Monday, July 25, 2016

PARTING

Last night, a dear friend of mine who lives in Georgetown, or Washington, D.C., died. I dreamed of her departure before I received word that she had passed, and this morning when I opened two e-mails, I was not surprised by the news… just saddened.

Jane F. Bonin was an old friend who lived in New Iberia, Louisiana for many years, and we became acquainted during the time she taught English at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. She was an early encourager of my poetry writing and once co-authored a graded reading list for Iberia Parish Schools with me. During the early seventies, we also co-authored a house journal entitled Epiphany Tidings, an Episcopal church newsletter, and served on the board of a kindergarten sponsored by The Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia.

Jane’s contributions to Drama at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette were formidable ones — she wrote three books in this genre: Prize Winning Drama, Maria Fratti, and Major Themes in Prizewinning American Drama. She also received The Distinguished Professor Award, and when she retired from ULL and migrated to Washington, D.C. she distinguished herself on the staff of the Foreign Institute in the U.S. State Department.

But her sojourn in Malawi and Niger, Africa became her greatest life challenge, and she later wrote of it in The Color of a Lion’s Eye as a “six year drugless high with no social or legal consequences and no hangover. Nothing in my life has been as intense or as exciting as my time there…it was an overwhelming time from which I have not recovered and perhaps I don’t want to…” In Malawi she held the position of Associate Peace Corps Director; in Niger, she was appointed Peace Corps Country Director. Nineteen years passed before Jane produced a book about her experiences (2015): “…disparate threads of my six years serving those who serve in that place of astonishing and terrible beauty…”

This morning I hear her voice clearly in the words: “If I were in Africa we would sit on a mat under a tree and tell our stories one to the other. I hope this remembrance will be the next best thing.” Jane was a consummate raconteur, and the voice in the stories about Africa was at times witty; at others, poignant with sadness over “rotting flesh, maggoty wounds, glittering feverish eyes, grotesquely twisted limbs, cleft palates, and amputations,” but strong as she followed a leitmotif she lived by: “Serve those who serve.” During her darker moments in Africa she wrote that “‘the force that drives the green fuse,’ as Dylan Thomas called the life force, drives harder in Africa and creates both life and death with ever more velocity.”

Her book of twenty-four vignettes has circulated around Georgetown and Washington, D.C. and has found an attentive and appreciative audience — only a few months before her death, she read excerpts to members of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, hoping to inspire them with the desire to serve some charitable mission. Two months before her death, Jane made a last trek to France, which she loved, and in her spare time, she kept up her French lessons. At times, she sang in a large chorale in Washington. She loved music, language, art (Jane was once a docent in an art gallery), theatre – all cultural pursuits. She could also tell a bawdy joke, lift a glass, and prepare a gourmet meal for her friends.

Jane’s “tribe” of friends was large and diverse, and she was among those who advocate “nothing human is alien to me.” She embraced the disenfranchised, as well as those who moved in the circles of advanced culture. Back in the 70’s and 80’s I had the privilege of working with her in the Hunger Project. Our job was to raise both money and the consciousness of people about the seriousness of hunger in the world. At that time I was an executive director of a Girl Scout Council, and we staged a large event in Lafayette, Louisiana, using all we had learned in an old self-actualization organization, EST, about “intention” to end hunger. We spoke to a packed crowd. Jane went on to utilize her experiences in her role as a Peace Corps Director, and I later became an ordained deacon and Director of an outreach mission.

Through the years I never lost touch with this charming woman who, like most humans, had many faces and many talents. I last saw her this past year when she visited her daughter, Knowles Harper, at Sewanee, Tennessee. Somehow I knew it was a farewell visit because she seemed to be slipping away, although she hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer at that time. I told her we would visit again, and she said to me, “Any time you want me to meet you in some vacation place, I’m game.” She was always game for an adventure, but I didn’t follow through. I wish I had, and we could have gone to a prize place on my bucket list – the isle of Iona, a thin place where miracles happen. The next best thing I could do for her was to put her on the prayer list in another thin place, St. Mary’s Convent here at Sewanee – and, actually, the Order of St. Mary here has a sister Order in Malawi.

Of farewells, Emily Dickinson said it best: “Parting is all we know of heaven…and all we need of hell.” I’ll miss you, chere amie, but I also know you’re going to help them “pass a good time” and keep to their good intentions in the other world. As I once said in a homily for another old friend, and I don’t remember the source (readers of this tribute should know that the lines below aren’t original with me). The thoughts were taken from an article that describes spiritual movement in our lives: “the good and the affection we share with one another is eternal. They don’t start with us, and they don’t end with us. They come from and point toward God, toward love. No love we ever bestow on those who we care about is ever lost. It goes with them to God’s home and it stays with us. The love that goes deeper and reaches beyond material existence into the realms of spirit is the love that overcomes death because it comes from God, divine love.”  





