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Tag: mark burrows

while we’re away: soulful reading

soulful reads 11.17

oh, it’s been a week, all right. zipped home from inaugural law school visit last weekend, dove into proofing of almost-final-round of book manuscript, stayed awake a night or two, lost a round of editing when computer got mightily hungry and ate a day’s worth of labor, and now off to — gulp! — take a peek at a few colleges with the sweet boy i swear was born just a few minutes ago. while we’re buzzing about the dairy state (soon to be named something far less bovine, i’m told), i thought i’d leave you with a little soulful reading.

here’s the latest roundup of spiritual books from the pages of the chicago tribune.

Mary Oliver’s ‘Devotions’ offers snapshot of a half-century of work

By Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune

“Devotions” by Mary Oliver, Penguin, 480 pages, $30

For more than half a century, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has been training her eye on the mysterious and mystical thrumming of the divine. She sets out on a hike through the woods and suddenly she is asking questions, posing possibilities that hover at the liminal edge of the sacred.

“Why do people keep asking to see / God’s identity papers / when the darkness opening into morning / is more than enough?” she asks in the first poem found in her new book, “Devotions,” which draws from 26 collections published during the past half-century. It’s as if the poet herself has sidled beside the reader and pointed us to the poems she considers most worthy of deep consideration.

It’s Oliver’s most profound gift, perhaps, that she — like so many of the most soul-rippling poets — comes at her subjects from oblique angles. Her work catches us unsuspecting. For instance: “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs. / The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that. And anyway / what’s wrong with Maybe?”

“Holy Rover” by Lori Erickson, Fortress, 256 pages, $24.99

It’s not every day that a travelogue comes rolling along on the spiritual book cart, and this one in every way is worth a literary expedition. For starters, the author of “Holy Rover” is a first-rate storyteller and a longtime travel writer. After decades writing for mainstream slicks — National Geographic Traveler, Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful — Erickson here turns her sights on spiritual pilgrimages and holy meccas around the world. She is at turns irreverent and devout. She spins a fine yarn and weaves in a mighty dose of insight along the way.

In a world tour of religions that carries the reader from the trail of elves in Iceland to Hildegard of Bingen’s abbey along the Rhine in Germany — with stops in Thomas Merton’s Kentucky and at Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond — Erickson both explains and enlightens. And her explication — never settling for an off-the-shelf recounting or humdrum heard-it-all-before — digs deep, shining light on little-known nooks and crannies of the religion world’s most uncanny characters and sacred landscapes.

With every stop on the “Holy Rover” tour, the armchair spiritualist stumbles into something new to learn.

“Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart” by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows, Hampton Roads, 240 pages, $16.95

In history’s short list of spiritual supernovas, Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century German mystic and theologian, surely must be counted. He was a genius, a prophet far ahead of his time. Yet, in no small measure because of the complexity of his thinking and the tradition of theological discourse to which he belonged, his work is not an easy read. His sublime vision of the divine dwelling within each of us has escaped all but the most ardent of students.

But just as soul-sweeping as ecstatic Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz, Eckhart, with “his way of piercing straight to the heart of the inner life, the awakened spark,” as Thomas Merton once put it, belongs in certain reach.

And so, “Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul,” a collection of poems drawn directly from or inspired by Eckhart’s prose, is a welcome addition to the spiritual library, as it offers a deeply textured invitation into the mystic’s heart. It is the culmination of decadeslong study of Eckhart by the two authors, Jon Sweeney, a scholar, editor and critic, and Mark Burrows, a poet and professor of medieval theology in Germany.

