Wednesday, April 24, 2019


Most mornings in fair weather (often not so fair in spring and summer in Louisiana), Darrell Bourque, Louisiana’s premier poet, can be found writing the lines to a new poem while walking an old path near his home in Church Point, Louisiana. He’s a master of what poets call “voice,” often entering into the voice of some lesser-known figure who has made a significant contribution to the culture and history of his/her native state. 

Bourque’s latest book, From the Other Side, is beautifully illustrated with the art of Bill Gingles, a Shreveport artist, and features poems about Henriette Delille, a former New Orleans religious figure. During the 19th century, Delille organized a group of devout Christian women called the Sisters of the Holy Family to nurse the sick, care for and teach indigent and illiterate Black and Creole children, as well as immigrating adults who settled in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This group was formally recognized in 1942 by St. Augustine Church in the Treme of New Orleans, and Delille, who died in 1862, was first deemed Servant of God in 1988, then advanced to Venerable in the process of canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. Her inclusion in the process continues — the next two steps are beatification and canonization.

Darrell Bourque and his wife, Karen, became interested in this passionate and empathetic nun several years ago — an interest which culminated in Karen designing and rendering a glass triptych for a window of Christ the King Roman Catholic Mission Church in Bellevue near the Bourque’s home in Church Point, Louisiana. The recent publication of Darrell’s book of poetry, From the Other Side: Henriette Delille followed last month’s dedication of this window. 

Although Henriette Delille spoke French (as does Bourque), Bourque captured her voice in what he terms persona sonnets in English within From the Other Side, an impassioned voice that speaks of orphans and the uneducated on the streets of the French Quarter of New Orleans — a voice derived from Bourque’s meditations on the images and colors in Gingles’ paintings; e.g.,:

What If You Dreamed

                    …We teach 
                    reading here the way we teach children to sing. Old
                    women wander from arches to see what this reach
                    will reach. We start with the names of flowers sold
                    on the streets in the Quarter & the Marigny, peach-
                    colored, pink & red & blue-dyed flowers, white gold
                    flowers named how they are named: Daisy, Bream,
                    Belle, Violet, Hyacinth & Myrtle, William, Iris, Reed, 
                    Sorrel & Olive, Lillie & Camellia, Rose, Red & Gleem.
                    We start with who they are & go to what they need.

One of my favorites, All the Time, is accompanied by Gingles’ painting by that name, an acrylic panel including scarlet forms resembling poppies in which Bourque presents Delille’s voice speaking about the work of the Sisters of the Holy Family: 

                       …We moved quietly from one need to another need
                       as we found it. We brought things inside our houses, kept our candles lit,
                       We let the world be the world, let the heart be heart, let creed be creed. 

This is one among many poems in the volume that show Bourque’s ability to achieve what A. E. Housman called “not the thing said but a way of saying it.”

Another poem in which Bourque imagines Delille speaking of her dedication to work with children of the New Orleans streets is the poignant:

The Difference Island 
              …My wings

              are who I am. They flew me to this difference island where I am no more
              a trace or line. We crossed bayous & bays & lakes & rivulets as fine as lace
              to this other world beyond geographies where I knew what I had to live for,
              the poor despised, the cipher bought and sold, what I saw in an orphan’s face.

Bourque used the titles of Gingles’ paintings for all of the poems in this volume and points to the language of the paintings as influencing the language of his poems. “Without these paintings I know I could not have accessed this particular set of poems spoken by the powerful and holy human being Henriette Delille is,” he writes in the acknowledgements to From the Other Side. I would add that Bourque’s deft gift of imagining the voice within the voice (“…What’s just beyond the tree leans on what we never knew we knew…”) influences the reader’s understanding of “the other side”and the art that takes us there. 

The Sisters of the Holy Family continue to carry out Delille’s mission in retirement homes, schools, and other sacred service organizations in New Orleans, Shreveport, Galveston, Little Rock, Washington, DC, in California, in Belize, and in Africa. Delille’s original prayer penned in French was a simple but cogent one: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”

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1 comment:

Jo Ann Lordahl said...

What a wonderful job you do on your Blog Diane - Thanks for writing them.
Jo Ann