Tuesday, July 12, 2016

ST. BENEDICT’S DAY A DAY LATER

It is the day after St. Benedict’s Feast Day, but we will celebrate it today, and I got up before dawn and dressed to go out to the Convent of the Order of St. Mary. The Sisters have probably been awake for some time, getting the chapel ready for Morning Prayer and Eucharist. Outside, the temps are in the low 70’s, and July heat will soon climb to the high 80’s on the Mountain. I check to see if our herb garden is withering, then censor watering today, praying for rain so that I won’t run up the water bill. I remember my first July here at Sewanee, how we unwittingly watered everything twice a day and received a water bill totaling $247 one month.

I stand in the yard a few minutes, savoring the mountain air and remembering how lonely I was after moving here from New Iberia, Louisiana where I had lived almost 50 years. I discovered the chapel at St. Mary’s Convent the following year (2008) and became an Associate of the Order after months of practicing a Rule similar to St. Benedict’s, which I have tried to follow since that time – his Rule of “Cross, Book, and Plow,” or “Prayer, Study, and Physical Work.” Many Tuesday mornings, I grouse about getting up at 5:30 or sometimes (but not often) at 5, bathing and dressing before 6:45 when I head out for the Convent.

Today, Victoria and I arrived at the Convent at 6:50, bearing gifts of Communion wine, each holding a jug of wine purchased in Monteagle the day before. We walked solemnly through the chapel to the sacristy, a procession that caused the Sisters to smile and say later that we seemed to be declaring, “Let the party begin!”

Roses had been placed behind the altar; sadly, they are no longer being arranged by Sr. Mary Zita who had a stroke a few months ago and is in a wheel chair. When I wrote my book of poetry In A Convent Garden, Sister Mary Zita was the first poem in the book. She always sits in the chair ahead of me, “an imperishable presence/abiding like a newly-given morning…and we wonder where she learned/the art of flower arrangement/that makes the Madonna smile…” Now, the arrangements are smaller, and behind the simple altar only one vase holds a tiny spray of knockout roses.

In the homily today, Sister Madeleine Mary tells us we need to be like St. Benedict – not about his miracles in which he makes water flow from rocks, or reads the minds of others, or makes oil continue to flow from a flask, but about his pursuit of a life of devotion to God, practicing a non-materialistic existence while reverencing everything. Sister asks us to continue to follow the Benedictine Rule, written in the second third of the sixth century, a discipline to which St. Benedict urged his followers to hold fast, despite the political and religious chaos of his time and that is still prevalent in the post-modern world of our time.

In 2010, Isabel Anders, the author of many religious books, who lives here on The Mountain, befriended me, and together we wrote a mystery set in a Benedictine Abbey in Louisiana entitled Chant of Death. It was enhanced by Isabel’s selection of metaphysical quotes and focused on what it means to live a life of holiness fraught with spiritual challenges. Isabel and I’ve often said that the Spirit wrote this fictional account of life in a Benedictine Abbey, and on this observance honoring St. Benedict, I ruminate on the tale we created while enjoying listening to chant and researching the history of the Benedictines.

This morning, we chanted Benedictus es, Domine, Song of the Three Men, Beneditus Dominus Deus, The Song of Zechariah, and sang Studdert-Kennedy’s beautiful morning hymn, “Awake, awake to love and work! The lark is in the sky,/the fields are wet with diamond dew, the worlds awake to cry/ their blessings on the Lord of life, as he goes meekly by…”

Penny, the Convent dog who is a sub-deacon and a regular participant at Communion, got up during the singing and shook her fur in affirmation; Sophie, the Convent cat, stood outside the chapel door waiting for her turn to sit on my chair, where she isn’t supposed to sit because she sends me into allergic paroxysms. The summer interns, two lovely young women, took turns reading from the Old Testament and New Testament, smiling tentatively at each other when one of them read a passage threatening us with being thrown into an abyss if we don’t behave. We were all there, lifting every voice in praise of a good morning, and St. Benedict must have been hovering close by, pleased that we were recognizing his life, which had edified and inspired us.

