Thursday, July 2, 2015

Cuttings: Catholic Haiku

A couple of years ago I was approached by Hamish Ironside who was putting together an anthology of haiku. He wanted a different poet to write a haiku a day for one month, and would I do July? Some of the haiku writers who agreed to take part are haiku experts; others, like me, had never written a haiku before. I agreed for a simple and selfish reason. July in Santa Marinella traditionally means no intellectual/creative work and a lot of beach (where it’s impossible to read or scribble as I’m keeping an eye on my daughter in the sea). It seemed to me that writing 17 syllables a day would be an admirable way of being creative with minimal scribbling time attached. Recently, and with the project as a whole nearing completion, I looked over my proofs for July and liked what I read. My month of haiku is an imagist’s diary-- flashes of sight, sound, taste from that long hot month; sudden spiritual insights; small epiphanies.

I know, of course, that there is contention about the way some Westerners write haiku. (Even Richard Wright’s marvellous end-of-life haiku have come in for a slamming.) So when I began to be seized by the idea of writing haiku every day for a whole year, I did pause for thought. My haiku—in common with the Western tradition—do use language in a different way. They continue to play with metaphor. They deliberately open themselves up to the metaphysical. This is in stark contrast to the very direct and plain descriptions of the Japanese masters. And in any case, anyone can see that 17 syllables in English don’t equate to 17 Japanese ‘on’. On balance, my haiku have, perhaps, as much in common with early twentieth century Imagism as pure Japanese Haiku. Nonetheless, the discipline of the 5-7-5 ‘shell’ galvanizes me. Even if I break that shell, for the music of the haiku, I like knowing it is a line I choose to step outside.

The Japanese masters used the seasons and man’s place within them, as subject matter. Again, Westerners, and modern Japanese, have begun to break this mold. My own haiku are deeply attached to the season and also, within that, the liturgical year. They reflect the rhythm of morning Mass, they contemplate Mary, they will, I anticipate, contain something of the essence of my Lent, Easter and Christmas.  They look to the semi-open skylight above us. Each haiku involves recollection and gives expression to the ‘sacrament of the present moment.’

I hesitate to call them haiku, as they are not very Japanese. The essence of haiku is ‘cutting’—two images cut by one word or expression. I’d like to take this word, ‘cutting’ and attach it my imagistic, Western, Catholic haiku. Cuttings are also fragments taken from plants to replant and grow. They form a scrapbook. They represent what we salvage. For the Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs they will form another point of meditation and celebration of God’s creation.

 There are four cuttings for Corpus Christi published in four posts below.








Monday, June 15, 2015

Haiku for Corpus Christi

He unfolds in me

like arms of branches, defining

and conquering a lost sky.

Haiku for Corpus Christi

I feel him growing through me:

No part of me’s

Unthreatened by his touch.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Haiku for Corpus Christi

His presence is felt

Beyond his garment’s hem

Like cool spilling from the sea.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

Haiku for Corpus Christi

His presence in a room

Goes through me, like a voice

Echoing through blood.

Sally Read, June 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Creed To Live By

And as I strive to honour my God by works, by stillness,
By labours by day and hymns by night
By streams of tears and holy purifications,
Who summons me to vain battles and verbal squabblings?
For my strength is not concerned with people, nor am I agile
With words, nor do I mingle in human concourses nor exult
In the votes of favourable judges…
Let the honours of life be for others. But as for me,
I have one law, one intention; filled with love,
To wend my way from here, a light bearer, towards the high-ruling God.
But as for other goods, desire for them effects my heart but little,
Such things as vain people dream of, inflated with useless vanities,
Things quickly gained and which perish as rapidly
As smoke or steam or a flowing breeze
As sand ever swept by the disturbing winds,
Or as the trail of a ship upon the sea.
I would prefer to be dishonoured among men
And to have a small reputation eternally among heavenly beings
Than to possess all things and fall short of God.
 St Gregory of Nazianzus, In Praise of Virginity, Poem 1.2.1 356-376 PG 37, 549-550

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Holy Saturday

A new poem of mine, 'Holy Saturday', is up at The Asketerion poetry page
Blessings for a very happy Eastertide!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Palm Sunday

The Carmelite Missionary Sisters of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus process from the convent to the church.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Psalms

Ernst Barlach
I copied this from the the blog of the Asketerion. St Basil defines a psalm brilliantly and comprehensively:

