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“What’s Lasting”: Soul-Shaping Poems

Review of The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems, 2005 – 2016. Edited and introduced by Mark S. Burrows. Foreword by Jon M. Sweeney. (Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2016), reviewed by Rebecca Spears

One question often backgrounds poems, and that is, why poetry? Mark Burrows makes an elegant argument in this anthology’s introduction, “ ‘A Sense of Presence’: Poetry and the Education of the Soul.” Of all reasons offered to read poems—to “delight in the newness of language,” to learn to “new-name the world,” they are “as dancing is to walking”—the loveliest argument he makes is this: “Because in ‘this prose-flattened world’ we need [poems] to regain our balance, to be opened in that fertile place within us, where the heart gives its courage to desire this change and live into it,” Burrows tells us.

So Mark Burrows has curated a collection of poems that calls us back not only to stillness and to deep looking, but also to the place where we will be opened to a new abundance.  In many ways, this endeavor lets us reconnect to our spiritual nature and, importantly, quenches our profound longing for what’s lasting.  Bringing together a broad range of past and contemporary poets and poems, this anthology digs into what we can know and what will always be a mystery. What we can rejoice in and what we fear.  What we have lost and what we can reclaim.

Although one review cannot cover the wealth of work in an anthology, it can point to a few of the poets whose works particularly shine. Scott Cairns’ stunning poems remind readers of the God who walks with us, who is vulnerable, and who indeed “stammers with us,” limited as we are by what we can express and what we can bear.  Cairns’ poem “Murmur” looks at our human inability to fully express wonder and awe, as these lines from the first stanza show:


What is this familiar pulse beginning

in the throat which promises to pronounce

for once the heart’s severer expectations

but which will not be articulated

from the glib, unhelpful mass of the tongue?


In “Theology of Delight,” Cairns calls on readers to imagine the world as a place in which we should still revel, in which we should still experience joy. Just observe the sheep, he says, that “leapt for no clear reason” and that parted “that grip of flowers with its face.” I particularly love his “Late Sayings,” which offers more Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who shed their every anxious defense,” “Blessed are those who seek the God in secret,” “Blessed moreover are those who refuse to judge.” In this poem is a richness of blessings that speak to the sensibilities of the contemporary believer.

The poems from the Polish poet Anna Kamieńska articulate so well the doubts and conflicts that we may not even have acknowledged within ourselves. In particular, “Through the Body” focuses on the body/spirit problem. Kamieńska wonders why our human weaknesses “are the way to God.” She demands to know “why it is / through torment of the body you speak to the spirit.” Her poem “Lack of Faith” indicates the struggle with doubt, but in a few, well-chosen lines, the poet speaks to what underlies faith for many of us in the modern world: “there is a place in me / inaccessible to unbelief / a patch of wild grace.”  

Poems from the Iranian poet SAID, translated by Mark Burrows, include psalms of ecstatic praise and prayer. The poems ask for the impossible—“protect us / from the multitude of your guardians” in one poem,  to “reveal all your names to me / even the last / the hidden” in another.  But one poem from his 99 Psalms contains a resolution that I wish everyone would swear by: “lord / I refuse / to engage in prayer as a weapon.” There are other powerful lines in this poem, but these resonate within me, even after I have left the page.  In fact, this is one of the most memorable poems in the Paraclete anthology.

I confess also to be partial to the poems of William Woolfitt, especially his poems from Charles of the Desert.  Woolfitt draws a portrait of Charles de Foucauld, a desert father, who went to live in the Sahara as a way to empty himself of the temptations of civilized life. There, he tried to befriend and convert the Tuareg; and there, he allowed himself to be humbled by the vast universe and his small place in it. In the poems, “Consider the Ants,” “Pied Crow,” and “Blue Aster,” we see Charles go about his personal and professional missions.  Of the new poems, Woolfitt turns his skills of close looking to the Appalachian culture and what survives, or doesn’t. In the razing of a church, he “can still / sense a congregation lingering there” “where the faithful  washed feet, / shook tambourines, and prayed all at once.” Of a “Mountaintop Removal Site,” the poet  understands that we can “come closer to our own natures: / slow, willful, breath-given, dust-sized.”

These poems, and others, in The Paraclete Poetry Anthology open portals into our spiritual natures and into “what’s lasting.” As Mark Burrows writes in the introduction, spiritual poems “can teach us how to praise” and can reconnect us to a sense of eternal presence. You will find this with all the poets in this anthology, including Phyllis Tickle, Paul Mariani, Fr. John-Julian, Bonnie Thurston, Greg Miller, Rami Shapiro, Thomas Lynch, Paul Quenon, and Rilke. All of the works within these pages show, as Burrows has written, that “we are made for poems,” that our souls are shaped by the music of the poems.