I learned two things in personal conversations with Michael Dennis Browne (and probably a lot more, but these two stand out!) for both of which I'm grateful. The first, many years ago, at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, was the adage that I still repeat quite often when I'm talking or writing about the creative process: "How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say?" I follow it in my own process, and I'm always happy to share it with others. The second, many years later, quite recently in fact, was the notion of not exactly reading, but rather "wandering" in books. What a perfect idea!
So I've been wandering -- with all the pleasures of the wanderer, and none of that awful sense of obligation to read from beginning to end -- in his fine book of poems, The Voices. I have talked with him in the past about our mutual love of short poems. I find them quite lovely, especially when they are as well done as Browne's, because they are so delightfully precise; and because the aging, wandering mind can actually grasp them in a breath. There are many of them here, and they are beautifully "sufficient unto themselves."
I love, too, his title, The Voices; it rings true. I hear many voices as I wander through these pages, and all of them distinctively the poet's. He has many. Some of them are raised in anger or in celebration, some are no more than whispers. Through them, though, I also hear echoes of the voices that he hears, and listens to; those of his family, of friends he loves, the voices of the choirs that sing the many liturgical songs he has written for musical performance, the voices of Shoah survivors, the many voices of the dead. Amazing, how he manages to give these latter ghostly, resonating voice. I also hear -- because I am the reader; well, the wanderer -- certain voices that are familiar to me. In particular, poignantly, I hear the voice of my father, in poems that have clear Christian intonations; I hear his intense, personal, sometimes difficult struggle with God, along with Browne's; and of course my own, the struggle of both the believer and the non-believer that I am.
In which context, I am particularly moved by the sequence "Seven Last Voices," reflections on the seven last words from the Cross. They take me back to those three-hour services on Good Friday, with my father's church stripped of all decoration and trappings of the usual ("high church") pomp, with my father in the pulpit or at the lectern reading, ceremoniously and with reverence, those same words to the congregation. For some reason -- I must certainly explore this further -- I am especially moved in this sequence by that great, agonized cry: Eli, Eli, lamma sabachtani, (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) though as I recall, in my father's voice, the name of God was Eloi, Eloi...
So, there's a great resonance for me in these words. Is it perhaps my own sense of abandonment? By God? By father? In any event, the words resound at a deep level of consciousness. "Why, then," Browne writes, "this heartlessness?" Yes! So hard to get past the notion of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-merciful God who "allows" such disasters as the tsunami (the subject of this poem) to happen. And wars. And hunger and poverty. And heartless political systems. And, in the next poem, thirst: "Cracked the lips of the children; the lips of the mothers, the lips of the fathers." It's this sense of compassion that the poet projects so well -- his own compassion for the suffering of others, yes, but also the compassion he elicits compellingly in our response.
I'll continue to wander amongst The Voices. As with all good books of poems, there will always be many places to visit, some of them quite dense and difficult thickets, others -- suddenly, surprisingly -- quite transparent and clear. I like when I reach those clearings, places I recognize, where I can feel for a moment totally at peace. At home. And say simply, yes, in recognition of the fact.
I trust that other readers will manage, for one reason or another, to find their way into this book and wander there. May they be many! Our species has much yet to learn about compassion, and this is one place where they will be able to hear its many "voices."