[Finishing Line Press, 88 pages]
Anyone who’s ever sat in a church pew should read this collection. Or, for that matter, anyone who’s ever sat on a Yoga mat or lain prone, gazing into the wispy clouds from the cradle of a pristine meadow on a balmy day. Like the poems in this collection, these are meditative pauses to ponder space, time, divinity, love, devotion and nature.
Though Stephanie Harper’s Sermon Series was inspired by and arranged to coincide with the liturgical calendar of the Lutheran church, the poems in this collection read like non-denominational prayers—pure inspiration, yearning, doubt and hope; notoriously, the human condition.
In this soft, slightly austere book, the poems touch the pages lightly with a “quiet cadence,” a phrase the poet writes in “Darkness.” Harper’s words are simple and unpretentious, almost plain, but elegantly arranged to evoke a snapped twig in an otherwise silent forest or a whisper in an empty church. In fact, the title word, “Sermons,” is both appropriate and slightly askew when it comes to characterizing her musings. There’s no proselytizing or moral lessons intoned in a heavy hand of fire and damnation.
More so, Harper’s poems read like sincere requests, asking God to ease the struggle of the faithful—and that they remain so, returning to the core of faith, love and divinity.
Yes, her “sermons” contemplate the teachings of the Lutheran church that inspired her work. But just as the poems correspond to the seasons, festivities and commemorations of the church, so her verses echo a personal life of faith and observation. The liturgy is an undercurrent—lingering in a word, dash, space or line break.
The liturgical calendar marks the commemorative events of the church, beginning with Advent and moving through the seasons and festivals that celebrate Christ’s life, death and resurrection: most prominently, the Lenten and Easter observances. Thus, Harper’s book is partitioned into three parts:
- Expectation: the coming birth of Christ
- Epiphanies: Easter, the season of death and resurrection
- Expression: endings with promise
Poems of expectation: Awaiting the divine
The collection opens inside a church in “Expectation.”
I am waiting for the flame
of an aged wax candle,
the expectation of light—
And the tone is set: a still, discreet moment, emphasizing time, quietude and ritual.
In this poem, “the particles” that blend like the artist’s colours form the “gray,” where the poet stands firm, where she dwells. Here, the yearning to know and see, which is the human desire beneath faith—questioning in wonder, not doubt—will “magnify” opposites, like noise and silence, in the all-containing mystery.
These are the challenges of a believer: to fill ritual with the right heart and disposition, as Harper bemoans in “How to Pray.” The speaker in this poem knows her pastor’s words, and yet has a “lost heart.” There’s a seeking, a searching—wide and all-encompassing—that leaves the poet lonely, trying to find and name the awe and confident belief, a yearning that permeates the collection.
And yet, words repeated in these poems, like “goodness” and the “good,” portray the poet’s subjective expression, not the universal “goodness” or “good.” They’re representative of the poet’s private faith, not necessarily the congregation’s.
The divine in nature
Stephanie Harper blends mystery and nature throughout her poems. In “Messengers,” the poet sees missives in dust particles, sun rays and icicle drips–casting a rarified light on the ordinary.
In fact, she challenges the common understanding of ordinary words. In “Worship,” she urges the reader to find beauty in an opening flower, a “crack in the wall,” or “a sliver of glass.” The tiny fragments and broken things that shine in their smallness or imperfection are worthy of worship, she insists. A word normally associated with gods, angels, priests and prophets expands to the sacredness within the surrounding world in all its seasons.
The world of the winter season’s frozen branches echo throughout Sermon Series, that thick stillness, sound absorbed by too much matter—snow, clouds and fog that keep thoughts warm inside the mind, itching to see the spring of their outing. The earth surely spins.
Just so, the barren aspens in “Darkness” know their place, their nature—a knowing that comes with desolation, yet confident faith that the world will turn, the sun will shine on warmer days and a coating of vibrant, succulent leaves will return.
Nature reminds the poet and reader alike to get outside the mind and experience what’s around us.
The Zen of spiritual life
An almost ancient Yogic meditation, “Breathing” connects the divine to breath:
The world waits
in my inhalation
and I am in
and of it.
this is the secret
The “it” has no clear antecedent—world or inhalation—but it doesn’t matter. The narrator confirms it’s all the same in the next two lines. And being part and whole at the same time is what breathing or aliveness is, the poet asserts. Being alive—the physical—is no different than the metaphysical or faith. It declares, “I am part and whole.”
Harper returns to the life force in “Breath” as an “invocation,” summoning a higher power. The narrator argues that proof of the divine is your breath. Stay there and believe, she urges, defining faith as the attempt, as trying despite our imperfections. Yet, the speaker is consoled by her own forgiven inability to believe perfectly.
