The Yearning Life:
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2016.
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Reviewed by Lynn Domina
The poems in Regina Walton’s first collection, The Yearning Life, are written by someone who is not only observant but also thoughtful, even contemplative. They consider questions without, as Keats so famously said, “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” They often, therefore, straddle that boundary between poetry and prayer.
The opening poem, “Exemplum,” might have been written by one of the desert fathers or mothers. It relies on a direct style with short lines and stanzas, predominantly straightforward sentences, and accessible vocabulary (with one notable exception). Like many of the best poems in this style, its simplicity is deceptive. Here is the first stanza:
A fly lands
On my open book,
And rubs its fingerless palms together
Over the word askesis.
We’ve all seen flies perform similar acts, though we might not all be reading books that include the word “askesis,” which means a particularly strict self-discipline and shares its root, unsurprisingly, with “ascetic.” Until this word, the poem’s imagery, presented without interpretation, is reminiscent of Williams, but the second stanza turns more directly toward spiritual values:
Thank you, little black-robed fly,
For showing me
How to be an ascetic.
The imagery has become more metaphoric—“little black-robed fly”—and the purpose of the poem has become more clearly value driven. Although this stanza apostrophizes the fly, the expression of gratitude more likely influences the speaker. For while it is the fly’s nature that is examined here, it is the human speaker’s nature that is challenged—and part of the reason the poem is successful is because the speaker acknowledges her own desire to change, rather than, for example, suggesting that it is the reader who should become more ascetic. The final two stanzas extend the metaphor that has been introduced in stanza two:
To you, no difference
Between paradise and dung
The father’s banquet and the pigsty.
And every still moment finds you
The fly is better at prayer than the speaker is, than are all of us who strain so diligently to communicate with God, who measure ourselves against what we might or should be.
The most ambitious and unique section of The Yearning Life is “Seven O’s: Antiphons” which concludes the book. Walton relies on the traditional “O Antiphons,” Advent verses included in the monastic liturgy of the hours. The fifth of these antiphons, “Oriens,” translates as “Day-Spring.” Walton’s poem opens this way:
First-fashioned creature, gleaned from darkness:
All was deep-churning murk like a flood, pitch-thick,
Then out of it something leaned—
These three lines illustrate not only Walton’s concern with theme but also her attention to craft. The sound of these lines catches the reader’s ear; the reader is attracted to both music and deferred meaning—for what exactly is that “something”? Notice the internal rhyme—“gleaned” and “leaned”—the assonance—“churning murk” and “pitch-thick.” Notice how the rhythm shifts from the first line to the second, becoming more insistent with the monosyllabic vocabulary sounding almost like Hopkins, and then slowing down a bit again in the third line. Only in the second stanza is the “something” revealed directly as “Day-Spring,” but before that it is described imagistically:
Less than presence, but gathering itself
Like mists off a lake,
Ghost-formed orb faintly smoldering…
After this rising creation is revealed as Day-Spring, it is described further: “you sweep yourself up / From horizon’s cusp…” Watching a sunrise, we are so often attentive to what’s going on in the sky that we forget to watch the land, where dawn really is rising “like mists,” faintly, hazily, before objects become clear.
These poems will appeal to poets who are receptive to spiritual references, but they will also appeal to many readers who believe they don’t like poetry, for these poems are hospitable to the human and to the divine.