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

“…slapped
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




Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Little Book On Form by Robert Hass


A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into The Formal Imagination Of Poetry, which HarperCollins kindly sent me to review, is the culmination of years of studying, teaching, and writing poetry done by Robert Hass. Besides being a former U.S. Poet Laureate, he’s also won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for poetry.

That information alone lets us know we can surely learn something about poetry from this book, and, since it’s still National Poetry Month, it’s an ideal time to begin.

Although my bookshelves testify to scores of well-written books about poetry from accomplished poets, this book differs in that it doesn’t just discuss the exterior architecture of poems but what forms the form – as in, what causes its formation, resulting in form?

In the opening chapter, for instance, Hass calls attention to the one-line poem, rarely found in English, but common in the “…haiku, a one-line form with a three-part prosodic structure, (which) usually consists of two images. And so you’ll notice that inside what is apparently a single line, there is a play of one, two, or three elements, balanced or unbalanced in various ways that are expressive in relation to what the poem is saying.”

The poet then gives ten examples in English translations of Basho, such as “First snow falling on a half-finished bridge,” which presents the first picture in the early snow and the second in an incompleted bridge. See! We haven’t even gotten beyond the first chapter, and I’ve already learned something!

I’d never given thought to the two images occurring in haiku, but if you’re writing haiku, as I often do, that’s very good to know! Looking over haiku I’ve written, I see each has two images, but now that I know to look for this when I revise, I can.

What we write instinctively without knowing becomes more useful when we do know. With the knowledge of a technique or the words to describe it, we’re more aware and then equipped to incorporate the information into our work – not during the writing process so much as when we revise.

Take the number “three” again, for example. In chapter three, Hass says:

“Two often regarded as an aspect of one, so that with three number as such, the many, begins. And is infinite. Oddness. Not divisible. So that – trinity, for example – mystery begins here.”

During the years in which this book came together, the poet often jotted notes to himself in quick phrases, many of which he scattered throughout these pages. This unique aspect of the book lets us in on his actual thoughts in real time as though we’re passionately engaged in the discussion.

Similarly, Haas’ explanations of forms include more than the “what” but also the “why” or “how.” In a discussion of “Three-Line Stanzas,” for example, the poet says this about the uncommonly used three-line verse, the triplet:

“There is something of imbalance and excess in threes. Especially where rhyme is concerned. About two-based forms something hovers of natural complementarities: binary systems, the bi-lateral symmetries in nature, male and female, lover and beloved. Hence the closing down of two-based rhyme. It seems to secure a completion and emphasizes at once the orderliness of rhyme....”

A passage in a much later chapter “How To Scan A Poem” picks up that thread of orderliness and emphasis in these words:

“Often you will hear what feel like strong irregular emphases in metrical poems. The irregularities are strong, because once a pattern is established, you notice departures from the pattern. So, of course, poets learned that one of the best ways to get emphasis is to establish a meter and then vary it.

But, how can poets establish a meter unless they know what meter is, why it works as it does, and what it can accomplish?

How can poets emphasize anything in their poems if all parts have the same treatment or monotonous tone?

And, how can poets establish a meter unless they know what meter is, why it works as it does, and what it can accomplish? You can play it by ear and rely on a sense of musicality – as long as nothing goes wrong! If it does, it’s difficult to shape up something nameless.

This book names names. It talks about sonnets and sestinas, genre and georgics, organic form and prose poems. Much more than what might be found in a poetry dictionary, however, this highly recommended book invites us to accompany the poet on “An Exploration Into The Formal Imagination Of Poetry.”

If you care to join Robert Hass and me in this adventure, you’ll find entry through the clickable Amazon ad below.

Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2017, poet-writer reviewer


A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, hardback




Monday, April 17, 2017

Rest in the Moment

The drama of Lent and Passion of Christ propel us to rise with the Lord on Easter Sunday, but then what? Can that heightened awareness of our Lord and Savior continue throughout the year, and, if so, how?

In Rest in the Moment, poet-writer Christine Sine, who kindly sent me a copy of her book to review, responds to our need for closeness in her “Reflections for Godly Pauses.”

As explained in the Introduction, we have two types of silence: quies, which comes from an absense of noise, and silentium, “an internal, intentional posture of complete attentiveness toward God. It is a silence of making space for, taking time for and paying loving attention to the One we proclaim to be our God and Lord…. It means establishing a quiet inner attitude in which we set aside the distractions of our minds and hearts, draw from the stillness that is within us and commune with God in a very special way.”

After explaining this insightful way to be close to the Lord, the book further provides the means: first, in a meditative poem followed by a brief devotional and relevant scripture, then spaces to respond before closing in prayer.

The twelve meditations in this book get off to a blessed start with the title poem, “Rest in the Moment,” which begins with these lines:

“Rest in this moment of God’s creating.
Savor its beauty.
Inhale its fragrance.
Listen to its music.
Sit in awe of our God-infused world.
Rest in this moment of God’s unfolding….


As the author says in the devotional lines that follow, “This is an elusive rest. It means letting to of control over our schedules and our relationships. Sometimes it means letting go of things that we love to do or people we care about to create time to notice and appreciate the presence of God.”

The Apostle Paul talks about this rest in Philippians 4:11-13, where he says, he’s “learned to be content with whatever I have.”

The pages then turn to our response as we’re asked to consider “What distracts your attention from being fully attentive to God?” For each of us, the answers will differ, of course, and yet each of us can give our “Amen” to the closing prayer, which asks God to “Guide us to rest in each moment and enjoy the revelation of Your love it reveals.”

So? you might ask. What does this have to do with poetry or poetry writing? Perhaps nothing to the secular poet who’s waiting for the Muse to strike, but to me – everything!

If you want your poetry to be insightful, powerful, blessed, and a blessing to your readers, re-read the above discussion, rest well in the Lord, then let your poems flow with new depths and passion.

Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2017, poet-writer, reviewer


Rest in the Moment, paperback






Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Small Presses | Poets & Writers

Small Presses | Poets & Writers:

Poets & Writers website lists publishers interested in a variety of topics and types of poetry. When you find publishers whose work you like, you're more apt to have found ones who will like your work too.

In addition to these hotlinks, the site provides contact information and a brief bio of each publication to help you to get a better feel for where your batch of poetry (usually 3 to 5 poems per submission) might fit.



'via Blog this'

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