Review: Angels Everywhere

Angels Everywhere, Luci Shaw. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press/Iron Pen, 2022.

Summary: A collection of poems written during the first year of the pandemic, aware that even in light glancing through windows, we have intimations of “angels everywhere.”

For years, I’ve encountered single poems of Luci Shaw in various publications, always appreciating them but never moving from that to acquire a collection of her poetry. Now I wonder why I waited. I’m glad Luci Shaw has remained with us to give us this collection of poems written during the first year of the pandemic, and in her ninety-third year. References to the pandemic do arise, the air thickened with suspicion and doubt, where “Stay away!” is the command of friendship in this strangely altered world. Conscious of it or not, we are marked by these times.

Yet this is not the focus of attention of these poems but rather the “angels everywhere” in fleeting glimmers of light, in “vagrant clouds glistening.” While watching, in “Prey,” a finch being watched by her cat, who sees it as prey of blood, bone, and feather” she marks her own ravenous longing for closeness with God, to be filled “with body and blood.”

She marks the changing seasons in her poems, paralleling the changing seasons of our lives. In “Leaving” she connects the losses of foliage to loss in one’s life, concluding, “I yearn to learn the discipline of seeing something treasured,/ watching it pass, then letting it go. Letting it go.”

There are other times when the external encourages the inward look. In “Moonrise,” the sliver of moon low in the sky causes her to ask”

And when I reflect back
just the bright half of me,
how will you guess
my shadow side?

The language is often luminous, as when she speaks, in “Santa Fe Evening” of watching “a mountain/swallow the sun like a peach –/a hammered copper disc so large, so close/I felt warmed, as if a mother’s hand/touched the skin of my face.” She is reminded of the providential regularity of sunrise amid the world’s turmoil giving hope that “we too will arise from our shadowed sleep.”

Some of her poems reflect on the writing process itself. In both “In the Beginning, A Word” and “Some Poems Seem” (on facing pages), she speaks of her love of words: “This, then, is how/it seems to work, and why I love the words/that come to mind and write them down/for you, telling the curious way we live/our lives and write them into books.”

She writes of people in her life who have passed, and a new grandchild. She describes a tomato garden, forest grasses, the things she sees on walks and drives, reminding me here of Mary Oliver, seeing the transcendent in the ordinary.

In one of the latter poems, “Shaker Chair,” she observes the shape of a Shaker chair “shaped for a leanness, a cleanness of body and spirit” concluding that it is “An invitation for Christ to come sit on it, or an angel, as Merton suggested.”

She urges reading these poems aloud, always good practice, and certainly with her work. She uses wonderful words like “plangent” and “frisson” as well as the phrasing just noted, “a leanness, a cleanness.”

Many of us lived circumscribed lives during the pandemic. Shaw writes in an introduction of how the ordinary may speak as one of “God’s messengers.” Cut off from many other things, did we heed the messages in the changing seasons, watching winter give way to spring, observing the phases of the moon, the response of parched summer lawns to a long soaking rain, the fleeting glory of autumn leaves? I didn’t need to leave my neighborhood to hear the messages these bore. Now, on my walks, perhaps I will be more aware, attuned to the “angels everywhere.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Enjoying the Bible

Enjoying the Bible, Matthew Mullins. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021.

Summary: Explores how learning to read literature helps us love the Bible rather than just reading it as a divine instruction manual.

Sometimes, people come to the Bible, say a passage in the Psalms, and come away baffled. Shouldn’t we be able to just read it and get the message? Yet this is not always our experience. We walk away saying, “I don’t get it.” Or we treat the Bible as a divine instruction manual, looking for the answer to particular challenges in our lives. Or perhaps, from our Bible quiz days, if we did such a thing, we treat the Bible as an information source. But Matthew Mullins wonders whether such ways of engaging the Bible help us love the scriptures, and in turn the Triune God to whom they point.

Mullins teaches English, and he finds that for many of the same reasons, people hate poetry. They read it and don’t get it, the message isn’t straightforward. He contends that our difficulty is reading with Cartesian eyes, looking for information: who is the author and what is the author trying to say? When was it written? What is the main idea? He encourages instead, a hermeneutic of love, where we enter deeply into the passage, allowing it “to captivate, entice, comfort, shock, and even sicken” to allow ourselves to experience the emotional weight of the passage, not just the information within.

