunkenness, and seducing women.”

Before his thirtieth birthday, however, the well-to-do Charles became aware of “The Pangs of Wanting” where he longed to “explore unmapped lands; meditate on deep truths;/ argue with shrewd, brilliant men; make love to a woman/ versed in the pieties of faith and the pleasures of the earth;/ try celibacy; father able sons….” However, Charles gave his soldier’s uniform and other costumes to his nephews to “serve as their playthings.” Then, “I deliver my body to the church….

Adventures and hardships continuing, Charles served as the gardener of a convent in Nazareth where, according to the “Chronology,” in 1897, “The mother superior encourages him to become a priest….

In another beautiful biographical poem, “Dust and Oil,” Woolfitt gives us a glimpse of that ordination, which occurred in 1901 in Viviers, France:

Like a spruce hit by wind and lightning,
the bishop sways, crackles before me.
He charges me with the volts of his hands

clamped on my head, the singe of peace
he kisses to my brow…

Discarding a hermit’s life that lives “as dust that drifts into corners, cracks,/ ditches and ruts,” the young priest then began to wear a robe with a “crimson heart over my breast./ May I take the sacraments to the heart/ of the Sahara, the unknown, the uttermost;/ where there are no priests, may I offer/ fraternal love to the soldiers of France,/ may I prepare a feast for peasants,// nomads, and slaves.”

In 1902 Algeria, “For Three Hundred Francs,” the poem by that title tells us, “I bought a slave boy this morning,” while the next poem “We Hide Our Faces from the Wind” clarifies that, as soon as some hoped-for funds arrived, “I will ransom more slaves.”

Moving among the nomadic Tuareg in Hoggar, Algeria, Charles began to learn the language, write a Tuareg dictionary, and live as the Tuareg people did. In “Consider the Ant,” for example, he would “sometimes find miracles/ of food: acacia pods I can pound into edible meal,” and “once, a snarl of bees/ flitting from the mouth of a dead jackal,// and inside the carcass’s dark cave, enough honey,/ sweet and glistening, to fill the bowl of my hands.”

In one highly visual narrative after another, Woolfitt presents his totally credible persona of Charles through diverse conditions until finally, during a 1916 uprising, “Someone Knocks” and “my neighbors" – raiders – "slam me against/ the wall ransack my little fort unbind/ and fling/ my Tuareg dictionary/ my sheaves of Tuareg poetry/” and “tear the cross the heart from my robe….” To end those final moments and this highly recommended book, William Woolfitt enables us to “feel the breath and the burn/ as my lips form the word I choose/ and my pages scatter in the wind.”

Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-author and reviewer

Charles of the Desert: A Life in Verse, French fold paperback

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