A psalm gives profound serenity to the soul,
Dispensing peace,
Calming the tumultuous waves of thought.
For it softens anger in the soul
And bridles intemperance.
A psalm solidifies friendships,
Reconciles the separated,
Conciliates those at enmity.
Who, indeed, can consider as an enemy
Him with who he has uttered the same prayer to God?
So that psalmody in choral singing is a bond, as it were, of choral unity,
Joining harmoniously the people into a symphony of one choir,
Producing the greatest of all blessings, charity (agape).
A psalm is a city of refuge from the demons;
Cry for help to the angels;
A shield against the fears of the night;
A rest from toils of the day;
A safeguard for infants;
An adornment for vigorous youth;
A consolation for the elderly;
A most fitting ornament for women.
It makes the desert a home,
It moderates the excesses of the marketplace;
It is the foundation for beginners,
The improvement of those advancing,
The solid support of the perfect.
It is the voice of the Church,
Brightening feast days;
It creates a sorrow which is in accordance with God.
For a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone.
A psalm is the occupation of the angels,
Heavenly life,
Spiritual incense.

From St Basil's Homily on Psalm 1

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Feast of the Annunciation

Santa Marinella has numerous convents. I discovered the latest on my walks by the sea, by glimpsing this statue of Mary over a heavily graffitied wall. It's the third sizeable convent within the span of a quarter of a mile along the coast road. In the evenings, nuns in two or threes walk along the sea, their white habits blowing behind them like sails.

Today is the solemnity of the Annunciation, tucked sweetly away in the folds of Lent, and the sisters sang in tune, and in harmonies, at Mass this morning. It is heady to think of Mary's 'yes'-- but there is nothing sentimental in the truth of this feast. Mary's Fiat was courageous. It was taking a step forward into darkness and the unfolding of terrible pain as well as joy.

My fourth Annnunciation poem is up at the Asketerion poetry page. What used to enthrall me as an atheist was the drama of the event, the mystery. What fascinates me now is Mary's history-changing Fiat. Life, it seems to me, can only be lived happily as a succession of Fiats-- sometimes daily, hourly Fiats; the 'yes' as a prayer to steady us in darkness-- Eccomi.

Monday, March 23, 2015


I once had the pleasure of studying under the poet Baron Wormser for a semester in South Dakota, USA. He said many memorable things and one was-- "There are two kinds of ambition: one is to have a poem published in the Paris Review; the other is to write a really good poem."

Over the last while I've spent a lot of time discerning (very Catholic word: thinking, praying, trying not to worry, praying again) my vocation and what I am supposed to do now that my goals are so very different. The Catholic writer, wrote Thomas Merton, has only one goal and that is to restore all things in Christ. That doesn't necessarily mean writing about God. Yet, as Flannery O'Connor wrote, "the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul." This speaks about the second kind of ambition: writing truth.

As for the other kind of ambition, part of any conversion, it seems to me, involves both an increasing sense of humility and of importance-- how others see us matters less; how God sees us matters more. The beauty of Catholicism, is that it reminds us there is only one great narrative, but every human detail and story, every hair on our heads, has worth. What that boils down to is I'm far less concerned about where my poems are published, and far more pleased when they reach people directly, where they're at. These days I find it far more satisfying to give poems away according to the season.

Talking of which, March 25th sees the Feast of the Annunciation tucked away in the folds of Lent. My fourth Annunciation poem is going up at the Hermitage journal, The Asketerion on the feast day. Take a look at the Asketerion poetry page

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Asketerion

I'm very pleased to announce that the Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs, of which I'm poet in residence, is launching an online journal, The Asketerion. It's a space for truly original Catholic writing-- feature articles, theology and poetry. I hope to put up poems in accordance with the liturgical cycle, and will be contributing articles and editing.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Song for the Newborn Christ

Heavy the cold air,
gorgeous-heavy her round arms.
Then, the pointillist creation
of her smells—her milk, her hair
(your own skin looses newborn scent:
an altar that exhales incense).
Thank God you’re moored to her close voice;
her arms soak up the tremble
of your earth-struck limbs.
Oh tiny, fragile, stricken ears
pricked to hear the story’s end--
My God, just let me love, she sings.

Written for The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Blessed Maria Crocifissa Curcio

Meditating on the Passion, I follow Jesus through his painful condemnation, and during Communion I go to meet him as he carries the Cross. It is intimate torture, seeing the wound on his shoulder where the heavy wooden cross leans. He holds me, as though I am in a dead faint from the sight of that deep and bloody gash. My pain, I hear him confide to me, is a balm to that cruel wound; my love alleviates the pain of those gashes on his holiest body. When a soul is disposed to receive the painful and intimate confidences of the heart of Jesus in his Passion, they don’t just bring great consolation and nurture the beauty of Grace, they help Jesus forget, in that instance of love, the pains that his ungrateful children  cause him; they renew the sacrament of love.
I'm translating the spiritual diary of Maria Crocifissa into English. She came to Santa Marinella in 1926 and my daughter attends the convent school she built here by the sea. She, I believe, had a hand in my conversion (there's more on that in an article I wrote for The Tablet, issue of November 2nd). 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Poet's Dark Night

My podcast, "The Dark Night of Sylvia Plath" is up at the blog of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing.

