Adele Gallogly

REFLECTIONS & REVIEWS


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The Gorgeous Curiosity of Mary Oliver

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Eighty-one-year-old Mary Oliver is widely acclaimed for her wise, lyrical poetry that presents life as a spiritual pilgrimage. Her latest book, a collection of essays, celebrates nature and literature as sources of hope, and points to the power of quiet acts such as taking a slow walk in the woods or spending hours with a book. As fans of Oliver’s work already know, however, she sees such acts as far more than movements of serenity or escape. The very title of her new book, Upstream, alludes to resistance—and the purposeful boldness of her vision should not be missed. Continue reading


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Believing in Poetry in Haiti – Part II

As of January 12, it has been six years since the devastating Haiti earthquake. But there are signs of resilient hope in this country. Part II of my reflections on literacy, poetry, and my time in Haiti has been posted over at Relief Journal. Here’s an excerpt.

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Believing in Poetry in Haiti – Part 2 (Read Part 1 here)

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

Edwidge Danticat

A group of Haitian men and women sit around tables in a classroom with small windows. Fans are whirring, cutting some thickness from the warm morning air. The instructor, Lunise, is teaching Chapter 4 of a literacy program in a language I do not know. She translates for me when she can, but her main focus is, as it should be, on her class. Despite the distance of my foreigner’s ear, I am grateful to be among these attentive literacy students for an hour. I make a note to try and use “we” and “our” when I write about this later.

We are learning in Creole. I have been told this is not the educational language of choice for most Haitians. Most of them would prefer to learn in French, since it is considered the language of the elite. But French would be an extra step for learners who already know word meanings and organize their thoughts in Creole. The incorporation of poetry helps make the familiar fresh. “Poetry makes Creole attractive and new for them again,” Lunise told me. I like that, a familiar language reborn through a literary form.

Continue reading.

 


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Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

jpoliver-articleLargeProlific poet Mary Oliver has always displayed an unabashed love for animals and a special talent for pondering affection, beauty, and grief through the world’s smallest creatures. Her recently published poetry collection, Dog Songshonors the canine companions that have brightened her life and work.maryoliverdogsongs

Oliver praises dogs for their loyalty, playfulness, and “steadfastness”; she laughs at them and mourns for them. She even imagines what they might say to her in human language. “Love and company are the adornments/that change everything,” one of her dogs ‘says’—a simple line that carries much wisdom. Ultimately, this collection is about affection beyond words—and without conditions. You do not have to be a pet owner to appreciate Dog Songs as a unique and moving portrait of how our relationship with animals can remind us, as Oliver says, “how rich it is to love the world.” (Review originally published in The Banner)


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Rilke on Marriage

rilke.young.poet.mitchell“Marriage is in many ways a simplification of life, and it naturally combines the strengths and wills of two young people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than they did before. Above all, marriage is a new task and a new seriousness, – a new demand on the strength and generosity of each partner, and a great new danger for both.

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

… For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey.”

 — From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke — a passage read by our friend (and matchmaker) Daniel Bowman Jr. at our December 31, 2013 wedding ceremony. Dan has a brief but beautiful reflection on this passage, and on marriage as one way to “love the expanse” others, over on the Relief Journal blog.


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Bearing Witness to Hope when Memory Fails

downloadYou are likely familiar with at least a few frightening stats regarding dementia. On the radio just the other morning, an announcer gloomily shared a recent report from Alzheimer’s Disease International stating that 44 million people live with the disease – and warning that this figure will likely increase to 135 million by the year 2050. A global epidemic, it is being called. But then, the stats themselves are not what haunt most of us, are they? Many of us have moved beyond the distant dread, having already experienced the intimate pain of seeing people we love altered by Alzheimer’s – a parent or a grandparent, a sibling or a friend. For poet and author Jeanne Murray Walker, that person was her mother, Erna Murray Kelley, who began to show signs of the disease in her early eighties.

Over the course of a decade, Walker’s feisty, sociable and practical mother became the frail, anxious and often-confused woman that her loved ones barely recognized. The Geography of Memory is Walker’s attempt to “bear witness” to the suffering and pain of her mother’s decline – and to the grace that upheld her and her family in this distressing transformation. As one would expect, this is a hard read, full of sorrow and fear. But this is a larger story, too – a tribute that honours the complexities of human personality and memory, and the God who created them. “I wrote this book because I believe the news about Alzheimer’s is more hopeful than what we hear on the street,” Walker writes in the preface. By hopeful “news” she does not mean she has new, optimistic facts from science to hold against the gloom. No, her hope is anchored in the paradox of suffering: that it can alter people for the worse but also for the better, because it can bring with it a renewed awareness of love and grace. “Alzheimer’s is bleak. It is,” Walker says plainly. “But it is not all horror. My mother’s last years reveal that for all the heartache, there can still be joy and laughter, insight and love.”

