Today's book of poetry: Jail Fire - The Life and Work of Elizabeth Fry. Julie C. Robinson. Buschek Books. Ottawa, Ontario. 2013.
These very tender and thoughtful poems are Julie C. Robinson's answer to the question "who was the Quaker, Elizabeth Fry"? Robinson's answer is both surprising and rewarding.
Clearly Robinson has done all her due diligence in researching the life of Fry, her work with women's prisons, her marriage, children – it's all in here and rendered with such delicate affection you might fear the poems will get away.
Robinson does that thing that the best poets do, they tie you to their subject, the subject doesn't really matter, good poems make every subject interesting.
The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its
prisons.––attributed to Dostoyevsky
In a foolish gesture of appeal for trust,
she brings her infant. Fingers
blackened with grime stroke her baby's cheek,
remarkable tokens of tenderness!
She seeks these remnants of soul,
these particular flickers among ashes,
believes they can be fanned into flame.
With a mother's bold heart
she demands enough bread,
offers salt of grace, oil of joy.
Stone wall locks in cheaters.
Two hundred crimes punishable by death.
Rookeries, Irish row, places respectable people would never go––
all these boundaries.
What about the limits of a woman's body?
Her need to bar openings,
to legitimately claim herself?
Fear of the male turnkey chars their hearts.
Their hair stinks with anger.
Elizabeth fears poverty of spirit,
atrophy within parlour walls.
Wary of a dying conscience,
she stops short, listens for a voice of need
not her own.
This adventure is launched like most others:
crawling. Extending one arm, one leg
till coordination comes and Elizabeth can stand
at her full height.
Making notes on the nurture of sparks,
she begins with the alphabet, teaches them
the rosemary scent of the letter Y,
to make with their lips the chestnut shape of an O.
She crosses logs in the hearth and T ignites,
flutters and morphs into F,I,R,E.
She teaches them to breathe in light,
exhale in ink. A child writes
the letters of her mother's name
and love appears––solid, permanent, a guarantee.
Through the portal of literacy
they enter a world of possibility
Together they knit imprisonment into a stocking
and tie if off.
A testimony of warmth, they are no longer despised.
This is the creation of their hands, each small effort, a miracle––
blankets, socks, self-respect. Their lives
stoked new with faith.
Elizabeth Fry was a pioneer for prison reform, a dedicated Quaker, a woman of her time and a woman bravely ahead of it. These poems illuminate that life, they never lose their connection to the Quaker principles that guided Fry, but most importantly for the purposes of this blog –– these poems entertain. Robinson has inhabited Fry well enough to speak with her voice but never loses the poets' perspective. We do believe we are hearing Fry speak through Robinson.
Anniversary (Joseph Fry)
Who doesn't enjoy chasing geese off the lawn?
A sprint down the slope to the pond
opens the body to rhythm and breath.
Each cell announces life.
And you know how much I love to sing––
my nearest approach to flight.
In the beginning, I realize, I embarrassed you.
My laugh too loud and ill-timed,
when your speech has never yet been side-ways.
You do all with amounts of consideration.
I remember our walk in the garden at Earlham,
the currant between bloom and berry.
My offer of marriage struck you speechless
as though I had exclaimed
the house must come down stone by stone
and be rebuilt over there.
As you know, I am a man of blunders.
And maybe that is what I said.
When you finally consented,
a thousand nuthatch burst from my chest.
I have kept my promise, Elizabeth.
I have not been a fence between you
and your god.
I have not sung so loud as to overwhelm
the whisperings of your spirit,
but followed as far as I was able.
If loving you has been of some price to myself,
I declare it the most beautiful of burdens.
Jail Fire, Julie C. Robinson's first book, is a very mature piece of work. These poems are careful, but never calculated. They are precise and never preachy. These poems do what the best poetry always does, they entertain, they educate, they open doors you didn't know were there.
Ladies Society for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate
I never ask their crimes, for we all have come short––Society Lady
It might be a little like nursing:
the regularity of visits,
someone able to comprehend
the big picture, to offer a remedy.
Apart from poverty we do not know
what darkness brings them to us, locks them in.
If we are attendants of the soul,
it is because we have examined our own
secret places, are familiar with dangers––
pride, greed, self-centeredness,
that jut like roots on a path.
What does it matter, the variety of root,
when you are face down on the day?
How easily one stumbles.
We are merely sisters, vessels of gladness
who do not rebuff one another
but bear our courage up.
we dare to approach the invisible God
and reach, without shame,
for the hem of a second chance.