The Tower Journal
BOOK REVIEW

Mary: A Life in Verse

Dos Madres Press, Inc.
ISBN # 978-1-939929-08-2
73 pages
$18.00

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Artists and writers throughout the centuries have sought to depict the Blessed Mother. In cases where they leave the domain of theology and enter into political historiography they leave behind the Mary of Judeo-Christianity and move into an entity disconnected from church teaching. In Patricia Monaghan’s collection of poems, Mary: A Life in Verse, for example, the Virgin Mary is interpreted through both a contemporary and feminist lens. As a result, some of these poems attempt to portray the Virgin Mary as impure and they confuse details surrounding the virginity of Mary as well as the pinnacle moment of Mary’s life, her fiat. Accordingly, rather than offering a book of sublime poetry, this collection offers commonplace imaginings.

Monaghan’s poetry collection follows the Virgin Mary from the annunciation of the angel Gabriel until old age. The poems do not consider Mary’s immaculate conception in the womb of her mother, Ann; neither do they cover the Pentecost or Mary’s assumption into heaven nor her coronation as queen of heaven and earth. The poems primarily characterize Mary as mundane, and do not consider that by a special grace of God, Mary was free from concupiscence, and committed no sin of any kind throughout her earthly life (Cf. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus: DS2803; Council of Trent: DS 1573).

Admittedly, Mary spent most of her years leading the simple, humble life of a Jewish woman. She took care of the house, cooked, wove cloth and sewed garments. She fed and cared for Jesus and her chaste husband, Joseph. She endured great sorrows. And in this way, Mary is like us. But Mary was sinless, and she was the Mother of God.

In Monaghan’s poetry collection, the annunciation is not presented according to historical tradition, as Michael McDermott states in his introduction to the book. For example, in the poem, “The Phenomenology of Angels,” Monaghan uses the first-person point of view,to portray Mary remembering the angel:

It was his smile, I think.
That, and the set of his hip.

In the poem “Mary Describes the Angel to Elizabeth” the subtle sexualizing of the angel continues; furthermore, Mary’s fiat, in this poem, her choice to accept God’s will and become the Mother of God suggests contemporary feminist consciousness.

He roused in me such fire!
And oh, yes, I was willing.
I told him, “I will.” I did not
mean, “I will do this thing.”
I meant, “I will it. I will it.”

Mary’s fiat, according to historical tradition and theological interpretation, was never about self-will. It was about individual choice. The words Mary uttered to God were, “Be it done unto me according to your will.”

The angel Gabriel’s role during the annunciation is also disordered in some of these poems. Gabriel is a messenger angel. As such, during the annunciation, Gabriel spoke for God, and any response Mary gave the angel was directed to God, not the angel. Mary did not say yes to the angel, as several of Monaghan’s poems suggest; Mary said yes to God.

Another poem, “Our Love Began in the Desert” implies that Mary had physical relations with her husband Saint Joseph.

…I looked down
on Joseph’s heaving chest. He coughed slightly in his sleep,
and my heart swelled. His goodness made me soften, and
his sturdy care for us.

At that moment, I became his wife. The rest came later.

The teaching of the Catholic Church about Mary is that she remained a virgin ante partum, in partu, and post partum (before, during, and after giving birth). And historical tradition pertaining to Saint Joseph is that he was chaste throughout their marriage.

This collection, then, limits itself to a common, mundane portrayal of the Mother of God. It does not place Mary, as stated in the book’s introduction, within the context of historical tradition. Rather, it rewrites historical tradition with ordinary ink.


—Mary  Ann Sullivan
 


The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2014