He contends that the Bible is literature and to be read literarily, recognizing the various forms that make up scripture. He contends that the literary parts of scripture, like the Psalms don’t just tell us something but invite us to inhabit a world. Psalm 23, for example, not unlike Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” elicits emotions, feelings, the sense of a world. The Psalm invites us to see what a relationship with God is like, in both times of peace and danger.

He invites us to read with our guts rather than “studying.” He encourages us to slow down, even, in the words of Alan Jacobs, to read at whim. Using poetry alongside scripture, he takes us through a number of exercises that allow us to enter into the world of the text–standing in front of it and looking, asking questions based on what we see. Three chapter follow on how we read, looking for the general sense, the central emotion, and the formal means (that is, the forms, like metaphor, used to convey meaning). He uses Paul Laurence Dunbar’s powerfully evocative “We Wear the Mask” alongside Psalm 119. He follows the chapter on the formal means with an explanation of some of the forms we encounter in scripture.

In concluding, he discusses “negative capability,” our ability to wrestle with and rest in uncertainty. Entering the world of a biblical text takes time and if we are uncomfortable with lots of questions and uncertainty, we will never get to the other side of its complexity, of encountering and loving God in the text. He invites us into habituation, taking regular time to sit with texts of scripture. Then, in the afterword, he invites us into one further practice–reading aloud. Reading aloud slows us down and helps us hear the rhythm of the language. It enables us to listen to the sound and sense of the text. Done communally we hear and speak the word of God with each other, and love the One who speaks.

I found much to commend and a few sticking points. The biggest sticking point was that I felt he created a straw man of Cartesian reading. Perhaps this is a reality in his own circles, but much more common in my experience is the lost art of reading observantly, contemplatively and literarily. Many have spoken of how the internet has “broken” our brains when it comes to attending to more complex forms of writing, whether poetry or the Bible. The other issue is the focus on poetry. There is a lot of poetry in scripture to be sure, but also a lot else, with relatively less guidance for how to read these genres or forms other than to be aware of them.

Having noted these criticisms, I found much of value in his approaches to paying attention to the general sense, central emotion, and formal means of the text. I loved setting poetry alongside scripture to show similar reading strategies with each. I appreciated his encouragements that we become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, similar to what his students (and perhaps all of us) have felt before a poem like The Wasteland. I’ve often asked graduate students why they are comfortable spending months or years studying a challenging text, trying to accurately render a historical event, understand a physical phenomena, or solve a math problem but are uncomfortable that they still have questions after studying a Bible passage for 45 minutes.

Many people don’t love scripture. They think they should but often walk away frustrated. This work can help, particularly if read slowly, working through the exercises the author gives the reader. To begin with, he leads us into some familiar texts and helps us love them. He offers strategies for reading that, if they become habits, may help us “in-habit” the text and come to love it as we encounter in it the God who loves us. And, who knows, reading Mullen might whet our appetite to try our hand at other poetry, which would not be a bad thing.

Review: Saint Patrick the Forgiver

Saint Patrick the Forgiver, Retold and Illustrated by Ned Bustard. Downers Grove: IVP Kids, 2023.

Summary: A re-telling of the story of Saint Patrick, who returned to the Irish who had enslaved him, having forgiven them and preaching forgiveness through the work of Christ.

For many, Saint Patrick’s Day is a day of wearing green, of shamrocks, and drinking green beer. Chicago even dies its river green. It’s a day of partying, and drunkenness. And in it, the story of Saint Patrick, missionary to Ireland is lost. Ned Bustard, author of Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver does for Patrick what he did earlier with Saint Nicholas. He retells the story of Patrick, with eight lines of verse on the right page accompanied by one of his woodcut illustrations on the left in a read aloud book that children and parents alike will enjoy.