Someone had prepared for us a feast of bacon, eggs, blueberry muffins, canteloupes, and grapes, and we sat in the refectory in Community, honoring the saint who had brought us together in this thin place. We felt blessed, knowing that “He expects us to speak for Him,/over and over again/as [He did]…in love.”*

*In A Convent Garden





Monday, July 11, 2016

WHERE I WAITED


Where I have been waiting for several months now is in Sewanee, Tennessee…waiting for the mail to bring me the latest book of poetry, Where I Waited, by Louisiana’s premier poet, Darrell Bourque. To say that it was worth the wait is banal; the book is all that I anticipated. As I told Darrell, the Muse that sat on his shoulder as he ran every morning while he was creating Where I Waited (a time when Darrell writes many lines of his sonnets in his mind) was a very old, wise one who had been waiting to inspire him to write the poetry of his lifetime.  “Mystical” is an inept word to describe the work.

In this volume, the beautiful abstract paintings of Bill Gingles are paired with Bourque’s sonnets and must have also lain in wait for the moment to accompany the voices of iconic Creole-Cajun musicians and their wives and forebears featured in Where I Waited. In the words of the poet’s title poem, they are “… [those] voices all turn & wave & memory situated/in some arch between now & then…” Each expressionistic narrative poem is a song as poignant as the songs of the musicians represented.

Bourque includes poems about the lives of Amédé Ardoin, Cléoma Breaux Falcon, Iry Lejeune, and Goldman and Theresa Leday Thibodeaux, musicians and their spouses whose songs have been kept alive by historians and anthropologists and reimagined by the poet. It was impossible for me to single out one or two poems as examples of excellence. As I read each poem and looked at the paired painting, I found myself reluctant to move on to another, and I was not disappointed by the work of artist and poet after I turned each page in this remarkable volume. I read through Where I Waited twice.

The landscape of small rural communities in south Louisiana (Church Point, Mamou, Lawtell…) is the backdrop for musicians who seem to rise above their impoverished childhood and enter a mystical world of singing “we might wave over who we were, over what lives & what dies.” That line taken from “Wish Pond” was one of many tribute poems to Goldman Thibodeaux, still living, with whom Bourque has a strong bond. Lines describing Thibodeaux’s native Prairie Ronde sing of “crawfish pond, rice field & gravel pit pond, pond with dragonflies/hovering, pond dark as my brother’s skin, as light as mine, second/and third ponds & more for horses & cows & geese & ducks & skies/filled with thirsty Monarchs, ponds with us hanging in them there/like heavy pears in late spring or fat ripe figs in July tethered/barely to their trees…” 

In Bourque’s poetry, the reader recognizes that the poet could have been as adept at painting as he is in his poetry, and I know that he once considered majoring in Art History. In his home in Church Point, Louisiana, books vie for space with walls covered with art – fine art, Louisiana primitive art, abstract art…

One of the most moving poems, “Second Rate Mystic,” in Where I Waited is dedicated to Iry Lejeune. It's a sonnet about this blind musician who spent five years boarding at the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Bourque writes in Lejeune’s voice: 

“…In parceled light the only measure/I knew was true was measured sound. So, I made breakdowns/ & two-steps & laments, easy as flowers turning to sun. I broke/the mold of who I was supposed to be with air. Newly mown grasses were song & Caillette’s lowing too…Waltzes tied to the names of towns, /to branches in trees & to those cordoned off & lonely & broke…"

Only a highly-enlightened poet could enter the world of “there” and become the voice of deceased musicians traveling to “here,” as Bourque accomplishes with three of the music legends in this volume. The lyrics cross boundaries between physical and metaphysical to form a world in which there are no cultural fences, only the uplifting sounds of music that should be listened to and preserved.

Equally as valuable as the poetry are the Notes in the back of the volume. They provide factual material that Bourque used to shape the voices and narration of the musicians’ lives. Where I Waited is a book that will be lauded by scholars, fellow poets, historians, and artists, and this blog, limited in space and by the attention of casual readers, is intended only to titillate those who want to further explore the work of Louisiana’s finest poet.

Darrell Bourque, professor emeritus of English at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, directed the interdisciplinary humanities program and served as the first Friends of the Humanities professor. He is a founding member of Narrative4, an international story exchange program, a member of the board at the Ernest J. Gaines Center at ULL and a former Louisiana Poet Laureate. Two years ago, he was named Louisiana Writer of the Year by the Louisiana Center for the Book, Louisiana State Library, and this year he received the James Williams Rivers Prize in Louisiana Studies awarded by the University of Louisiana Lafayette. His latest book is Megan’s Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie, and his latest chapbook, if you abandon me, comment je vas faire: An Amédé Ardoin Songbook, has become the best selling book in the history of Yellow Flag Press.


Congratulations Darrell!