Geography of Memory is non-linear – a  format that that feels especially fitting, given the ambling, irregular nature of human recall. The first chapter opens with Walker and her husband in a Paris hotel room, receiving the call with news that her mother had passed. Walker’s grief and bewilderment prove that we are never prepared for death – even when we know the time is coming, and when loved ones have radically changed.

As her mother’s memories become more faded and jumbled with the past, Walker’s own memories are illumined anew. Her account moves back and forth between memories of reckoning with symptoms of her mother’s disease in the 2000s and memories of her 1950s childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska. In between these narratives are what Walker calls “Field Notes” – one-two page reflections on the research into memory and ways to understand its role in our world.

Walker reveals that her family has been touched by the chaos of death and chronic disease before, with her father dying of heart failure when she was just a girl and her severely asthmatic brother passing away at eighteen. Through it all, Walker remembers her mother as stubborn and resilient – a dedicated nurse, a talented painter, a fundamentalist Christian and a devoted mother whose desire to protect could be in turns admirably comforting and frustratingly restrictive. Still, as a mother herself now she can see why the chaos compelled her mother to want to keep her family safe.

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Walker (on right) with her mother.

As a teenager, Walker’s relationship with her mother became caught up in clashes of faith – clashes that eventually led Walker to leave the church of her youth. But even these tensions, when recalled afresh in the light of her mother’s ailment, help Walker appreciate the “multiple selves” within us all. “They are stages in a journey – the child, the disillusioned teenager, the mother, the poet, the grandmother –stations on the way toward learning what it means to be human,” she says. “They are not unlike the many mothers who lived inside my mother.”

Since Walker is a poet, playwright and professor, it is not surprising that literature becomes her lifeline. She learns to embrace the language of her mother’s Alzheimer’s – the illogical statements and flashes from the past – as metaphor, rather than words to be corrected. She agrees with a researcher’s claim that “the language of the demented is closer to poetry than any other kind of speech.”

Along with a new understanding of language, Walker also reaches a new awareness of God – of who he is and how he works through our many chapters of “selves.” Of course there are times when God feels distant, and feelings of helplessness and despair overwhelm her. Even so, loving her mother through Alzheimer’s makes clear to her “the genius of Christianity,” a suffering God with “a good memory” of confusion, loneliness and other pain.

This vision of an ever-present God acquainted with grief is one of the “spectacular gifts” that Walker believes could only come to her through her experience with her mother’s illness. Through its lens she can also see the many gifts of grace and mercy given to her relationships, such as the intimacy and appreciation she reaches with her sister as a result of their difficult caretaker years. Even Alzheimer’s can be a means of finding resolution and deepening faith–a means of spiritual transfiguration.

This vision of God is also what makes The Geography of Memory more than a book to be read only by those with a direct experience of, or particular interest in, dementia. Instead it can be read by all those looking for honest, tender and luminously written evidence that, as Walker says, “in spite of suffering, our universe is ordered by a force that’s not chance, not brutality, not evil, but goodness.”

(Originally published in the December 23 edition of the Christian Courier)


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Tracking the Walking Poets

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So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance—
and changes us, even if we do not reach it…

                                                                                                                                          —Rilke, “A Walk”

I cannot be the only child who was first exposed to “devotional poetry” through the ever-famous work “Footprints in the Sand”. I saw it mostly on the walls of friends or neighbors—in embroidered prints with sand and water and sky sewn in around the verses to set the scene of a dreamed of beach.

While I was never as enamored of it as everyone else seemed to be, I did accept its sentiment of spiritual comfort, then. The allegory of a walk made sense to a child raised on Bible stories and fairy tales of adventurous wanderings and who had walked barefoot by the water on many summer holidays. And there was of course such peaceable assurance in that ending line, of a Lord who lifts and says: “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

“Footprints” is not a work I connect with now. Over the years my definition of poetry has changed, and with it my understanding of how it intersects with faith. The classic devotional poems of George Herbert or John Donne are now stitched into my soul—as are the beautiful ponderings of modern-day masters such as like Christian Wiman and Mary Oliver.

And while it may sound silly to some—and even snobbish—to compare “Footprints” with such works, I think it is fair to say this: I do not see anything of real walking in this “poem.” This is part of why it leaves my particular spiritual imagination wanting more. There are no concrete images—no sensory details to that set the shore or sea alight. We only know it is about a beach walk because we are told so.

While I do not write poetry, I have always had a special love for poetry about walking. So how can I not look with some disappointment on such a work?

I also see reading poetry as (to borrow an Antler phrase) a devotional practice for spiritual formation. Like poet Peggy Rosenthal, I believe that the very act of reading poetry is very much like taking a walk—that “its rhythms, its sound-echoes, its line-breaks and stanza-breaks, all conspire to give us pause.” Both walking and poetry are, to me, a kind of prayer.

As ironic as it may sound, I confess that I often feel more…spiritually awakened by walking poems in which God himself is not directly present—not mentioned by name or presented as a ‘speaker.’

I think of Raymond Carver sea-gazing among rocks and gulls, in “This Morning,” which begins: “I dressed and went / for a walk — determined not to return / until I took in what Nature had to offer.”

