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Francis: A life in songs, by Ann Wroe

11 January 2019

Martyn Halsall admires a contemporary poetic life of St Francis

FROM medieval playboy to Christ-addict; rich merchant’s son to Lady Poverty’s husband; troubadour fan to wild birds’ chaplain — St Francis of Assisi continues to fascinate, even appal. Ann Wroe’s supreme achievement in this operatic collection, setting Francis’s biography as a “life in song”, is to make him vividly contemporary.

Each aspect of Francis’s life which she vividly illuminates is spotlit from four directions. Holy followers are summoned to open early records that Wroe then re-works in usually formal poems, echoing the beats of the troubadours. Each is re-examined by setting a parallel incident or theme in the present, followed again by a brief verbal design that she terms “grace notes”, like a reflective blessing as a chapel is exchanged for the secular world.

Research is seasoned with reflection, and analysis with experience, to bring to life both a record and a translation of one of the most radical converts in Christian history. He kissed a leper, repelled lust with lacerating thorns, and crumbled banquet food from noble tables into his habit’s lap for discreet disposal. A natural solitary, at the extreme edge of Christian discipleship, he founded a global Order.

Francis would appreciate this book, with its poetic, musical energy, its sensuous observations, and its alignments with the worlds of nature, and the marginalised. Acute surveillance, together with spiritual awareness through the translation of faith into current parables, distinguishes Ann Wroe’s poetry. Detail informs argument, and cross-references between Francis’s day — some eight centuries ago — and our own make the historic prophetic.

So the “leper-stink” of the diseased victim whom Francis honours lingers in the “stench of ancient piss” from a disadvantaged man buying puddings — and “finding sweetness there/ he won’t get otherwise” — in a Brighton supermarket. A section on “demons” contrasts Francis’s temptations with a commuter’s addiction to his mobile phone. In poems celebrating Francis’s “Sister Lark” — “like a good religious despising earthly things” — Wroe echoes her “grace notes” as “sparks of chastening fire/ out of pure air” alongside today’s endangered skylarks, “brown hectic specks . . . wings scissor-touching,/ muted with fright”.

The spiritual is vivid through quality and vitality in this poetry. Wroe’s writing method is incarnational, translating the apparently mundane into rich parables.

Francis’s own parable of apples as spiritual harvest — “You pick the fruit for saving souls/ heavy with goodness and with light” — is echoed in a found poem about rules for vegetable exhibits at a country show, arguably reflecting the Rule of the Franciscan Order; for this intelligent and graciously written collection is itself a rule of how poetry might explore and legitimise Christian pilgrimage: as Seamus Heaney wrote of Francis’s life as poem, “Its argument true, its tone light”.

Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.

Francis: A life in songs
Ann Wroe
Jonathan Cape £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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