Monk of Many Colours

In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton
[235pp, $16.95, New Directions]

To review a selected Thomas Merton of any description is somewhat daunting; the prolific Catholic convert and Trappist monk was a legend in his own lifetime and since his untimely and unusual death his cult has increased, drawn to the tensions he embodied: an extreme outsider with his finger on the political and cultural pulse, a deeply religious soul who travelled the whole journey from fervent traditionalism to radical embracing of renewal, revision, and interfaith dialogue; a man who was never quite sure he was in the right job - being a busy monk instead of a reclusive hermit; and- perhaps most intriguing to the casual reader or even those who think they have the measure of Merton - the wise contemplative, vowed to celibacy, who could fall in love with a young woman and write a stream of lyrical love poetry.

Merton the poet, if fact, embodies all these tensions, and this New Selected Poems
walks the reader through the Merton poetic spectrum. I liked the section headings - 'Poems of the Sacred'; 'Songs of Contemplation' containing some of the most lyrical, spiritually sensitive poems; 'History's Voices'; 'Engaging the World', comprising the grounded wisdom of the politically engaged thinker. Don't be put off by the apparent specialism of other sections, either. 'Poems from the Monastery', for instance, is neither over-localised nor over-pious, but has the eloquently beautiful 'Elegy for a Trappist' with its vivid, fresh metaphor of truck headlights flooding the monastery garden for that 'dark before dawn' instant. It also has the genially casual 'Solitary Life', which, instead of engaging with spiritual formation has its narrator divulge that '[I] Shave twice a week / Maybe'. As for prayer: 'I don't talk / About all that / What is there to say?' - a nicely disingenuous account of silent contemplation.

It's relatively easy to detect a 'Beat' cadence or two in some of Merton's more dry, laconic lines. But literary influences and acknowledgements in his writing are far and wide: Merton was a well read man, and not just in English language poetry, as other sections show. There are his tribute poems, his translation poems, the Taoist fables which address such questions as:

     Is it better to give up one's life
     And leave a sacred shell
     As an object of cult
     In a cloud of incense
     Three thousand years,
     Or better to live
     As a plain turtle
     Dragging its tail in the mud?
           (find out Chang Tzu's answer in 'The Turtle')

Merton is more than a ventriloquist, however; he feels his way into his subjects, his voices, and even when whimsical the poems are accessible, memorable. This from a poet who could also publish the shocking anti-poetry of 'Original Child Bomb': the stark, numbered, prose-poetry paragraph by paragraph account of the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima, also included in this volume.

Merton as a poet is vast, and contains multitudes. And he also has an affinity with the pure emptiness, the nothingness, which poetry, as well as mysticism, touches on. Hence his love of the night - his exalted journal passage about being alone on the monastery 'fire watch' comes to my mind. It is not included here, though the spirit of the night watch runs through the more contemplative pieces. But what of the personal Merton, the use of all his vast skill and assuredness in written communication when it comes to the personal, the raw, and the fresh perspective which is the blood jet of poetry? I've saved looking at this Merton until later just as Merton himself discovered personal love, it would seem, in his mid fifties, in the young nurse referred to as 'M'. She moved him both spiritually and physically, and the previously barely-circulated poems written for her are included in this selection, and are all the more moving for their sense of late-learned wonder and innocence.

     Because I am always broken I obey my nurse
    Who in her grey eyes and her mortal breast
     Holds an immortal love the wise have fractured
           ('I Always Obey My Nurse')

And this love which was of course, in the long term, impossible ('If only you and I / Were possible') generates the soft longing of 'Evening: Long Distance Call'; the poignant consolation of parted lovers looking at the same moon, and the ephemeral sensuality a brief meeting provides: 'Your blue skirt / Is wet with melted ice / And Sauterne'; '...let me lie down / Under the fragrant tent / Of your black hair' ('May Song'). Who was it who said that poets were in love only with love when they wrote such poetry? Perhaps these vulnerable fragments prove the point, perhaps its opposite. But in the context of this substantial selection they certainly confirm that Merton was unafraid to witness to his own experience. And, for all his learning, religious dedication, and legendary reputation, Merton's poetic heart was a very human one, and all the more compelling for that.

             Sarah Law 2005