A Feature Review of
Paul Quenon, OCSO
Meditations in Times of Wonder
Reviewed by Matthew Braddock
The mathematician Henri Poincare, once said, “It is by logic that we prove. It is by intuition that we discover.” When our minds are set on one way of thinking or one way of doing things, mindlessly determined by the past, we blur our intuition and can miss much of the present world around us. A purely rational/logical understanding of events can confirm old mindsets and preserve rigid categories. One should pay careful attention to what happens when one becomes stuck in a particular rational narration of a dominant story.
The counterbalance is to discover alternative narratives through awareness and intuition; varying ways of perceiving a reality that has become lost. This is one of the reasons we have poetry. As Paul Quenon reminds is in Unquiet Vigil, poems helps us listen and pay attention to that which has not yet been seen or heard. Through intuition, one may excavate stories and experiences that have been repressed, submerged, or buried. Quenon, a Trappist monk and student of Thomas Merton, refers to the process of watching and listening as “keeping vigil”.
Unquiet Vigil is a collection of new and previously published poems. Quenon’s style has a succinct, haiku-like rhythm of two to four beats per line. Indeed, the new poems include twenty-three uncollected haiku. Traditional haiku, Japanese poems of seventeen syllables, often cite a season of the year or a natural element. In the same way, Quenon’s clipped verse invites us to join him as he listens to the story behind the story, especially from birds, which fly and sing throughout his poems. As robins smartly step, larks ascend, marsh hawks tilt and sway, and brown-winged birds sing extravagantly, we are summoned to greater awareness of how God’s world speaks once we begin to pay attention with care. In some poems, Quenon imagines what it would be like to live the life of a sleepy serpent, a sad possum, or a hysterical bat creaming echoes in the dark. Nocturnal animals remind us that night is a special time for keeping vigil. Night is when, “Webs of clouds weave dreams across the face of the moon” (85).
Another feature of both classic haiku and Quenon’s verse is the surprise reversal or disjunction – the interruption of linear, rational thought. Consider “Mad Monk to A Neighbor Who Lost His Dog,” where the poet comforts the owner of a missing pet: “Your dog is not lost, sir. / She is losing you and is out / cheerfully following her nose / … without interference of being your pet/ … if she’s worth anything / she’ll remember you’re / in hell – lost, and she’ll soon / come loping back” ( 83). A reversal like this helps readers open ourselves to another reality – life from another perspective. In the case of a missing dog, we wonder who is really lost.
Michael Martin, author or Meditations in Times of Wonder, also employs the natural world, including many birds: sparrows who argue over crusts of bread, crows perching on headstones and screeching curses from belfries, and starling voices filling the horizon with fire. Where Quenon calls us to awareness of the gifts of living, Martin bids readers to awareness of the stark realities of both life and death. He writes with the eye and heart of a farmer, whose sustenance is tied to the land. Instead of getting caught in the romance of nature, Martin finds inspiration in nature’s efficacy. In “Agon” he writes, “The starlings we found / Headless, really only wings, / Food for an owl or crow” (64); or consider these verses from “Absence/Presence”: “The young man sees the three drops of blood from a wounded goose / blended with snow and dissolves in reverie. It reminds him of the / complexion of his beloved …” (68).
In contrast to Quenon’s concise verse, Martin’s words flow with theological and ecclesial phrases and quotes, which provide a context for the poet’s meaning. For instance, “then all things were only names / forcing us to grow clever in augmentation / and in the hermeneutics of extrapolation” (51). Make sure to keep your dictionary of gone-but-not-forgotten theologians on hand!
Martin tunes us in to the ferocious power of death and tragedy, where words and verses fall into corruption and must be surrendered. “For this is poetry: when saints intrude upon the sleep of the dead, and even bones can sing” (74). This is the poetry of struggle, of Jacob wrestling with an angel, bending words to will in order to extract a blessing (3). Compare this to Quenon who receives poems that seem to come from nowhere, like ghosts in flint through trees (Quenon, 13, 15).
For the reader, the extracted blessing in Martin’s poetry is apotheosis, deification, or the full incarnation of God in all things. He invokes the sages of the Eastern Church who said the way to find peace is to remember that there is a divine resource, deep within us; that God’s aim for the world is for creation to be restored to its full potential; and that we have the ability to be one with God. If we can reach full union with God, we will be able exist within the assurance of love and the acknowledgement of being (Martin, 22).
Take your time with the poems of Quenon and Martin. Let them call you awareness of your own struggles with quietude, stillness, and silence. You may discover, by your own intuition, a story behind the story, writing behind the writing, just waiting to be told.
Matthew Braddock is Senior Minister at Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, email@example.com