A SHORT INTERPRETATION OF JESSICA POWERS' POETRY

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Track of the Mystic

There was a man went forth into the night
with a proud step I saw his garments blowing.
I saw him reach the great cloud of unknowing.
He went in search of love, whose sign is light
From the dark night of sense I saw him turn
into the deeper dark nights of the soul

where no least star marks a divine patrol.
Great was his torment who could not discern
this night was God's light generously given,
blinding the tainted spirit utterly
till from himself at last he struggled free.
I saw him on the higher road to heaven:
his veins ran gold; light was his food and breath.
Flaming he melted through the walls of death.

"Magnificat," 49 (April, 1932) 286 "The Lantern Burns," 1939

Although the speaker in this poem describes a man who "went forth into the night," the experience is typical to all people seriously committed to the journey into light. The movement is from "dark night of sense" to "the deeper dark night of the soul" and finally to "the higher road to heaven." There is a sureness in the track of the mystic: he is "proud" in his search. He freely turns "into the deeper dark night of the soul." At last, after struggling free of himself, he flames and melts "through the wall of death." Jessica Powers aptly phrases the light/dark paradox as "this night was God's light generously given ("Studia Mystica," 35).


I see no merit here in judging which of these two is the better poem, since both are pieces of literature of high quality. Suffice it to say that Jessica Powers and Emily Dickinson can use similar images to create poetry that leaves the reader with food for thought and prayer. There are times when we need to adjust ourselves to the midnight, to stay in the darkness where Emily Dickinson leaves her speaker. Faith tells us that ultimately we will all melt through the wall of death, no matter how long it is necessary to live with those "evenings of the Brain."



Let me draw this to a two-part conclusion. First, I am well aware of the limitations of this presentation. Its major flaw may also be its greatest contribution. I have failed to contextualize Jessica Powers' poems in the American tradition with sufficient depth. To admit that is to suggest the p05-sibility and necessity of such a contextualization. More research is needed. I offer areas for exploration: patterns of images, religious symbolism, patterns of themes corresponding to chronological ordering of poems, and biographical and cultural contextualization. Dolores Leckey' 5 forthcoming biography is necessary and invaluable. [The poems are aleady in a chronological ordering list in the Marquette Archives.]


Jessica Powers' frequent use of bird and music imagery brings me to the second part of the conclusion. Her fascination with words and their power to lead us to the Word is simultaneously purpose and metaphor for her. She wanted her words, her poetry to draw others to God. 'l'hose of us privileged and honored to know her, to claim her as friend, mentor, and wisdom figure, can say that her life as well as her poetry did and does that.

She wrote in "Manuscript of Heaven" (54). "write me down as a small adjective attending light, the archangelic noun."

Manuscript of Heaven I know the manuscript the Uncreated
writes in the garden of His good estate.
His creatures are the words incorporated
into love's speech. 0 great
immortal Poet, in Your volume bright
if one may choose a portion, write me down
as a small adjective attending light,
the archangelic noun. (54)

("The Franciscan," Jan.1938.)

In this poem, Jessica Powers sees us as words of God's love. The speaker in the poem may choose to be an adjective: however, the power of the poetry is the power of the verbs of our language. Jessica Powers constantly reminded me of the birds who were so dear to her, a small woman, with deep twinkling eyes, someone as transparent and as elusive as a crystal wren.

She writes in "For a Silent Poet" (186):

Song was a wild bird and it came unbidden.
It settled down across the darkened air
to a gray branch in a dull orchard hidden.
One morning it was there.

Feathers of luster and a polished beak,
you cried in your delight, what is this bird
that in one space of music seems to speak
the note and the note's word?

It came from meadows seasonless and boundless
into your orchard for a summer stay,
and then one night you saw it lift on soundless
white wings and float away.

Weep not that visit of a brief duration.
You are a guest yourself and you must know
that in you lie the instincts of migration,
and where the bird went, one day you will go
("Commonweal," ~May 17, 194O~:76, "The Place of Splendor. "1946, p. 49)

I think she is the silent poet of this poem; she does indeed speak for us the note and the note' sword. her death was a loss for us, but who are we to hold this crystal wren when she was more than ready to soar. to sparkle, and to sing. We have become guardians of her legacy.

Works Cited

DICKINSON, Emily. "'l'he Complete Poems of Emily Dickin son;' Ed. Thomas II. Johnson. Boston.' Little, Brown, and Company. 1955.

McCARTY. Bernard. "Jessica Powers: An Emily Dickinson from Juneau County.'' Times Review. 2 Jan. 1986: 8-9.

MARTZ. Louis. 'The Poetry of Meditation." New Haven:

Yale University Press. 1954,

PERRINE. Laurence. Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry.'' 6th Ed. Chicago: Harcourt Brace Jovananvich. Inc.. 1982.

POWERS, Jessica. ''Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers.'' Ed. Regina Siegfried. ASC. and Rohert Morneau. Kansas City:

Sheed and Ward, 1989.

SIEGFRIED. Regina. ASC. ''Jessica Powers: The Paradox of Light and Dark,'' ''Studia Mystica.'' 7:1 Spring. 1984):

28-45.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Regina Siegfried, A.S.C., earned a B.A. and Ph.D. at St. Louis University. St. Louis, Mo., an M.A. at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. an M.A. in spirituality at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb. She is an assistant professor at the Aquinas Institute, St. Louis, Mo.. and has taught English on the high school and college level. Her doctoral dissertation is on Emily Dickinson. Sister Regina has written articles for Scholastic Teacher, Illinois English Bulletin, The Shaker Messenger, Studia Mystica, and Dickinson Studies. A personal friend of Sister Miriam since 1970, she is the author of ''Jessica Powers.' The Paradox of Light and Dark." Sister Regina is also responsible for the transfer of Jessica's papers to the Marquette Li-brary.

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