In the preface of her new book of poems, her seventh, Jeanne Murray Walker asks “Why read poetry?” and answers: poetry has given us “solace for thousands of years,” as well as “entertained and nurtured” us. She describes her own poems as “tracks” that she followed “into the dark” that has fallen and separated us from each other since 9/11. She invites the reader to listen to “the human voice talking” in them as the poems lead us toward “the mystery that lies at the heart of all we know and want.” The tracks we follow with her, she hopes, “lead to understanding of our human dilemmas and sometimes take us to places that are holy.” Her poetry is not “a way of explaining the nature of things,” but most often “a wistful groping toward truth,” which is “as unpredictable as following tracks in the snow”–“a learning process” of discovery in which we are invited to join.
The first of four sections in the book, “Separation,” explores alienation occasioned by “war and illness and death.” The poems probe the mystery of death in neighbor and uncle, try to get inside the head of a 9/ll terrorist, resist the hardening of heart wrought by “the gospel of atrocities,” seek to overcome the separation caused by fear, and struggle with moral dilemmas when faced with domestic violence and impositions of power. Despite our having seemingly “made darkness / so dark there’s no escape,” in the poem “Gesture Upward” the speaker turns to prayer “when there are no solutions.”
The poems in section two, “Choices,” show us various ways in which choice becomes necessary when confronting separation and ethical challenge. As she watches a Bergman movie, “practicing the discipline / of the sane, taking the characters / to my heart, while reminding myself they’re not me, / watching how habit can harden the heart, how / it’s possible to cross into a country beyond choice, / beyond remorse, beyond forgiveness,” she hears “the sound of God weeping, his heart shattered on / the stubborn mystery of the human will.” Other poems explore the difficulty and the importance of right choice; several deal with biblical characters: Adam has to learn “to love what he’s been given”; Rahab chooses to help the spy; the man chosen from his tribe to carry the stone from the Jordan crossing fulfills the choice; Mary is “reluctant to erupt with God” but chooses so to do; the rich young ruler rejects Jesus’ offer of a richer life. In “The Failing Student,” a teacher struggles with the choice of rejection or painful nurture as she begins “to understand / how mercy can start as little more / than a direction you can move in,” and so reaches out to the student “through a whole vocabulary / of wildflowers and thorns.”
The third section offers us “tracks” to follow into “signs and inklings” of hope. The poems are a miscellany that explore various experiences–relationship between mother and daughter, feeding sparrows in winter, a mother’s nurture of a child, the “Secret Life” in the shadows of a bumblebee and a semi, praying for rain in Santa Fe (“in prayer lies prayer’s answer”), imagining God’s limitation in foreknowledge, probing Good Friday, imagining “What the Trees Say” as they “whisper” to each other in the fall.
“Resolutions”, the closing section “pursues signs and inklings” to arrive at “conclusions,” perhaps, the preface tells us–“but like New Year’s resolutions, they also mark beginnings.” Here are poems that display the importance of “connections,” celebrate the “plenty” with which we are blessed, affirm the hope and joy beyond a gravesite, show how, in “centering,” the mind finds “more in less / until the will bends and circles / home to stillness that feels final, true,” admit reluctantly but firmly the “Staying Power” of our hard-wired need for God, and admire a sparrow who “easily … carries the sky on her back,” finding joy in what she can never count on.” In the final poem, the poet urges her words to “hold” against the damages of time, bearing “the red geranium, the slender birch,” to “glitter against / the massive dark of nothing.”
A reader might expect, from description in the preface of the poet’s process of working “wholeheartedly at meter and metaphor,” that some of the poems have formal metrical structure. They do not: all of the poems are in free verse (unrhymed rhythmical prose arranged in lines), although “Sparrows at Zero” adheres closely enough to the norm to be called accentual trimeter. All of the poems are rich with metaphor and fresh, perceptive imagery. Within the chosen format, she succeeds in her aim of arriving at “some kind of quiet truth,” giving us poems that provide consolation, pleasure, and insight. And, as she had promised, she does that by speaking in a human voice and without making us face “hieroglyphics that are hopelessly indecipherable” or “some elaborate system of double-talk which has been designed to hide meaning.”