Dreaming of Stones: Poems
Christine Valters Paintner
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2019
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Reviewed by Michial Farmer
Midway through Dreaming of Stones, her new collection of poems, Christine Valters Paintner writes that her mission as a writer and a human being is to remember “the wonder that there is anything, / much less bluebells and fresh bread, / the way world are encapsulated / in drops of dew” (“In Praise of Forgetting,” ll. 23-26). As far as aesthetic mission statements go, you could do a lot worse—especially for a poet like Paintner, whose poems skate the line between physical and metaphysical, between ordinary and sacramental. Though she doesn’t say so directly, Paintner’s poetics demonstrate Simone Weil’s famous observation that attention is a form of prayer. Perhaps all good poetry does that, but Paintner seems particularly cognizant of it.
Her day job, as many readers will know, is as the Abbess of the Abbey of the Arts, a “virtual global online monastery”; she is also the author of several books about spiritual contemplation. Her poems share with her prose the influence of Celtic mysticism—she has lived in Galway, Ireland, for half a decade—and a general sense that our unimpressive and quotidian lives are full of the materials that could sustain our souls if only we’d let them. “Our lives are filled with vessels,” she writes in a poem called “Cup,” “that save us each day” (ll. 21-22). Poetry, as she makes clear in her afterword, has been such a vessel for her, and she offers us her own poems in the hope that they can be of some use to us.
It’s a large gift: There are more than a hundred poems in this collection, and if I sometimes found myself wishing she’d published them in two volumes, I was grateful for the opportunity their bulk afforded to live inside Paintner’s mind for extended periods. Images, and even phrases, recur, so that we begin to see the world of things through her eyes, so that we watch, for example, the stony, gray view from her window turn into “a vision in gold and gleam” (“St. Enda Arrives on Insimor,” l. 4). Transfigurations like this one bloom throughout Dreaming of Stones. Celtic mysticism frequently hinges on the image of the “thin places, spots where the wall between the temporal and eternal worlds is beginning to crumble, and Paintner is a master guide to them, showing us how to find them in our own lives by showing us what they look like in hers. The effect is both personal and universal: She doesn’t exactly show us our world by showing us hers, but she does give us the lenses that we help us to look at it.
The sites of Paintner’s transfigurations are various—an inhumanly mechanized hospital room where her mother lies dying; a windowsill where a grimy pigeon waits patiently to be fed; the Midtown Manhattan high rise where she grew up—but most often she finds them in the cold Atlantic Ocean, a macrocosm of her interior world:
There is a great tide within me,
already rising, always receding.
Despite the sea’s resistance,
I feel my exile less keenly here.
I who love the horizon can
finally see beyond seeing,
and I dive beneath
the slate blue surface.
(“I Have Always Loved the Sea,” ll. 21-28)
These stanzas demonstrate a central tension of post-Enlightenment mysticism, be it religious or aesthetic: We know with our intellects that, for example, the sea is indifferent to us, and yet something makes us feel at home there anyway. Many of Paintner’s poems are accordingly about moving beyond the intellect into a more expansive mode of thought. The stone of the collection’s title becomes an important symbol. Stones, she reflects, “gather our heaviness / into their granite endurance” (“Flagstone of Loneliness,” ll. 10-11). The natural world is not a projection of our imagination, nor is it a blank canvas for that projection; its very solidity and realness allow us to confide in it, trusting that it will protect us, to some degree, from the grief that always lies in wait for us. Failing that, it will understand that grief if we let it: “If you sit by a stream and listen / as water makes music over rocks, / you will hear them keening” (ll. 23-25). The world keens with and for us, once we hear beyond hearing.
Thus the world becomes her world, our world. I was struck from the beginning by Paintner’s habit of dropping articles before nouns; for example, in the first line of “Lauds,” she refers not to “The lustrous moon” but simply to “Lustrous moon.” Eventually I concluded that she’s evoking the items of her world as individuals to be known and loved rather than as objects to be quantified. The definite article the would create too much distance between her and the moon, so, as poets always have, she wages a gentle war on the language in order to make it say what she wants it to say—to express her grief, her wonder, and her love.
At her highest moments, she expresses all three simultaneously. In a poem called “The Duty of Delight”—inspired by the perfectly unlikely duo of Dorothy Day and John Ruskin—she limns the inexpressible, unbelievable pain of the world before offering the only solution she can imagine:
Perhaps this is life’s most exalted and exacting task,
holding the hardest edges against the soft wonder,
or seeking the consolation of nature’s indifference.
Even the flame turns to ash,
even the ash is fodder for roses. (ll. 16-20)
Human life, she notes, is a rushing toward the East, a rushing into the darkness of the night in the hopes that we will find the morning faster that way. There is no hope without despair, no wonder without repulsion, no love without ugliness. Paintner’s poems remind us of this truth—which we all already know instinctively—with beauty and grace.
Michial Farmer is 1/3 of the Christian Humanist Podcast and the author of Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction (Camden House, 2017). His essays and poems have appeared in The Cresset, The St. Katherine Review, and Touchstone.