Poems: Jessica Powers

I was speaking today with a friend, who is a Norbertine priest who told me that in  going through some family papers, he found a letter from a New York Times editor to his mother, praising a piece she had done on the poet Jessica Powers.  Had I ever heard of her, he asked, but, alas, no.  What I have since discovered is that she was born less than three hours from our house, in Mauston, Wisconsin, in 1905.  In 1941 she entered a Carmelite convent in Pewaukee, where she received the name Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit.  Her poems, though written in traditional form, are arresting for their frank confrontation of things that lie beyond our mortal understanding.  This is equally true of her poems that take up places in Wisconsin, three of whom I  am putting up.

The Valley of the Cat-tails

My valley is a woman unconsoled.
Her bluffs are amethyst, color of grief,
Her tamarack swamps are sad.
There was no dark tale that she was not told,
There is no sorrow that she has not had.
She has no mood of mirth, however brief.

Too long I praised her dolors in the words
Of the dark ones, her trees,
And of the whippoorwills, her sacred birds.
Her tragedy is more intense than these.

The reeds that lift from every marsh and pond
More plainly speak of her spirit's poverty;
Here should the waters dance, or flowers be.

Reeds are true symbols of so weak a mother
Who from the primer of her own dark fears
Teaches her young the alphabet of tears
As if caroling earth possessed no other.

Petenwell Rock

I never shall forget the first gay night
I came for dancing here;
out of a long black road there bloomed this bright
portion of revel, near
a tall pine-wreathed rock, as certain as a wall.

Out of the night suddenly lights had mellowed
to warm young gold glistening against a hall
where dancers swayed like songs, and music bellowed
its anger against grief, and laughter flying
fell on my ears like sounded waterfall.

But overhead the whip-poor-wills were crying,
crowding all loneliness into one cry,
and a great rock maintained a wise old silence
lifting its strength into the starlight sky.

O silver loneliness!
O golden laughter!
O grief that only loneliness should last!
Madness will die, and youth will hurry after;
into some shadowed past
dancers will bow like dust, laughter will crumble,
while still beneath the silver of the moon
for loveliness and joy that died too soon
these plaintive birds will cry,
and this tall rock will watch with calm indifference.
holding itself aloof against the sky.


Nighthawks Flying

At dusk the nighthawks dip and fly
Beween the purple bluffs and me:
Black wings against a tinted sky,
They make a strange uncertainty

Of sane things that daylight said,
As if word I chanced to miss,
A prelude I have never read
Were needed to interpret this.

The Dead

The dead are always talking in their strange way,
At night when the winds are still, and dew grass
They are saying things that none should ever say,
And cursed is he who stands at their door and

Always they meet in a manner strange to see:
The crazy, the dead, and the myriad yet unborn.
And their words are cold as winds from eternity,
And their eyes are wise, and their faces all forlorn.

The dead are filling the young unborn with talk
Of wisdom dug from the mines of bitter years;
They are frightening crazy folk with thoughts that
In the cold and dark, and nameless twisting fears.

I often join them when the lights are done,
And they see the weight of years on my foolish head;
When I am silent they think I'm a crazy one,
But when I talk they know that I am dead.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr Fleming
    This is quite good and thank you for posting it and introducing her.
    She writes to her past Bishop on one occasion : “My only purpose in writing is that there are some things I would like to say to everyone, especially those who are turning from God”.
    And this lesson about the most difficult and painful exercise for mothers of every kind is quite revealing.
    “Reeds are true symbols of so weak a mother
    Who from the primer of her own dark fears
    Teaches her young the alphabet of tears
    As if caroling earth possessed no other.”

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I hope this Spring to visit Mauston, which up till now has only been a sign on the highway telling me it’s time to turn North.

  3. Cody Nicholson says:

    I’m not really qualified to comment, but I likewise appreciated these poems. Petenwell Rock is particularly poignant.