We learn of a young boy in Britain, of wild heart though raised in the church, carried off to slavery in Ireland. Laboring as a shepherd, God’s Spirit gives grace and faith tp believe and eventually sends him a vision that a ship is ready to take him home, and after a two hundred mile walk, he finds it is so. He is joyfully reunited with his parents and would have remained so were it not for another vision of an Irish man carrying a letter saying, “Come walk again among us.” And so we come to the central crisis of Patrick’s life, his unforgiving heart for the people who had enslaved him. And then:

In grace God did remind me
that forgiveness is a gift.
The holy brothers taught me true
and my heart began to shift.
To the Irish I returned
with a Bible and a bell.
Because God had forgiven me
then I could forgive as well.

He recounts the favor he encountered as the High King’s son believes and gives him a barn to start a church. We learn how he used the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity. He also recounts the stories told of him driving snakes into the sea and baptizing the “naughty giant.” He summarizes his life as one of telling his Irish flock of Christ’s forgiveness, setting up schools and churches throughout the land, such that the old pagan ways have died out. These are the closing pages of the book, inspired perhaps by St. Patrick’s hymn, “Strength of Heaven”:

From publisher’s webpage for the book.

The simple rhyme scheme makes this an enjoyable read aloud book, enhanced by the richly detailed full color woodcuts. Printed on high quality paper and hardbound, I can see this becoming one of the books a family treasures sharing together. The story, centered around forgiveness, celebrates the real Saint Patrick, whose obedience from a transformed heart leads to a transformed country, and if How the Irish Saved Civilization is accurate, preserved learning and faith in Europe.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: This Day

This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2013.

Summary: A compilation of several volumes of Berry’s sabbath poems.

We learn in the preface and introduction to these poems that they were composed by Wendell Berry during his Sabbaths, which he observed each Sunday. He tells us that many of them were written out of doors. Some of the poems even record Berry reclining in the woods near his home and falling asleep. Some, as the introductory poem suggests, were written looking out the window from his study, looking down the sloping property that is his farm to the river that flows into the Ohio.

He records the work of caring for the healing of his sloping lands. He writes in the introduction of having hoped the pasture would revert to forest, but rather his ewes ate the tree saplings. Instead, he tends the pasture in 2005, X “Mowing the hillside pasture–where.” He describes the Queen Anne’s lace, the milkweeds, butterflies, voles, and the contours of the healing slopes for which “He sweats and gives thanks.” In the next poem he speaks of imparting these experiences to his grandson, remembering when he was the young boy waving to an old workman in a pasture.

It is little wonder with someone so committed to the attentive care of his land that many of the poems celebrate the wonders he observes on his farm or the neighboring woods and streams. In 1998, IV, “The woods and pastures are joyous” describes the coming of another spring, the sheep and cattle “like souls in bliss,” the abundant growth and birdsong, and asks, “Who now can believe in winter? In winter who could have hoped for this?”

It also wouldn’t be Wendell Berry if he weren’t decrying the destruction of the land. His poems of 2007 describe this and his struggle to hold onto hope. He returns to his own land and finds hope amid the hopelessness in the renewal of life he witnesses.

Some of the poems are in the voice of characters from his novels, the Port William Membership, including Andy Catlett, Burley Coulter, and Jayber Crow. In others, he speaks of himself in the third person, as in 2011, VII,”A man who loves the trees” where he walks among his “elders” when he sees “a dogwood flower-white lighting all the woods.” In some, he adopts the voice of the Mad Farmer, as in the concluding poem of the collection, 2012, XXI, “As a child, the Mad Farmer saw easily” recounting the captivating vision of the star and the angelic host announcing the Christ child to shepherds that captivated him as a child, fading in the horrors of modernity and fears for what is to come. Yet as a pilgrim, “He sets out.”

I was surprised by the number of poems remembering friends who have died and reflecting on his own advancing years. In 2005, VII, Berry makes an observation that would find many of us nodding our heads in agreement: “I know I am getting old and I say so/but I don’t think of myself as an old man./I think of myself as a young man/with unforeseen debilities.”

Some of the most touching poems are those marking anniversaries and talking about what it is like for two people to love one another in all the ways couples love for many years. He celebrates the power of the marriage vow in 2009, VI “Our vow is the plumb line.” It is a line that seems to separate as both speak, “but vanishing as only we two know when we indeed are one.”

A final theme recurring in many poems is Berry’s piety. He doesn’t “wear this on his sleeve,” filling his poems with references to faith, When he speaks, it is powerful as in these six lines from 2005, I:

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.

