A Review of
In the House of My Pilgrimage: Violence, Noetic Healing, and Personhood
Reviewed by Brad Davis
Though the braiding of several genres and contributors in Don Sheehan’s In the House of My Pilgrimage (edited posthumously by his wife Xenia) feels at times a tad loose, this reader’s overall impression of the collection is that it holds together as a singular, unified tribute to a poet, theologian, teacher, husband, father, son, and friend.
Don Sheehan was a believer, thinker and poet who tackled big questions and theological concepts with language that combined the esoteric and the down-to-earth. I suspect this is because the house of Don Sheehan’s pilgrimage was Russian Orthodoxy, a down-to-earth tradition that developed its own distinctive theological vocabulary—in word and icon. This mix of dictions can, without meaning to, create something of a hindrance for those neither familiar with the tradition nor drawn in by the terminology. For other readers, however, the mix summons a heightened, well-rewarded attention to the text.
Speaking as a poet, I enjoy books about other poets and poetic technique the way I suspect athletes enjoy stories about other athletes and analyses of their technical prowess. So I confess to approaching this book about the life, work, and influence of Don Sheehan expecting something more straight-line linear. But the book is not held together by a narrative thread as a “life of the poet” volume might be. Neither is it a “selected” collection of his poems or of his own essays on life, literature, and faith. Nor is it a festschrift populated exclusively by essays about and tributes to an influential figure, as Don certainly was as executive director of the Frost Place in New Hampshire for three decades. The book is rather a fascinating mashup of all of these features, plus a dollop of Don’s poems tucked into a single chapter early on.
Truth be told, as a reader I prefer poems to prose. So another expectation I had as I sat down to read this book about a poet was that there would be a healthy sampling of Don’s poems throughout. Though the fifty-page second section of Part One is all poetry, I feel the book missed an opportunity to salt the abundant prose (three Parts, seventeen sections) with a better distribution of poems. Seeing that Don was enamored of the chiasmus as a Psalmic and poetic technique, it would have been a pleasure to encounter the book as having its own chiastic frame: poems first and last and, most meaningfully, at the midpoint.
There are many inspiring moments in this mixed-genre collection—most especially, the essay by Don’s composer-son, Benedict, about how the son incorporated his father’s wisdom regarding the Psalms and poetry into musical composition. In the House of My Pilgrimage may be long and, at times, challenging, but it is not difficult. It is a book to take, like a favorite summer beverage, slowly—to place on the table beside one’s reading chair and enjoy as thirst for more arises.
Brad Davis is a poet (MFA, Vermont College of Fine Arts) and retired Episcopal priest (MDiv, Trinity School for Ministry). His most recent collection is Trespassing on the Mount of Olives: Poems in Conversation with the Gospels (Poiema Poetry Series). For more, visit braddavispoet.com
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