Each poem is short, spare, distilled. And each one is footnoted, so the reader might begin in enchantment, then trace the poetry to its source. A sure-footed path toward mastering one of the great masters of the last millennia.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in April.

i’ll be back next week, with a post-thanksgiving litany of gratitudes. for now, may your day of feasting, and all the kitchen magic that precedes it, be filled with grace and deliciousness. 

and happy blessed birthday to my sweet, sweet mama! much love, always…xoxox

and one deeply sad and poignant note. a few weeks ago, in one of the most blessed moments of the book escapades of Motherprayer, i tumbled into the story of a glorious mama who, amid a hushed crowd in a sacred space, told her roots-and-wing story, how roots came so easily to her, the mother of one, but wings, she discovered, she was “not so good at.” giving wings to her girl, her beautiful magnificent brave girl, that wasn’t so easy. letting go, it seemed, went deeply against her grain. so the mama, intent on finding a way to do that very hard wing-giving thing, sat down in the dark one night — under the lights of a football stadium, no less — and needlepointed a pair of wings for her daughter, for when she’d some day need them. the mama’s name, though i didn’t write it when i wrote the post, love letter at the end of a chapter, was bonnie. bonnie died on november 3, less than a month after the night she tumbled forever into my heart, her story — and the triumphant way she told it, a booming voice bellowing forth from the most delicate soul i’d seen in a very long time — forever etched in my heart. bonnie’s beautiful magnificent daughter now finds that she’s the one holding the wings, and indeed, as she knew it would be, it’s harder than hard — it’s unbearable almost — to be without her mama. this weekend those who loved bonnie are gathering in a glittering downtown high-rise to tell love stories, to put wings to the spirit of bonnie. if you’ve a blessing to spare, please send one up for bonnie, a beautiful well-winged friend. and one for her very brave daughter. thank you. xoxox 

and one more thing about bonnie, who loved being a mother, maybe more than anything she had ever done. the day before she died, she said this: “what is important is to love.” and then she added: “you can only do it one person at a time.” 

i only met her once, but the force of her love was among the mightiest i’ve ever encountered. thank you and bless you, dear bonnie.

what might be your most lasting instruction?

99 psalms: prayer-poems that “refuse to leave us unattended”

99 psalms

it was nearly 17 months ago, on a hot saturday’s afternoon, with little sleep the night before, that i climbed the stairs of a gray triple-decker (boston vernacular for what chicagoans call the “three-flat”), just down the lane and around the corner from harvard square. there i met a bearded gentle man, a man who presided over an aerie where birds came to the windows, where sunrise poured into the living room, and sunset washed the kitchen in a rose-tinted rinse. cabinets were stacked with pottery, cobalt rough-hewn plates, heavy to the hand; mugs whose handles met the flesh of your palm with solid tenderness. and books, books lined the walls, floor to ceiling, in half the rooms.

the bearded bespectacled man was mark burrows. he was, for 11 months, our landlord. and he will be, for life, my lighthouse keeper and my teacher.

mark (for in this moment i address him as a friend) is a professor of poetry and divinity, a scholar of mysticism, and a historian of medieval christianity. in that first walk-through of the two-bedroom-two-office apartment for rent, as i spied the titles on his desk, i knew i needed to live there. i needed to inhale the essential texts, and the poetry and prayer that breathed there.

almost a year ago, mark, who is now teaching theology and literature at the university of applied sciences in bochum, germany, published the luminous “prayers of a young poet” (paraclete press, 2013), a collection of 67 poems of rainer maria rilke, the great german poet. that book, the first english translation of rilke’s prayers in their original form, evoked for poet jane hirshfield, “leonardo da vinci’s notebooks — it shows the same mix of surety, roughness, genius, and the sense of a precipitous creative speed.”

rilke explores “the poetry of search,” or as burrows writes, “poetry that ponders darkness.”

just weeks ago, my teacher, professor burrows, published another translation of a poet whose work dares to explore the often unexplored landscape — the soul in exile. this time, burrows put his considerable intellect to the work of a poet i’d not ever known, one who goes by the pen name of SAID.

the book is titled, “99 psalms: SAID,” translated from german by mark s. burrows (paraclete press, 2013).

born in tehran, SAID emigrated to germany as an engineering student in 1965, but he abandoned those studies to pursue a writing career, and through the power of his poetry, has become a prominent figure in the german literary scene.

burrows first encountered SAID, he recalls, on a “dreary, rain-soaked night” in munich’s old city hall in may of 2010, at a poetry reading held in conjunction with the second ecumenical Kirchentag, a massive gathering sponsored by the roman catholic church and the protestant church of germany.

as SAID took to the microphone, burrows writes that he noticed the audience leaning forward, the better to absorb what flowed next.