Berry advises, “I hope some readers will read them as they were written: slowly, and with more patience than effort.” A friend who has read this collected comments that she loved taking these on sabbath walks, and reading and pondering one each sabbath. That may be a good approach to these poems that direct our thoughts to the most important matters of our lives as well as the sheer wonder amid which we move, that we often miss in our distraction and hurry. But then, is this not why we sabbath?

Review: Heinrich Heine (Everyman’s Poetry #28)

Heinrich Heine (Everyman’s Poetry #28), Heinrich Heine (Translated and edited by T. J. Reed and David Cram: London: Everyman/J. M. Dent, 1997.

Summary: A collection of translated poems of Heinrich Heine.

Heinrich Heine composed poetry during the height of the romantic period. Some of his early lyric poetry was set to music by Schubert and Schumann. His later poetry reflects a certain cynicism toward romanticism. For example, the opening poem in this collection, Prologue, begins with him “walking into a fairy wood” and concludes with a statue of The Sphinx coming ravenously to life: “her kisses drove me wild/Her claws dug in again.”

A favored theme is one of beautiful, romantic beginnings with sad or grievous endings, typified in the poem “Sweet-bitter,” beginning with loving embraces under the lindens (lindens are everywhere in Heine) only to end with “the coldest curtsey” and frosty goodbyes. There are poems that draw on mythology, such as The Lorelei, of a beautiful blonde siren atop a rocky outcropping, who distracts shipman who crash upon the rocks. He also has a poem on the Tannhauser legend.

Some of his poetry is political. Heine supported revolutionary movements and fled Germany to Paris in 1831, resenting the censorship of his works. By 1835, his work was banned in Germany. His Germany: A Winter’s Tale is a barbed commentary on its pretensions. In No Need to Worry he observes:

We call them 'fathers', it's 'fatherland'.
Which makes it easy to understand
Why it all belongs to them, and we
Have sausage and sauerkraut for tea.

In October 1849 marks the failed revolutions of 1848. He laments:

This time the Austrian Ox has made
An ally even of the Bear.
Take comfort, Magyar, though you fall --
We have a far worse badge of shame to wear.

During the last eight years of his life, Heine was paralyzed and confined to bed. His poems are increasingly dominated by reflections on his own mortality. Double Vision is an encounter with an doppelganger, one healthy, one sickly that ends with the healthy one pummeling the sick one only to find he was pummeling himself. You may recognize Morphine and its concluding, Job-like lines:

To sleep is good, and death is better, but
Far better still never to have been born.

Heine captures the reality of life as bittersweet. Our loftiest aims will often end disappointed. Life is a tragicomedy for Heine and many of his poems are satires on the romantics with a grotesque or bitter twist. This translation seems to capture the almost “tongue-in-cheek” ironic character of Heine’s poetry. It is accessible, easy to read, even as one ponders the ironic twists. This work, if you can find it, is a wonderful introduction to this unusual poet.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–Michael J. McGovern, “The Puddler Poet”

Michael J. McGovern, Public Domain.

On March 17, we are all Irish (or at least most of us) even if we are not. In that spirit, I thought I would write about one of Youngstown’s most illustrious Irish residents, Michael J. McGovern, also known as “The Puddler Poet.” Puddlers had a special function in the mills, They stirred pig iron that was heated in the presence of oxidizing elements in a furnace, converting it into wrought iron. He worked in the old “Siberia Mill” of the Cartwright-McCurdy company. When not working, he wrote poems about work in the mills and other subjects. Many of them were hard-edge social critique of the times, for example “A Rythm Upon Our Trusts”:

This country is o’erran by trusts
And each within its sphere adjusts
Production and the price of that
Which it controls, not caring what

The people it plucks may say
For trusts possess the right of way
On all our great commercial trails
To crush the slow industrial snails
The trusts economy is seen
In big combines which seal the doom
Of those who live half way between.

Michael McGovern was born in Ireland in October of 1847 in the townland of Castlefield, near Williamstown, County Galway, to John Govern and Bridget Flynn. McGovern was educated in one of the secret “Hedge Schools” learning the basics including Latin. He sailed to England in 1866, finding work in Sheffield City, Yorkshire, as a steel mill laborer. He married Anne Murphy in 1872, around the same time he began secret efforts with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. By 1880, he had to flee England, with Anne following soon after.

