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Father Joseph Brown: Reflection on his book, ‘The Sun Whispers, Wait: New and Collected Poems’

A refugee keeps warm by an open fire at a makeshift camp close to a registration center on the Greek island of Lesbos Nov. 18, 2015. "The Sun Whispers, Wait" includes examples of haiku, as in: "Our house stores sunlight/ in baskets and sets it out/ for the evening fire." (CNS photo/Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)

This small book, a collection of mostly new along with some earlier poems, is a gem of wisdom and craftsmanship.

Luke (Jesuit Father Joseph Brown) limns for us a disparate array of characters, starting with an aging mother who is “sewing a dress from the remnant memories of ninety years.”

We also meet a grandmamma and other forebears, living and dead, including a grandfather who recalls to his grandchild how he, too, at that age loved to read books, before he went blind.

“At the Edge” tells the story of an old woman who keeps watch with her dying husband. For anyone who has ever kept vigil at the bedside of a loved one as life ebbs, the poem’s final lines could not ring more true:

“but she cannot
rest   hearing him now   unable to replace
pain with peace
and she does not know
how to scold him to go to sleep for fear
that he would at last obey”

This is the book cover of “The Sun Whispers, Wait: New and Collected Poems,” by Jesuit Father Joseph Brown. (CNS photo/Brown Turtle Press)

One of Father Brown’s most memorable characters is Chrone (short for “Chronostheos”), a mysterious man whose story is told in five parts. Since Chrone’s son ran away and got killed, we are told, he has never been the same.

People gossip that he’s crazy, wearing a wool sweater even on hot days and unable to remember where he has hidden a likely cache of money and goods. Father Brown’s depiction of Chrone and other individuals invites contemplation of family, faith, community and the simple beauty — and sometimes the sadness — of everyday life.

Another theme is the civil rights struggle in the United States. In “5 years Later: For Us (for Martin),” Father Brown captures the deep sorrow felt at the loss of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“is he crying like we are now
over so much time lost

our tears seem to make the
Jordan swell its banks”

Yet the poet also evokes the hopefulness found in community action:

RIGHT, JESUS. let us take
the plunge.

we ain’t so
broken yet that we can’t
move a mighty distance more

shout it children shout it
for him
make Jordan shrink and tremble
and move a mighty distance
like we heard him say”

“The Sun Whispers, Wait” also includes some lovely examples of haiku, as in:

“Our house stores sunlight
in baskets and sets it out
for the evening fire”

Father Brown, who earned a master’s degree in Afro-American studies and a doctorate in American studies from Yale University, is a professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

(CNS illustration; photo by Tyler Orsburn)

A native of East St. Louis, Illinois, he was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1972 and has had an extensive academic and pastoral career. He also earned a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

He explains in the book’s introduction that he adopted the pen name “Luke” as a way to honor the Evangelist, who “gave us sensitive pictures of shepherds, grieving parents, confused friends and acquaintances, hungry multitudes, and a man for whom words carried the weight of the world and eternity.”

Furthermore, Father Brown writes, “Compassion, understanding, forgiveness and poetry were in the telling of the tales he recorded.”

A similar observation might be made about “The Sun Whispers, Wait.”

By Nancy L. Roberts Catholic News Service

Nancy L. Roberts is a journalism professor at the State University of New York at Albany who has written and co-edited two books about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.