Angels guide this poetic journey

By  Patria Rivera, Catholic Register Special
  • November 24, 2006

Accompanied by AngelsAccompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation, by Luci Shaw (Eerdmans Publishing, 110 pages, softcover, $18.99).

Accompanied by Angels, subtitled Poems of the Incarnation, grew out of poet Luci Shaw's childhood collection of Advent poems. At the age of 11, and anticipating the great festivities of the season, Shaw determined to make her own Christmas cards. To go with the pictures and illustrations on the cards, she composed short greetings to evoke the message of this holy season.

Those early attempts in the midst of a Toronto winter had prepped her for a writer's life. The poems in Accompanied by Angels have seen first light in church bulletins, literary journals and anthologies of Christmas readings.

However straightforward and inviting the title may sound, Accompanied by Angels is not about angels. Angels figure in the opening poems, yes, but only as guides to a journey that will take the reader into a series of meditations on the life of Jesus. Thus, the book is divided into sections to reflect the chronology of the annunciation, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

Using C.S. Lewis's prism of the "baptized imagination," Shaw invites the reader to enter the realities of the life of the incarnated Messiah, the Anointed One, His family and followers, including the friends and enemies He encountered during His human life on earth.

Shaw explains: "The difficulties of His own life journey in Gethsemane and Golgotha often get ignored in our Advent church services, and political correctness has attempted to tone down public expressions of our joy in the Incarnation and Resurrection."

Shaw offers fresh insight into the meaning of certain biblical events. At the onset, the opening poem, "The Annunciatory Angel," juxtaposes the Angel Gabriel's apprehension in making the earth-shaking announcement, "How might it feel (if an archangel has feelings) to bear/this news?" with the befuddlement of the girl in Fra Angelico's painting of The Annunciation: "Perhaps as confounded as the girl, there/ in the corner? We worry that she might faint/:Refuse to let the wind/fill her, to buffet its nine-month seed into her earth,/She is so small and intact. Turmoil will wrench her./She might say no."

Indeed, what if Mary had said no to the announcing angel? But Mary realizes her mission and embraces God's will.

And what about us mere mortals?  Shaw posits in "...for who can endure the day of His coming."

In our nights

our complicated modern dreams

rarely flower into visions. No contemporary

Gabriel dumbfounds our worship,

or burning, visits our bedrooms.

No signpost satellite hauls us, earthbound

but star-struck, half around the world

with hope. Are our sensibilities too blunt

to be assaulted with spatial power plays

and far-out proclamations of peace?

Yet, the poet warns, modern man may still be shattered by Jesus' "most shocking coming." "Sterile, skeptics, yet we may be broken/to His slow, silent birth, His beginning/new in us. His bigness may still burst/our self-containment to tell us, without angels' mouths, Fear not."

In short poems such as "Salutation" and "Magnificat," Shaw reveals worlds of meaning in spare passages: "Mary sings through the doorway,/ Elizabeth's six-month joy/jumps, a palpable greeting,/a hidden first encounter/between son and Son." ("Salutation") or in the lilting lines of "Magnificat."

And in such poems as "The overshadow," "Too much," "The arrival," "One," are small epiphanies arising from a deft mixture of raw-edged conversational diction and traditional forms.

In "Christmas stars," she draws a trove of metaphors from objects both animate and inanimate as in "spiders weave asterisk: /Now in his surrender/to the crash and cry of birth/he is my open door to forever."

In "Mary's song," the poet brings out the moving nobility of a woman quietly but firmly accepting her task in this world, feeling "His breath (so slight it seems/no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps:/brought to this birth for me to be newborn,/and for him to see me mended,/I must see him torn."

Contrast this with the task of the groundhog in the poem of the same title ("The Groundhog"). The poet narrates the "rather doubtful fable of the groundhog" which gives the beast at Christmastime "standing room in the stable with other simple things, shepherds and sheep, and cows." The poet answers her question on whether the newborn Child had planned the beast, long ago, for groundhoghood: "Whether true tale or fable/I like to think he was in the stable,/part of the Plan, and that He who designed /all simple wonderers, may have had me in mind."

There is much to like in Accompanied by Angels. Shaw's poems leap off the page without preaching or posturing, informed by faith and love, and move with ineffable grace from mood to mood, image to image.             

(Rivera is a Toronto poet and editor. Her first book of poetry, Puti/White, has been shortlisted for the 2006 Trillium Book Award for Poetry.)

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