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Questions about the timing of Mary Oliver’s last publication, Upstream, Selected Essays in 2016 caught my attention. She passed in 2018.

In these nineteen essays, two of which are original to this slim volume, she left us a life-long template of her spirited struggles. It’s as if she had unfurled gossamer threads over her troubled psyche; then wove them into a wordsmith, a solitary, a listener, a passionate observer of life’s waxing and waning, a priestess.

For whatever reasons, Mary Oliver was not safe in her childhood home or in the classroom. Such fragile beginnings are nuanced in her first essay, together with the compelling influence of her mentors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. Only in the surrounding woods and creek outside her semi-rural Cleveland home did she find solace; it became her Temple where she pondered, wrote, and discovered who she was, what she was, and what she wanted to be in the world.

And she became that, and exquisitely so.

Her nineteen essays in Upstream reflect her affinity with whatever flies in the skies, maneuvers on the forest floor, or swims in the ocean: a black-backed gull, a snapping turtle, a common spider, among others. Her judiciously placed words illumine the depth of her exuberance; its freshness feels like the first morning of creation. Yet, the leitmotif of death shadows its élan.

Perhaps sensing her own, she must have selected each essay in Upstream, mindful of its whorl of energy enriching the one following and plunging her readers into the mystery of living life with its imponderables.

 

“Sing God a simple song/ Laude Laude/ Make it up as you go along/ God loves all simple things/ For God is the simplest of all.” So begins Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (1971).

These lyrics come to mind while perusing the slim volume of poetry, Coral Castles (2019) composed by Carol Bialock, RSCJ; its simplicity moved me to silence, within which I seek words to compose this blog.

Intimate with the Word and receptive to its imprinting upon her psyche for decades, Sister Carol channels ordinary experiences into poems, replete with metaphors; their simplicity dismantles crusty outcroppings in psyches and brightens skies. One- and two-syllable words couple themselves into indivisible wholes that implode within the reader/listener—like biting into a ripe peach that juices the palate with summer’s color. Single-stroke pen and ink drawings intersperse the pages—again, nothing superfluous—and give needed respite before entering the next poem with its revelation.

What appears so effortlessly composed, however, emanates from the poet’s life-long practice of loving the unlovable around the world: in homeless shelters, prisons, and hospitals, wherever she found them. Indeed, all of creation opens onto the Sacred. Through simple poems, Sister Carol Bialock enriches us by making this connection.

I am deeply glad—So will you if you avail yourself of this treasure, Coral Castles, available on Amazon.

 

 

Still another version of the life of the nineteenth-century American poet, Emily Dickinson, this time a movie, has been released to theaters around the country. Terrence Davies, screenwriter and director of A Quiet Passion, has been captivated by her enigmatic world since a teenager, one that mirrors his own; its production is the highlight of his long career.

But the question remains—Just who was Emily Dickinson? How account for her extraordinary brilliance, given the late Puritanism in Amherst, Massachusetts, that seeped into the warp and woof of life, against which she stormed?

Among the scholarly studies of this poet, Richard B. Sewall’s The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974) presents a multifaceted perspective and affords readers their own take on this woman. By piecing together her correspondence and poems with those in her immediate world, as well as by substantiating his findings with newspaper articles and public records, he contextualizes her. We hear her voice and wonder at its sagacious humor. Fortunately for us, Emily’s pen was rarely idle and her letters, preserved.

But Sewall’s presentation of Emily’s world is unique: it bears his imprint of having been Professor of English Literature at Yale University for forty-two years. Volume I devotes single chapters to the principal players in Emily’s life: grandparents, parents, siblings Austin and Lavinia, Susan Gilbert, and Mabel Loomis Todd—all in relationship through correspondence. And Volume II contains the life of the poet, even further nuanced.

It has been said that the definitive biography of Emily Dickinson has yet to be written, and it must be done by a woman scholar.

There is hope, as Emily proclaims in poem # 314:

 

Available on Amazon

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