Liz McNally – # 1 in a Series on Patrick Poets – Poets I Met Through the Writing Retreats of Canadian Poet Patrick Lane

Canadian poet Liz McNally

Collect for the Homeless

God of the broken night.
Finder of empty doorways, shopping carts,
cardboard blankets, fast food refuse, cigarette butts,
dropped coins and nick of time naloxone kits.
May your infinite attention be the thin layer of softness
between weary bodies and cold pavement, may it be a cloak
to shelter children from harm, and the old from ceaseless
walking, too fearful in the sleeve of night to close their eyes.
Because you know these fevered minds, these fractured lives
left to beg for coins, for food, a fix; for safety and succor.
Because I hurry past, afraid of their contagion, while you,
who saw them delivered to this world, embrace each one.
The stories we have read are not the truth, you do not judge.
Your home is not as palatial as we are told. It is here,
under riddled blankets, in alleyways, dumpsters and mission cots.
You live in the slender space between two bodies, curved
like commas around one another, for warmth and shelter.
May we all know your peace.

Amen.

Liz McNally 2019, with permission, unpublished

On Boxing Day 2019 I am delighted to begin a series of blog posts to celebrate the Patrick Poets, poets I have come to know during the past fifteen or so years here on the west coast through poetry writing retreats with Patrick Lane (1939-2019) – great Canadian poet, memoirist, novelist and teacher. His death last March, such a blow to the Canadian poetry community and to all of those of us who studied with him.

I am so privileged to begin this series with a poem by my friend and accomplished poet Liz McNally – her fine poem above inspired by a writing prompt from another Patrick, the Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama who is gaining an increasing following here in North America. The striking impact of Liz’s poem has stayed with me ever since I first read it a few months ago.  For more on Pádraig and Liz’s poem please keep reading!

But first, some words about our Canadian Patrick (with Irish ancestry!) and what a remarkable teacher he was. And yet as I write “teacher” I find it a pale and inadequate way to label Patrick and what he inspired in his circles of up to twenty of us for four to six days at a time. But if teaching means to inspire, to motivate and to demand unflagging commitment to writing then it works as a way to describe the spellbinding impact of Patrick’s poetry retreats.

When I think of Patrick’s retreats they start for me with his Hollyhock retreats on Cortes Island, B.C., then the so-called Glenairly and Ocean Wilderness retreats based out of Sooke, B.C., organized for many years by west coast poet Wendy Morton. Huge thanks to Wendy! Then I invited Patrick to add retreats at Rivendell on Bowen Island in 2008 and then we moved those retreats to a new location at Honeymoon Bay, northwest of Victoria a few years later. About seven or so years ago Liz McNally took over running the Honeymoon Bay retreats. How she put her wonderful stamp on them!

To honour Liz for her poetry and all her dedicated work organizing her Patrick retreats (and those she organizes for Patrick’s wife and celebrated Canadian poet Lorna Crozier) I wanted to feature her as the first poet in my Patrick Poets series! And I am so pleased to put the spotlight on her poem Collect for the Homeless.  Liz was with me this Fall at a poetry retreat led by the Irish poet, memoirist, theologian and peacemaker Pádraig Ó Tuama. At that retreat in Nanaimo, B.C. Pádraig introduced us to the ancient poetic prayer form, the collect. Liz took to this form as the proverbial duck to water.  And has given it her own inimitable flavor.

The form as Pádraig describes it has five folds or turns. First it addresses the subject of the Collect, traditionally God, and then expands the naming of the subject of the collect. Next it asks for something from the subject and then explains why. It ends with a word or words of closing, most often Amen. What makes this form so appealing to me is that it doesn’t have to be limited to addressing God. Based on one of Padraig’s prompts I have been using it to address poet friends including Patrick who have died recently.

What a moving collect/poem, Liz wrote after walking in downtown Vancouver a few months ago. Liz has a remarkable eye for observing and writing about those so often marginalized in our culture. For me it is her poetic trademark. One day I look forward to reading a book of hers based on these poems! In her collect above Liz stays true to the form but enlarges it and in particular makes it dense with wonderful imagery. Avoids cramming it with abstractions!

See how image rich it is especially as she names God in such a knock-me-over way: God of the broken night…and nick in time naloxone kits. The stuff of heart-clench and weeping.

I marvel at the artistry and the feeling/meaning imbedded in this collect. Feeling and meaning that avoids sentimentality or maudlin over-statement. And this line so fresh and provocative: Your home is not as palatial as we are told. It is here,/ under riddled blankets…Exquisite, the line break and the cadence, the movement of this line. And of this poem.

To end this post, a little more on Pádraig (1972 – ) who inspired Liz’s poem. Based out of Belfast he defies easy categorization. He has theology degrees but because he is gay he has been at odds with the Roman Catholic church where he grew up in the Christian faith. He is as at home with contemporary English-speaking poetry on both sides of the Atlantic as he is in the bible. He is a poet, storyteller and a memoirist with a growing following. And just this week it was announced he is to be the first Theologian in Residence for the U.S. public radio program On Being, hosted by Krista Tippett.

But there is more. I think Pádraig is also a spiritual healer both as poet and theologian and as someone well-versed in conflict resolution through his five-year tenure as leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, one focused on peace and reconciliation. And what especially strikes me is his vulnerability in sharing his own suffering, difficult years growing up as a gay man.

Now, to conclude first a big thank you to Liz for allowing me to share her poem. And second, this wonderful heart cry prayer of Pádraig’s from his book Daily Prayers:

So let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. Let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. Let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. Let’s claw ourselves out of the graves we’ve dug, let’s lick the earth from our fingers. Let us look up, and out, and around. the world is big, and wide, and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable and full of meaning. Oremus. Let us pray.

Pádraig  Ó Tuama from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Canterbury Press, 2017

 

 

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