Poems of epiphanies: The realization of the self
In “Epiphanies,” Harper flashes light into darkness and smoke, by comparing the sun’s light and the shining epiphany that burns its brilliant image onto the back of your eyelids. You get the distinct impression that the poet is listening for inspiration and confirmation in the silent gaps and blank spaces—in dichotomies.
The play of opposites in “Death Waits” is both eerie and promising. Death isn’t threatening. A believer confirmed of the hereafter writes a love poem to an unidentified “you,” in whom the speaker delights in tasting the “shade on the spot above your lip” that contains death—the promise of death written on every face.
Or maybe the “you” in this poem represents all who die with quiet acceptance, almost scientific and unmoved, like “star stuff” and “2 percent elements” that she questions. Is that all that we call a human being?
Images of fire, earth, smoke, darkness, light and nature abound in these poems. And the tone is contained wonderment at how one body is a small part of an incomprehensible whole.
In more play with contrasts, the poem “Darkness” doubles for both the loss of a lover’s flame or passion and the heart’s “murkiness” of divine love and belief. The “quiet cadence” referred to in this poem resembles the pace and texture of this entire collection.
Images of fire, earth, smoke, darkness, light and nature abound in these poems. And the tone is contained wonderment at how one body is a small part of an incomprehensible whole, grander than imagination and cogitation. This tone appears in opposing images—”abundance” evokes images of sacrifice, suffering and sere landscapes outside and in, just as a “last drop of water” signals hope and promises of fullness.
In “Heartbeat,” the poet seeks her pulsing rhythm. She needs to centre repeatedly. The world and her own doubts take her away from the core, the life centre—breath, pulse and truth. She’s reminded of truth by sensory pricks of nature that shift her attention.
Poems of final expressions: Presence
In the final third of the book, “Expressions,” the poet awakens from a winter hibernation, like the spring trees bursting with flowing sap and beckoning to the sun. She aches to let loose those quiet joys she’s pondered all winter long—it’s the season of rebirth and resurrection, a time to tell of miracles.
And not only the miracles of Christian faith. “Field of Desire” is dedicated to Rumi, the poet who bursts with joy in the ecstasy of the divine within. The wholeness of self, the stuff that should be left to the earth to burn away, is tied to what the speaker should keep, the fertile and fruitful.
In “Reconcile,” two worlds console one another—the hopeful and the hopeless. One without faith, with despair, stands in contrast to the speaker, who has hope of finding the light in dark corners. And though she admittedly struggles with eating the bread as the flesh of Christ in “Bread of Life,” the poetic voice of this title believes in freedom to worship in new ways, penetrating the essence of her beliefs without dogmatic particulars—by celebrating dust, trees, winter, shadows, cracks, slivers and fragments—the pieces containing and contained in plenitude.
But freedom so precious,
an uninhibited grace,
can only be found
in the center of a place
created in a relationship of love,
one with you and the rest of the world.
The language of restraint and the blossoming of grace
Just as the poet hungers for something substantial, the reader may find the humble language of this collection a bit colourless in its prosaic greys. In fact, most of the collection is written in free verse that subtly plays in coupling lines, a dash here, an ellipsis there and an epilogue in “Spirits.”
Experimenting with form, Harper breaks lines in two, like a visual caesura or invisible dash to separate the yearning from the answer, as with the gap in “How to Pray.”
“I want to be alive…of what it means.” (A mystery to the reader as poet—what is meaning?)
But always, there’s restraint—the care not to burst with colour, ostentation and exhilaration. Her elation is interior, infused with quiet nature and silent wonder. Hers is not a loud joy but a hidden one, like faithful patience. If you’re not paying close enough attention, you may miss the tender subtlety of hidden ecstasy.
Maybe it’s the reticence that mutes jubilation; she struggles with ego and her own sense of importance, as she admits in “Flood,” when the gates open and she drowns in her “own significance,” despite her shoring up the banks with sandbags to protect against overwhelming ego and pride.
But grace, like one of the final poems’ namesakes, encompasses the sum of these taut verses: mystery sought in keyholes, the other side of which the seeker can’t see for her own shadow cast over the door. The speaker is her own impediment when she looks for answers outside herself. She finds the truth when she stops looking.
These are patient poems—accepting—like this verse in “Story”:
It seems we can have two truths
and neither one of us is wrong.
And as the poet awaits the final word in “Kingdom Come”:
I will let this kingdom come
not with gold and glory…
with quiet purpose,
the way a steady stream
over smoothly faceted stone.
Vivid imagery peppering the sometimes stoic expression creates passionate dissonance, echoing wisdom through the blooming branches of these living word trees that you can turn to again and again like a prayer book, beckoning the adherent to come, worship—and just be.
Stephanie Harper’s words remind us of this familiar church greeting in the poem “Peace Be With You”: “This peace be with you / always / in the constancy of now.”