“the psalms he chose…were blunt, vivid, and often startling in their language and imagery. none betrayed any trace of sentimentality…the fierce directness of their language conveyed a marked impatience with intolerance, probing the ambiguities of life with an unflinching honesty in order to remind us — if we had forgotten — that ‘purity isn’t the sister of truth.'”

burrows goes on to write that “these are psalms that cry out against the confidence of zealots, with their claims of righteous authority over others — crusaders, campaigners, and jihadists alike.”

in other words, the exile SAID writes poems of exile, “psalms arising from a ‘no-man’s-land.'” he employs a metaphor of wind as “a hope that reaches beyond religious differences and across the growing disparities between the affluent and poor,” as burrows writes.

in the tradition of the hebrew psalmist, SAID’s works are poems of praise and lament. burrows writes that “the poems we need are often the ones that refuse to leave us unattended.” they remind us “to look beyond what we know, or think we know.”

these poems, writes burrows, “bear witness to the heart’s descent into loneliness and despair, and gesture to the ascents we also know in moments of compassion and generosity.”

as always, poetry does the work of capturing the unspoken, unformed fragments of our heart, of our deepest imagination. the poet, as the butterfly catcher, employs the vessels of language to net, to gather, to collect the flitting-about, untethered, winged idea, the moment.

the poet does the work so we — the reader, the listener, the lonely pilgrim — can stake some claim of understanding in a landscape that until the moment of the poet’s poetry has escaped us.

the poet places us, solidly, in territory at once familiar and foreign. we trip upon the syllables of the imagination, and we find ourselves breathless at the poet’s deep knowing, at the exhilarating moment of loneliness collapsed. we recognize, we understand anew the depths of the human spirit, in wordform before un-uttered.

SAID addresses his psalms to “lord,” though not one bound by any religious tradition. he is certainly a late-modern psalmist, and his prayer poems speak to the complexities of the tangled fractious world in which we live. he explores the human condition with more urgency, perhaps, than he explores the divine. and therein is tension, poetry that refuses to leave us unattended.

one last thing, before i leave you with a psalm or two: about the 99 psalms, the number ninety-nine in the muslim tradition is the precise number of names by which Allah — God — is known. there remains one name — “the last/ the hidden” — that is unknowable, beyond us. so too with the 99 psalms; we are left wondering about the one beyond, the one which, perhaps, is written but not known, or not yet written. what might the unknowable tell us? why are we left not knowing?

here, a pair of SAID psalms that “refuse to leave you unattended”:

[Psalm 35]

lord

pray

that we recognize you

when you come

destroy the go-between gods

with their grand airs and their daily needs

set your seal upon your houses

and don’t be afraid of our nakedness

let the cypresses be your messengers

for they stand upright and whisper

and don’t try to convert the wind

[pause for silence.]

and now, one other, though choosing only one was tough, indeed…

[Psalm 10]

lord

spread wide your arms

and protect us

from the multitudes of your guardians

stand by those who wander

who’ve not lost the gift of hearing

and listen within their solitude

stand by those too

who stay and wait for you

[silence, once again…]

chair friends, i come to you on a wednesday, because in the publishing world these days, blogging about a book is one way to cast wider the net. and today was the day they asked me to write. 

i ask: is there a poem in your life — or especially in your now — that refuses to leave you unattended? and what about the 100th psalm, do you wonder what it asks or says?