He found work as a puddler at Catasauqua Steel and Iron Company in Fullerton, Pennsylvania around 1882. He brought his family to Youngtown around 1890, living there for the rest of his life. It was here that he began writing poetry, another way to express his advocacy for labor beside his membership in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers. Here is another of his poems, “The Puddler’s View of Present Systems”:

The plutocrats, the goldbugs, and the tariff lords who rule us all;
The press and the politicians that will tell us lies to fool us all;
The ministers and bishops who e'er preach on Christ and pray for all;
The warriors who kill the foes that would invade and slay us all;
The hoboes and the millionaires who never work at all, at all;
Would one and all be starving did the workingman not toil for all.

In 1899 The Vindicator published a book of his poems, Labor Lyrics and Other Poems. He contributed poetry regularly to The Vindicator and The Youngstown Telegram. He was also an accomplished landscape artist, even though he had no formal training.

He never forgot Ireland, returning in 1904 for a three month visit, and a number of poems celebrated his Irish heritage, including “Welcome A.O.H. Men” (A.O.H. stands for the Ancient Order of Hibernians):

Welcome men of Irish blood,
With open arms we meet you
In the name of Irish Nationhood
And faith we hospitably greet you.
We welcome you with all the love
And friendship men shroud owe each other,
And hope each grasp we give may prove
The honest pressure of a Brother.

For Ireland’s triumphs and her woes:
For virtues that enhance her glory;
For wrongs inflicted by her foes
That go to make the blackest story.
For love of Freedom, –always her’s;
Which love, may yet its crown accord her
Ceud Mile failte –Visitors –
True members of her 'Ancient Order'

Michael and Anne celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1930. McGovern wrote poetry up to the time of his death on April 2, 1933 of a heart attack at age 85. His funeral service was held at the old St. Columba Cathedral and he is buried in Calvary Cemetery. Anne followed him in death in 1935.

I’ll close with one more Michael McGovern poem, “St. Patrick’s Day”:

Again arrives that holy day,
As Earth its yearly circuits makes;
That much revered St Patrick’s Day
That day of days which e'er awakes
Within each heart of Irish race.
A Christian thought- a loving thrill:
When kindled memories kindly trace
Some verdant vale; some shamrocked hill,
From which the thinker had to roam
Upon this rugged earth's highway
That day of days for Irishmen
With blessed traditions comes again
All hail! St Patrick’s Day.

Michael McGovern is the likeliest candidate for Youngstown’s greatest poet. Fittingly, much of his poetry celebrated the workingman and his labor.

[If you are interested, Jim Fahy, an Irish journalist has been researching his life and has compiled a 138 page online biography of McGovern.]

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987

Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987, Seamus Heaney. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Seamus Heaney from previously published works between 1966 and 1987.

My one previous encounter with Seamus Heaney was his rendering of Beowulf, a powerful version of this Old English heroic narrative. I’ve long wanted to explore his poetry and a while back picked up this collection, gathering a number of poems from the first half of his writing career (subsequently, an edition covering 1988 to 2013 was released).

The poems in this selection come from the following works:

  • Death of a Naturalist
  • Door in the Dark
  • Wintering Out
  • Stations
  • North
  • Field Work
  • Sweeney Astray
  • Station Island
  • The Haw Lantern

How does one summarize and review all this? One reviewer described reading Heaney as “muddled clarity.” I would agree with this assessment. Heaney demands multiple readings and this was merely my first taste. In the middle of a poem, you wonder what he is saying, and then a phrase leaps out and rivets your attention.

His work evokes the land–the bogs and trees, the fields and hedges, the broagh or riverbanks, that together create a sense of place. He captures the people–the farmers, the roof thatcher, and the Tollund Man, a mummified corpse found in one of the bogs. He remembers the dead, from Francis Ledwidge, who died in World War I to his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney (“M.K.H”) in Clearances that evoke all the memories of a loved one, the parting of death, and the awareness of our mortality.