Carver’s poem lets us into a walking moment—the tension between “what he was seeing” and the inscape of his “wandering thoughts.”  Of nature he says:

For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong — duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.

Carver dares to expose the details of the weight he carries, while also acknowledging the paradox of seeing one’s inner word more clearly through the immediate physical world. He takes with him “the stuff [he] lives with every day” as he apprehends nature’s beauty.

I have walked this way—in between those realities. Sometimes it is while I am praying and intentionally “devoting”, but sometimes God is there unaddressed, as I move and ponder in nature’s bare presence.

Similarly, “Fathers and Sons” by Patrick Lane features a poet walking with heavy memories and hard emotions—regret, shame, grief apparently evoked by recalling his dead father. It begins:

I will walk across the long slow grass
where the desert sun waits among the stones
and reach down into the heavy earth
and lift your body back into the day.

Lane keeps this patient, tender pace throughout the poem, as his memories and desires play out against the landscape. In near-psalmic language he describes “speaking love into [his Father’s] flesh” and “bless[ing] this man who died”.  As he treks across the hills and stones he imagines taking his father’s hands, palm to palm, and lifting them, saying “this is praise/this is the holding that is father and son.”

Such lines bring to my mind  the suffering Christ—the weight of what he carried for us, but also the good,  heavy work of lifting his love, praise, and blessing into our days.

Upstate New York poet Daniel Bowman Jr. is the newest walking poet on my readerly path. Almost every poem in his collection A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country is a pilgrimage across a dreamed or remembered landscape—from fog-blackened back fields to roads beside houses with open windows. His paths mingle the commonplace with the ethereal and the spiritual.

For me, his poems are haunting testaments to the intersection of the personal with the communal—the everyday with the eternal. Take this verse, from “The Sticking” :

Walking alone
through the village of my birth
makes everything
stick to my feet.
Soon I’ve got Blessed Sacrament
on my right heel,
basket of blue fish flopping
eternal, a young confessor
falling, clinging
to the scarlet curtain.

This small survey* of eloquent, walking poets urges me to move—to be always open to the particularities of pain and of beauty.

Such poetry can prime us to clearly see Christ in others—and to acknowledge his working in our own lives more honestly. It also expands our understanding of the term “spiritual walk”; I trust the Spirit to move through all moments in my life, not just the times of intentional devotion, but the small scenes, too—including my encounters with those on different religious peripheries or with different histories. All are occasions for transformation—gifts from a Father who intimately accompanies his children in this present life as he prepares us for the life to come.

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 *A P.S. that this Canadian poetry fan cannot resist: Lorna Crozier’s “If a Poem Could Walk” is another wonderful walking poem—a playful exploration of poetry’s “tame and wild” way of “walking.”

(First published over at antler — I encourage you to check out the rest of their wonderful site.)


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Memorizing Mercy

Attention is the beginning of devotion.
—Mary Oliver

open-bible-444118-mIn elementary school I loved the rhythms of “memory work”—from reading the Scripture passage in class to taking it home to be written out again or pasted on the fridge or recited aloud with my hands covering the verses. And I was glad to have new words and mysterious phrases in my mind.

Sadly this communal grade school activity did not work its way into a personal adult devotional practice. In recent years I have memorized mostly academic formulas and facts, along with a few poems and favorite sentences. But I have not engaged with Scripture this way.

I’m sure I am missing out on an enriching experience, though. I think of friends who recalled passages in times of deep sorrow or overwhelming joy. I also think of the testimonies of those imprisoned for their faith who clung to memorized verses in the solitary darkness.

New Yorker piece I read on the virtues of memorizing poetry pointed out that “if we do not learn [poetry] by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” I am sure it is the same with Scripture.

So I am attempting to get back into the practice of memory work.

I have started, as perhaps most do, with a psalm—Psalm 103. It happened to be a recent “verse of the day” on my smartphone. Sometimes I read a digital version of Scripture or listen to an audio; other times I read verses I have copied out or use a Bible.

But whichever way I read Scripture, I read it as a work about memory: a startling revelation of God’s character that reminds me of all he has done—in the past and in the present, for me and for all. “Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me,” says David. I too long for that faithful recollection.

The version I have settled on is the New Living Translation. To me, the “let” language this translation employs speaks of invitation and reliance on God. I remember that I am listening here—letting God’s truth go through me as I continue to develop my memory for his unfailing mercy. As I memorize this passage, I hope I will also personalize it as a kind of prayer, recalling particular instances of God’s goodness and offering up my struggles to a Father who “knows how weak we are; he remembers that we are only dust.”

I have only been with this psalm for a short while. My memory still trails off and ultimately fails to hold it in its entirety. Some days I still neglect to look at it—or any Scripture—at all.

But I am determined to return again and again to the Word—to attune myself to the insistent heart of God and let myself fall into the beat of its persistent mercy.

(Originally published in The Banner magazine)