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Monday, March 6, 2017

Communion of Saints: poems by Susan L. Miller

In Communion of Saints by Susan L. Miller, present-day people reflect saintly individuals of the past in a collection of poetic portraits grouped into four sections: Faith, Hope, Love, and Pax Et Bonum, before concluding with an epilogue and “Notes on the poems,” which readers might want to refer to from the start.

Published by Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a complimentary copy to review, the book begins with a Foreword by award-winning poet Mark Doty, who says:

“I imagine it’s no accident that this surprising and moving book begins with a ‘manual for would-be saints’ and ends with a ruined, heartbroken wolf learning to be loved. To become a saint, the lesson might be, it is necessary to enter completely into one’s abjection, and then to give oneself over completely to what might provide for your hunger.”

As the opening poem, “Manual for the Would-Be Saint” begins with these lines:

“The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.”

With nineteen principles in the poem to mull over, I found these two my favorites:

“The thirteenth, we practice forgiving Judas.
The fourteenth, we love Judas as ourselves.”

Being unfamiliar with some of the saints highlighted in these poems, I didn’t connect as well as I did with those whose stories I knew or whose work I’d read. Therefore, “Self-Portrait as St. John of the Cross,” spoke to me immediately then intensified with these closing lines:

“I know that even Christ

doubted his Father
for a moment, in his suffering, and cried out My God
why hast thou forsaken me? without

feeling your hand in his chest, that hand
that wraps itself around the human heart and presses gently
two times every second.”

In addition to those perceptive moments, the poet gives us fresh phrases as shown, for instance, in “Portrait of Father Santo as St. Anthony of Padua,” where the relics of St. Anthony’s bones:

“reminded me
that all we are, after we are, becomes
small and brown, as if time dyes our bodies
with tea and smoke.”

Considering the Master of fresh phrases, Miller writes of a potential moment when “Gerard Manley Hopkins Looks at a Cloud.”

“On his back, under a sea of stirring wisps,
Hopkins tries to find words for the cirrus,
the cumulus, the nimbostratus, the drifting crowd
of clouds like steam opening the sky.”

And then, going deeper into the imagined scene, the poet writes:

“He thinks of his heaviness,
his own bones a weight he must strive to stir.
He thinks of the clouds’ massive heft like the flesh
of the sky, a musculature sure and simple,
striated, spare, and strange: he is liftened then too,
all sinew and soul thrilled in the high reaches
of Christ’s clutches, to whom all things
are light, and lifted, and lifting.”

Since I quoted Mark Doty’s mention of “The Wolf of Gubbio,” which ends the book, I want you to:

“Imagine yourself an old wolf: lean
and ragged, belly shrunken beneath a ribcage
as bowed as a galleon’s undercarriage” –

a wolf whose hunger terrifies “each living thing you encounter,” but who responds to kindness, affection, and food until:

“No longer ravenous, you slowly eat your fill,
then lie on your side as children rub your fur,
making their high-pitched sounds.

For the rest of your life, you never
hunger, fed at any door you pass through,
beloved and belonging. Would you
call it a miracle if you knew
that wherever you went,
someone provided for you?”

Poetry book review by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017, poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem, Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, Faces in a Crowd, and from Cladach Publishing the forth-coming book PRAISE!

Communion of Saints, paperback

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