The violence present in Northern Ireland is a frequently present backdrop to his poetry as is the imagery of Irish Catholicism from missals to masses. Much of this comes together in the last poem in this collection, The Disappearing Island:

Once we presumed to found ourselves for good

Between its blue hills and those sandless shores

Where we spent our desperate night in prayer and vigil.

Seamus Heaney, p. 261.

The collection includes selections from Sweeney Astray, Heaney’s version of the Irish poem Buile Shuibhne, the Glanmore Sonnets, and Station Island.

One should have a phone or computer handy to look up words and references that may be obscure to one. Perhaps some day, an annotated version of Heaney’s works will do this work for us. But for now, we are left to do the work for ourselves. Some will pass this up, but some of the richest readings are the ones that have required me to dig. Heaney’s works seem to me to be among these. In this we join Heaney who compared his work to that of his potato farming father:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests

I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” p. 3.

Review: Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Love in the Time of Coronavirus, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: A collection of poems written over the first year of the pandemic exploring the pilgrimage of those confined to their homes, exploring the ways we come to terms with endless days, the small gifts of love, and moment of hope amid the horror.

We all remember those days of 2020 when we discovered how an invisible virus changed our world–all the precautions, the lockdowns, the empty streets, and rising infections. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell lives in New York, which became the epicenter of horror last spring, with morgue trucks outside of hospital. Like most, the scope of her and her husband’s life narrowed down to the confines of an apartment. With the lockdown, she began a pilgrimage in words to chronicle her experience.

She takes us through the seasons of the first year of the pandemic: lockdown and rising cases, illness, recovery and relapse, staring at an unworn wardrobe, and finding herself oddly touched by the thank you’s of students on Zoom. The growing realization that this is not going away quickly, the relief of a contemporary lull, injuring oneself exercising in one’s apartment, Advent and the advent of a new wave of cases, standing in line for vaccines and the tentative steps of emerging into the world. We trace the church year from Easter to Advent, unchanging hope of resurrection and Christ’s coming in a changed and dying world.

The poems, nearly sixty, are written more or less in the form of sonnets. The songs capture both the small things of daily life and the horror of mass graves on Hart Island. The changing of the seasons reminds us of the resurgence of life as does the resurgence of wildlife in a world temporarily devoid of people. There is love. The lost love of the aged who have died too soon. There is the love for children one cannot visit, for students on a screen, for the small kindnesses of delivery. All this is dwarfed by the love in the ICU: “The old man who gave up his/breathing machine to the young man beside/him. The nurse who grieved him as he died./The EMT who knelt beside the body/long after the heart had ceased to beat.”

This collection captures the deep passion we have to live, to love, and to hope in the face of the most daunting challenge we have collectively faced in our lifetimes. We grieve, we tremble, we sicken, and hopefully recover. Then we enjoy the beauties we see in a simple walk. As the author concludes, “The virus can’t destroy/this urge to bless our life & praise/even these pandemic days.”

What is striking though is that this collection reflects a particular posture, a particular response to the pandemic. One that allows the pandemic to deepen and transform, a metamorphosis of sorts. Instead of clamoring and contending, there is a kind of quiet acceptance that the pandemic is what it is, but the things that truly make life worth living, goodness, truth, beauty, and faith, hope, and love only shine more brightly when the distracting noise of our pre-pandemic normal is silenced.

If we look back over the last year, and have second thoughts about our own responses, a new variant and another wave offer fresh chances to lean into the lessons of the pandemic. Someday our grandchildren will ask us about this time. Will we change the subject or share a glimpse of the depths we cultivated in these years? These poems give words to what all of us have experienced. We still have time, it appears, to be formed for better, or for worse. These poems invite us into the better. Will we follow?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Iona

Iona: New and Selected Poetry. Kenneth Steven. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: A collection of poems connected to the island of Iona, the spiritual home of the author.

The island of Iona, part of the Inner Hebrides, located off the west coast of Scotland has been a destination of spiritual pilgrims from around the world. The Iona Abbey is a focal point, purported founded by St. Columba, an exile from Ireland, who brought Celtic Christianity to the island, and Scotland in turn. It became a center of scholarship and monasticism throughout the isles. It is believed that the Book of Kells was at least begun here.

