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Harvest by Sister Mary Agnes & Psalmody by Maria Apichella

15 September 2017

Martyn Halsall reads poetry collections that carefully observe life

© Gary fabian miller

Evocative: one of Gary Fabian Miller’s camera-less art photos, from his Year One project, used to illustrate Harvest by Sister Mary Agnes

Evocative: one of Gary Fabian Miller’s camera-less art photos, from his Year One project, used to illustrate Harvest by Sister Mary Agnes

RADICALLY different biographies — of a contemplative nun and a young academic — condition these poetry collections about the negotiation of love.

Sister Mary Agnes, who died in 2014, was a member of the Poor Clares in Devon and, her publisher said, after “30 years cloistered on Exmoor . . . fell in love, then despair”. Harvest, her fourth poetry collection, was compiled from her papers, after her death. Maria Apichella, who completed her Ph.D. at the University of Aberystwyth, wrote Psalmody as 93 “free-verse psalms”, and her prizewinning debut collection.

Harvest, beautifully produced in a limited edition of 200 by Guillemot Press, with evocative abstract images by the photographic artist Gary Fabian Miller, reflects the cost of love. Contemplation of the divine, and unscripted experience of the human, jostle and overlap through 24 brief, intense, and often anonymous poems. Despair was followed by breakdown, attempted suicide, and eventual recovery. Paradox extends to the question mark with which the collection ends.

“You brush against me with your silence” is a typical intermingling of the senses by a writer who “heard the shadow of a cat”, and is driven to confront a “bruise-silent God”. Resolution emerges in the title, and penultimate poem. The “you” to whom the poem is addressed remains ambiguous, but “I knew you would come”, while “I, this bleak year of Januaries taste/ twelve Augusts harvested”. These poems, of courageous beauty and open-hearted honesty, offer tears of identification, and faith in divine resolution.

Apichella brings the able novelist’s forensic fascination to her account of an equally charged, but also troubled, love affair. A key tension emerges by poem-psalm eight (each is numbered, none titled): “Does he know the Lord?” she asks herself. “I want to know.”

There is irony in his name, David, revealed as an atheist soldier about to enter a desert war zone. From the beginning, readers are drawn to “a full presence” (perhaps echoing the Real Presence of the mass?) of the writer’s affections, as the lovers disclose themselves through conversations, on walks, and through sharing cooking.

The quality of the writing emerges through its narrative force, and its range, energy, and thought-provoking imagery that is direct and illustrative without ever veering into gratuous self-absorption.

Acute observation, as in their contrasting reactions to church-going, family differences, or theological questions, are displayed through a range of styles, line lengths, and the varying structures of different “psalms”. There are no easy answers, conclusive revelations — “Desire/ cut short still scalds” — but a realism lifting the human towards the divine. “I wake and know, /David’s an atheist after God’s own heart.” — A whole poem, and one that honours both its subjects and its readers.


Dr Halsall’s latest poetry collection, Coronach, is published by Wayleave Press.



Sister Mary Agnes

Guillemot Press £8 (incl. free p&p)



Maria Apichella

Eyewear Publishing £9.99


Church Times Bookshop £9




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