A poet's journey, I argue, bears many resemblances to the journey of a pilgrim. Both yearn to arrive at ultimate truth.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


By the time I converted to Catholicism in December 2010 I had already written and published a few poems about Mary, Mother of God-- specifically two that sought to debunk the biblical account of the Annunciation. By the time I came into the Church and accepted Mary as what she is, the publication of those poems was something I wasn't thrilled about. But, in the Summer of 2012, the exceptionally gifted Irish composer Paul Flynn contacted me and asked me if I'd be willing to write something for him to set to sacred music: now was my chance to write Annunciation poem number three. The process of all this writing, and Mary's presence through the story, is detailed in a longer article that came out in The Tablet for the Feast of the Annunciation.

When you listen to the song, Lady, it feels as though you are listening to an event. One can feel the stillness, the arrival of the the angel, the message, the impact. And the stillness afterwards that will never be the same.

The Palestrina Choir are singing it on 16th June at the 11am mass at St Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin. Here are the words:

Lady, still as a well under almond blossom.
Lady, still as a harp-string
ready for the finger’s touch.

Woman, stepping inside to eye-bruising dark
with a jug of water.
Only your lush ear could catch
the angel’s words,
and only you could make them flesh.

What stillness. In stillness
beyond tissue of thought
He formed. Lady, closest to God,
pray that we make the ground inside us
rich enough for this formation,
that we always wear the anatomy of His death.

Lady, still as a well, turning hurt and consolation,
show us how to listen in our emptiness.





Monday, January 21, 2013


I'm delighted to become a fellow of Birmingham City University's new Institute of Creative and Critical Writing set up by the talented Dr Gregory Leadbetter. Check out his blog.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


"It is currently said that hope goes with youth, and lends to youth its wings of a butterfly; but I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is preeminently the period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged; God has kept that good wine until now. It is from the backs of the elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies the young as the consistent frivolity of the old. They have discovered their indestructibility. They are in their second and clearer childhood, and there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. They have seen the end of the End of the World."
from GK Chesterton's Charles Dickens

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Walking by the harbour today, I thought about the prophetess Anna, the old widow in the temple who saw the baby Christ and heard Simeon's words about him being the saviour. Her thirst, loneliness and waiting must have died in her.

My first Christmas after conversion to Catholicism many people told me I must be very excited. It was hard to explain the sensory and intellectual impact the conversion had: for a year every day was like Christmas and Easter. The full of blast of God seemed to come at me over and over again. Thirst and waiting were done with.

This past Easter was the first that I really lived in step with him. And this Advent, I feel the same visceral engagement. This year it feels as though something that has happened, and already lives in us, is about to renew itself again. All the great truths and emotions work like this: the greatest griefs, epiphanies, pains and loves are so huge we are only strong enough to experience them in waves, like birth pangs. This is why the feasts serve us-- they let the truth at us in a wave that would be too intense, perhaps, to sustain constantly, but complex and large enough to nourish us through the months to come.

Thomas Merton wrote that we should let the liturgical cycle enter our bones and blood. It's little considered that Christmas didn't become a church feast till the 4th Century. December 25th was chosen as the day to commemorate the birth of Christ. The first day of the waxing of daylight hours was already a major pagan feast, and as the Church's metaphor for the coming of Him it realized its truth. In cold emptiness, we receive him as a child. And again, like the old woman, our thirst, loneliness and waiting know their deaths.

Tenth Month



Those heavy days, the Child cramped
within you and girding his limbs,
your lungs squeezed breathless-high,
the ordinary, unnerving simmer
of black waters within, Woman,
what did you think?
                                  Or was thought
all prayer—trust in the buds
of epiphanies, the unquantifiable
blood to be let. But Mother,
those unspeakably swollen days,
olives combed out of ashen leaves,
or wine leeching out its vinegar smell,
did you feel the tug of split hearts,
in city streets, at tabernacles, in bars?
As your belly drew down, drawn
by hormones and truth, did you weigh,
too, the clumsy imploring down all
our bloodlines, for this saving parcel of flesh?


 This poem was written for Advent for The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs.





Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Day Hospital recordings

The Day Hospital is published today. It's less a collection of poems than verse drama, and gives voice to 12 characters over the course of one day in London. I've recorded two of these voices, Bridget and Catherine. To hear their monolgues, click on their names below.

A 76 year old Irish woman with depression and agoraphobia. She has not left her flat in two years.
A 70 year old Irish woman recently recovered from depression following the death of her husband.