Between the island’s rugged beauty, history, and the abbey, it is regarded by many as a “thin place,” one where the veil between earth and heaven, humans and God seems especially thin. Kenneth Steven, a widely published poet and frequent BBC guest, has spent summers since childhood and longer periods on the island, roving its hills and beaches, often barefoot, as he notes in many of his poems. In this book, poems written on the island on many occasions and for different publications are gathered together. It is apparent that Iona is a “thin place” for Steven, a title of one of his poems and the questions he asks in a poem titled “Iona: “Is this place really nearer to God?/Is the wall thin between our whispers/and his listening?”

Many of the poems begin with simple observations of the natural world–of otters, butterflies, spider webs, geese, and woodpeckers. Others hark to the past of the island. We imagine the harp of a Celtic bard or the fiddle of St Kilda. We observe Columba in prayer in the marshlands. We visit the ruins of Clonmacnoise monastery, imagining the community of men who broke the water of wells and lit turf fires in winter.

Some of the poetry in the collection reflect his devotion. In “Honestly,” Steven encounters God not in the stone buildings but the moorlands. In “Island,” he describes coming to the island with prayers that were “ragged things,” the breaking of the jar of his heart, and leaving the island “see through, clear.” “Prayer” wonders how anyone could not believe in God after a blue spring day, fields, orchids, the sea, the wind.

The last part of the book takes us from Iona to the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the communities of the Amish and more global reflections on the land, and on the realities of Good Friday and Resurrection. Yet we cannot help but think that his thoughts take him back to Iona in his final poem in this collection, “Sacred Place.”

This is poetry that lingers long enough in a place to see and receive what is present. To linger in these poems is to glimpse and imagine the world of Iona, as seen and experienced by the author. Until you or I can visit, these poems take us to this “thin place” known as Iona.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Mary Oliver written between 1963 to 2015.

I have only discovered the poetry of Mary Oliver since her death in 2019. Isn’t that how it often has been with great writers? One of the ironies of this was that I lived in Oliver’s birthplace of Maple Heights, Ohio for nine years. How did I miss knowing of her for so long? She was even teaching at nearby Case Western Reserve during some of the time I lived there and it was during this time that she won the Pulitzer prize in 1984 for her collection American Primitive. I am glad at last to have found her, a writer roughly of my generation.

This collection is a good introduction to her work, a selection of her poetry written between 1963 and 2015 and published in 2017, a couple years before her passing. The book features over 200 of her poems arranged in reverse chronological order, most recent first. One of the most striking things one notices is that most of the poems are of sights on her daily walks near her home in Provincetown in New England. She writes of snakes and swans, of the pond near her home, of blueberries and violets, sunrises and sparrows. Her poetry is suffused with wonder at the simplest things, her sense of the oneness of all things and her desire to be one with them.

The transcendent is never far, sometimes in the Romantic awareness of the Ultimate in all things, sometimes in echoes of Christianity, writing of “Gethsemane” and Psalm 145. Her poem “Praying” (from Thirst, 2006) might do as well as anything to encapsulate the prayers of the “spiritual but not religious”:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The reference “into thanks” reflects another theme running through her work, a profound thankfulness for life, even in its transience. In the concluding lines of “Why I Wake Early” (2004) she writes, “Watch, now, how I start the day/in happiness, in kindness.”

One of the striking things evident in the arrangement of the poems is that her later poems are much shorter, and to me carry more meaning in fewer words. Another morning poem, “I Wake Close to Morning” (Felicity, 2015) opens this selection:

Why do people keep asking to see
God's identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon
Do you think she had to ask,
"Is this the place?"

Perhaps it is the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” or perhaps the waning of life’s energies that both slows her steps and leads her to choose her words as she writes in “The Gift” when she states: “So, be slow if you must, but let/the heart still play its true part.”

It would be wrong to give the impression that all here is sweetness and light. She writes of loneliness, and disappointment, and of death. One of the few poems of social comment is on the death of Tecumseh, one of the native leaders who fought displacement from the Ohio lands. Yet the dominant note is the wonder of the world around her that makes me wonder as to how much I miss on daily walks. We see, but do we pay attention? Oliver’s poems suggest she lived a life of paying attention