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Monday, May 8, 2017

A Gathering of Larks: letters to Saint Francis

What a refreshing book of poems!

Spiritually-minded yet down-to-earth, A Gathering of Larks by Abigail Carroll addresses Saint Francis in lyrical letters, which the poet-author explains in the Introduction by saying, “I explore the spiritual landscape of Francis’s life, and, as with a close friend, I invite him into the spiritual landscape of mine.”

In relating her life to Francis’ and his to hers, the poet includes us in common experiences such as a broken showerhead that brings to mind the "slow, monk-like cupping/ and pouring" of water down the back. I especially related to a later lament over "an arsenal of weapons to defend against dust, oil stains, odors," which contrasts greatly with Francis' "prize possessions" of wind and sun that he "never had to defend, never had to clean."

If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to get to know this saint, the “Prologue: The Life of Saint Francis” presents a short but interesting biography of Francesco Bernardone, who initially “took up the life of a French troubadour – singing, reciting poetry, drinking, and making merry.” Once known as the “life of the party,” no one would have expected Francis to give up everything for Christ nor, in contemporary times, become little more than a relic in the minds of many.

Addressing that thought in a poem, “Starry-eyed” admits:

“There is something to be said for B-grade films
about the lives of saints – the kinds with dubbed
voices and stiff scripts and shafts of light descending
from the clouds into warm pools of holiness in which
only a chosen few will ever be bathed.”

Having grown up with Cecil B. DeMille movies and films playing Bing Crosby as a kindly priest, I relate to the poem, its humor, and its ending:

“God bless the blue-eyed actors
who taught me how to believe: their profiles glowing
in backlit prayer, tunics rippling in the artificial breeze.”

If you’ve watched some of the house-hunting shows on television, you’ll appreciate the levity of the “Dear Francis,” poem signed by “A simplicity-seeker.”

“When it comes to living small,
you were ahead of your time,
which is why I nominate you
patron saint of tiny homes.”

In the humorous poem “Dear Reluctant Saint,” which gives directions for getting around in today’s Assisi, the poet signs herself “Your willing tour guide,” thus reminding me of another unique feature in this collection: i.e., Instead of being identified by titles, which may be the same from one poem to the next, the ever-changing signatures at the base of the lines nicely identify each poem.

For example, the poem “Dear Lover of Light” has all sorts of potential trajectories, but the signature “A Vincent enthusiast” narrows it down to the one who

stars as big as brooches
on the sky, danced
crows across bowing fields
of wheat, exalted a bowl
of onions, a bridge, a pipe,
a chair, a bed.”

These poems consistently nudge us – lyrically, humorously, and insightfully – into revisiting closed perspectives, materialism, busy-ness, and a general malaise. For example, “An advocate for wonder” informs Francis that “some children/ hardly ever/ leave their homes – have yet/ to see a snake part grass, touch/ the warm nose/ of a horse, pass/ a few hours in a tree” thereby exemplifying “Nature Deficit Disorder – NDD.”

“What a waste of toads and creeks
and Queen Anne’s
lace, of worms
and rain and mud….”

In addition to the these thought-provoking poem-letters to Francis, which Eerdmans kindly sent me to review, this slender volume includes "A Conversation with the Author" about the book's development. Then, in the back matter, a section of "Questions for Thought and Discussions" also entices us toward a meditative entrance into the wonders of God’s creation and the spiritual realms of our lives.

Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2017, poet-writer reviewer

A Gathering of Larks: letters to Saint Francis from a modern-day pilgrim, quality paperback


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