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A Monk as Muse
A Review of William Woolfitt's Charles of the Desert: A Life in Verse
Marci Rae Johnson

Charles of the Desert delivers what it promises in the subtitle: A Life in Verse. In fifty-two poems, Woolfitt takes us through the life of Catholic monk Charles de Foucauld, beginning in 1863, when Charles was five years old, and ending with his death at the hands of Tuareg and Haratin raiders in 1916. Charles, better known as “Charles of the Desert,” as the short biographical sketch at the back of the book informs us, “is remembered today as a desert hermit and missionary, and as author of  ‘The Prayer of Abandonment ‘“ (73), a short but powerful prayer that states “I abandon myself into your hands;/do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you:/I am ready for all, I accept all.” The biographical sketch and a chronological listing of the major events of Charles’s life are useful tools for those readers previously unfamiliar with the monk. The poems, then, serve to flesh out the details and imaginatively consider Charles’s observations, emotions, thoughts, and spiritual struggles as he becomes an “artist, geographer, abolitionist, linguist, folklorist, fort-builder, and finally a martyr” (73).

Woolfitt’s poems in this collection are at their best when they employ vivid and concrete language to do this fleshing out, and many do so successfully. For example, in the first poem, “My Father as Weather Formation,” Woolfitt envisions Charles’s father as he drives the children to an outing in the woods:

… Sometimes I look

and look at his whip-like body, his bulging eyes
that say to me he’s half-lizard, his transformation
incomplete. I tell my sister, his mouth makes no words,
only smoke. My mother whispers, chestnut, fir,
mirabelle while my father veers from tree to tree.

And later, in the poem “The Pangs of Wanting”:

I gulp vinegar, dark, smoky, acidic, then sweet, garnet
and carnelian, the cup reflecting the candle flame,

pelting me with stars. His torn body in my stomach,
his blood in my spit, I almost vomit; I almost sing.

Poems such as these use the concrete to convey bold, fresh insights such as the one in that last line of “The Pangs of Wanting,” indicative of the simultaneous feelings of revulsion and ecstasy of real presence in taking the Eucharist. And in “My Father as Weather Formation,” we see how the descriptions of the father communicate to us not just his outward appearance but also his inner character, and indicate a fraught relationship between the father and the other family members.

Other poems, however, turn more strictly narrative, creating a sort of documentary poetry where the poems seem to exist mainly to convey information. While these poems may be necessary in a project of this type, they are less successful as poems, since they lack the insight and language play that drives us to re-read a poem, and they often tend to sound more like prose than poetry to the ear. “Summer in Giverny” is one such example:

In my idle hands, I tossed the brigantine my cousin had folded in her
exact way. I was staying at my uncle’s chateau that sticky summer. I was
sixteen; she was almost twenty. I had watched her slender fingers as she
marked, creased, and flattened the boat she’d promised to shape.

The many poems that do contain poetic language and concrete imagery in this collection keep the book from becoming straight documentary, but there are quite a few documentary type poems to get through in order to get to that poetry.

Lapsing into documentary is one of the dangers of this type of biographical poetry, and while poetic language and imagery can help, another technique that can help poets avoid falling into this trap is to create contemporary connections with the historical person and material, often by bringing personal experience into the poem. In her 2013 book, Second Sky, poet Tania Runyan weaves the life of the Apostle Paul into the speaker’s experiences as a suburban wife and mother so that we see not just Paul’s life, but connections between his life and theology and our own lives. For example, in “Groanings Too Deep for Words,” based on Romans 8:26, we see a piece of contemporary news, “The morning I read about the newborn / found in the fast food dumpster,” and the trials and tribulations of suburban motherhood, “and stepped on a Lego with my bare feet / the magma of my own anger rising.” These become entwined with Paul’s message in the book of Romans: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans,” as the speaker of the poem plunges a spade into the earth and bemoans that “there was no prayer to save us.”

Beyond the personal connection, simply introducing contemporary references into a poem of this type can help the audience relate to the historical person or situation, as in the first poem of Runyan’s collection, “Setting My Mind.” Here, Runyan mentions salt trucks and minivans, licorice, I-55, and Dairy Queen, all while interacting with Colossians 3:2: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” I had hoped to find similar techniques present in Charles of the Desert, especially since Wolfitt proclaims in the preface: “I know that Charles of the Desert is a creative work that fictionalizes some details from the life of Charles de Foucauld; I also know that I may have made a version of Charles in my own image, so much so that I have tipped the scales toward autobiography.” However, the specifics of this scale tipping are not at all apparent; readers have no way to tell which parts are autobiography and which are biography. In effect, the author and Charles de Foucauld have become one person, and we are at a loss to discern between them.

Perhaps, though, this melding of author and subject is not so much a descent into the perils of documentary poetry as a different approach to the task. Does the melding create poems that are enjoyable puzzles to solve, where we must figure out which occurrence, emotion, or thought belongs to which person? Maybe, but that task would involve delving deep into further biographies of Charles, I suspect, which may make the puzzle an insurmountable task for most of us. Or perhaps the question of who’s who doesn’t matter. Woolfitt and Charles are both human beings, with human problems and concerns; furthermore, they are both humans struggling with what it means to follow Christ. And we readers can join them in these struggles. Perhaps, in some sense, all fathers are “weather formation[s],” all mothers whispering to them as they “veer from tree to tree” (1). Maybe, when we stop to think about it, all of us can feel both the bile and the song when the Eucharist approaches (2). Maybe all of us remember, at times, that we are “foul matter,” and at other times that “our hands become / strange birds, pulling new shapes from the air” (3).

1 “My Father as Weather Formation”
2 “The Pangs of Wanting”
3 “Tether”

Marci Rae Johnson is the Cresset's poetry editor.

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