About Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer

Portrait of Robert Oppenheimer reclining a chair with his legs crossed, holding a cigarette in a very cavalier manner. What would you think of a biography of a famous person written in the form of a poem?

I don’t mean just a portrait of the person: Stephanie Strickland did this (masterfully) in her The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil. No, I mean a full, chronological biography—birth to death and reputation beyond—complete with socio-political context and analysis of the subject’s inner life as well as his public achievements. And even more: a biography that becomes at the same time an epic poem, with its towering yet tragic central character.

All this is what Kelly Cherry has managed to do in her new book Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. The subtitle is “A Poem,” though 121 distinct poems make up the book, much like chapters and subheadings in a prose biography.

The Quartet of the title refers to the four “movements” into which Cherry has divided Oppenheimer’s life: his childhood through schooling and his early professional career as physics professor (with the horrors of Nazism’s rise always in the background); his position as Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; his post-war downfall, caught in the net of Senator Joe McCarthy and the country’s anti-Communist hysteria; his later life, death, and assessments of his life’s significance. [Read more…]

Praying the Art of Sean Scully: The Match of Prose and Visual Art

Black and white photo of Sean Scully from chest up. He is wearing a button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and is gesturing with his hand. He has dark glasses on, is bald, and has a calm expression on his face. When I finished reading Paul Anel’s article on the chapel art of Sean Scully, in the current Image (#91), I was moved to close my eyes in prayer. It wasn’t verbal prayer. It was a sitting within a sense of the sacred.

Both Scully’s art and Anel’s graced account of it had drawn me into this sacred space. Anel focuses on Scully’s transformation of an ancient, crumbling building—the Chapel of Santa Cecilia on the grounds of Montserrat Abbey in Spain—into a glistening, vibrant work of art: indeed the article is titled “Gathering the Light.”

There’s no point in my repeating Anel’s account here; you can read it in Image online. What I want to ponder instead is, first, what drew me into prayer on finishing the article. Partly, I think, it was the humility of both Scully and Anel. Neither calls attention to himself in his work, whether visual art or prose.

We don’t learn that Anel is a priest until the penultimate paragraph, when he recounts celebrating the first Mass in the newly reborn chapel. And Anel has discussed Scully’s “humility and objectivity” in keeping himself out of his art. Not totally, because any art has to come out of the artist’s soul and life experience.

For instance, a tragedy in Scully’s life (the death of his nineteen-year-old son in a car crash) appears in one of the chapel’s abstract paintings: blocks of black, grey, and white oils painted onto aluminum. “The placement of this painting in the chapel,” Anel writes, “transforms the tragedy into an offering, the failure into a prayer.” [Read more…]

Heisenberg and the A-Bomb: Just Say No

I read through the article breathlessly, astonished at the moral implications of what I was learning. When I got to the end, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to begin to take in the import of what I’d just read.

The article was “The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb,” by Thomas Powers, in the December 22, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books. I’d been drawn to the article because, during the 1980s, I’d studied and written about the development of the atomic bomb in the U.S. during World War II and the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union which followed the war.

The U.S. wartime project to develop an atomic bomb, supported by Britain and Canada, was named the Manhattan Project. Its Scientific Director at New Mexico’s Los Alamos Laboratory was physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The U.S. Army, intensely eager to create an atomic bomb before the Germans did, allocated immense resources of money and manpower to the project. [Read more…]

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Our Rumbling Nation 

This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world, as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and un-redressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion.

As I was reading these lines from the final page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I couldn’t help thinking of the current rumbling earthquake in our country. Though not yet with physical violence—or not much so far—we seem to be experiencing a sort of civil war.

Or, more accurately, an uncivil war.

This isn’t why I pulled Uncle Tom’s Cabin off my shelf and began re-reading the yellowed pages of my 1981 paperback edition. I’ve been interrogating the hundreds of books on my shelves: am I going to read you again, or am I going to throw you out, or pass you on to my church’s second-hand sale?

I hadn’t read Stowe’s 1852 masterpiece for decades, so figured it was time to give it another try. Though sometimes sentimental or melodramatic, it does hold up: it paints a multi-faceted picture of the various forms of evil that the institution of slavery took.

It’s commonplace (though true) to say that our country is still living with the after-shocks of this evil.  How many of the people who voted for Donald Trump did so in the spirit of backlash of having to live for eight years under a Black president? Of course, people’s motivations for voting are too complex to single out one factor.

Yet in campaigning, Trump did play the racist card. And so far, as President, he has slapped much of the deck onto the table: Mexicans, Muslims with non-European ethnicity, Native Americans who are resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. [Read more…]

John Slater’s Lean

dying branch with tiny yellow leaves laid across a white table cloth in the afternoon.What is poetry, anyway? I found myself musing about this as I sat with John Slater’s stimulating new collection, Lean.

First I recalled what I’d once heard poet Li Young Lee say at a reading:

In poetry, language is not the only medium; silence is also a medium. This is a difference of poetry from prose. We might even say that, in poetry, the very purpose of the language is to inflect the silences. It’s like after church bells ring: the air resonates with their sound. In poetry, the silences are resonant, from the language that precedes them.

Slater’s poems are as full of silences as of words. First, the poems themselves are—as the book’s title suggests—lean. With one exception, each poem’s lines run from one to four words. So there’s an invited silence at the end of each brief line. Then another, longer reverberating silence: many of the poems present an image, followed by a space with a * in it, followed by another image stanza, then another spaced *… and so on.

Take the whole of the poem “Thaw”:

Freeze
thaw freeze
hollowing
pot-holes in
salty grey-
black asphalt

cracked
seam between
lanes
stitched
by faded
golden broken
line.
[Read more…]