What makes poetry good? Is it the poem’s voice or the music of the words? Is it the use of metaphor, the poet’s intuition, or her keen observation of the world? I don’t always know what makes poetry good but I know a good poem when I read it. Regina Walton’s The Yearning Life is a wonderful collection. Her subjects range from childhood and motherhood to art, nature, Sunday worship, scripture, friendship and medieval mystics. She captures both holy longing and delight.
Walton is an Episcopal priest whose poetry has appeared in Poetry East, Asheville Poetry Review, Spiritus and Anglican Theological Review and other journals. She is also the first winner of the Phyllis Tickle Prize in Poetry for this collection. Her poems are organized under four headings: Spirit and Marrow, Showings, Visitations and Seven O’s: Antiphons. the latter section has the seven “Great O Antiphons” (short verses before the Magnificat chanted in the monastic office through Advent). They are produced here in Latin, and translation with one of Walton’s poems accompanying each antiphon.
Sometimes religious poetry seem unearthly, tending toward the super-spiritual with more ethereality than reality. Such poems might be luminous, but they forget the path of roots and stone. However, the physical and spiritual embrace throughout Walton’s poetry, “So thickly knotted,/The Holy twins—/Real and ghost,/Untold apart” (from Spirit and Marrow, 17). Consider the interplay between physicality and spirituality in Walton’s Psalm 131:
My grandma put her breasts in a drawer
And that was that—
The prosthetics, anyway, meant to fill her bra,
The originals claimed by cancer in my childhood
For all her children, her breasts had never suckled—
The doctors put her under before each birth,
Then told her
Nursing was for savages.
Ann, after the Virgin’s mother,
she prayed out loud and often to her own.
On the feast of Annunciation,
Five years gone, she visited me
And in the no-place dream space,
Our bosom-embrace renewed, I felt them—
Hesed, womb-love that moved over the abyss,
That mothered the churning darkness into life—
Her wholeness shocked me awake. (49)
I love the way Walton’s imagery draws together the psalm alluded to with her grandmother’s body and experience, Annunciation, covenant and resurrection.
There is also a spiritual hunger underlying Walton’s work. This is captured by her title poem, The Yearning Life, which envisions Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec reflecting on that space between lives active and contemplative. Walton describes Ruusbroec’s yearning, “Each holy favor, eagerly awaited, consumed,/Only melts into more craving./And satiety is the missing dish” (32).
These poems range from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the prayerful to the playful. I’m still chuckling at Walton’s Enoch’s Wife, “I wish I never said/ If you love God so much,/why don’t you go/and live with him instead” (59). Other poems give snap shots of conversations, theological and biblical musings, and observations of the world. I enjoyed reading these poems out loud to just to hear Walton’s words play on my tongue. This collection is well deserving of the accolades it received. I will be on the look out for more from Regina Walton. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. ★★★★★
Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.