He likes to hang out in gardens and hold up bird baths, but Saint Francis is more than a decorative statue.
That’s one of the messages of Abigail Carroll’s A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-day Pilgrim. In it she sends a series of messages to the beloved (and frequently cast in concrete) thirteenth-century saint. Each is a letter in the form of a poem.
The title’s reference to larks is appropriate, because Saint Francis had a special affinity for these plain, brown birds, which to him symbolized humility and simplicity (and of course their beautiful song is an added bonus). It’s said that when Francis died on October 3, 1226, larks gathered in the skies above him, honoring one of their own who was going home.
In the introduction to her book, Carroll writes: “Each letter is an invitation bidding the life of this holy man from Assisi to speak for itself. Together, they prove his humanness, poke fun at the sentimentality surrounding his persona, and attempt to parse man and saint—getting under his halo, so to speak.”
In her poems she addresses Francis in a variety of ways, each indicating some aspect of his life. They include: Dear Dreamer, Dear Lord of the Revels, Dear Lover of Lady Poverty, Dear Wolf-whisperer, Dear Lover of Solitude, Dear Wounded Saint.
At the beginning of the book, a short biography gives enough background on Francis’ life so that even readers who aren’t familiar with him can set the poems in context.
Carroll’s poems are accessible, heartfelt, and often wryly humorous. Here, for example, is one of my favorites:
Dear Francis, Patron Saint of Gardens and Lawns,
Among begonias and bleeding hearts
in suburban backyards, you hold out rain-filled
on the rims of which perch cardinals,
jays, sparrows, finches, robins, wrens. They dip
and rolltheir thin-boned wings, fluff plumage
in tiny bursts of pride, send droplets through
like shining bits of glass. Patient
as a saint, you stay perfectly still. In fact,
actually move, which is why
they consider you a friend. You preside over
and mulch, lilies and hostas and vetch,
patios and hammocks and winding slate paths,
and lantern gnomes. I imagine you have seen
a few pink flamingos in your life, not to mention
and Christmas lights. You happily
make room for blue-robed Madonnas in bathtub
and praying cherubs hidden among
the ferns. As for your form, you come in resin
cast concrete, even bronze.
You’re frost-proof and color-fast, your sculpted
by the breeze, your palms turned up
in prayer, a dove on your arm, a lamb at your feet.
I saw you once for sale at Gardener’s Supply
preaching to hose-reels, marigolds, ornamental
A Gathering of Larks will make you look at those ubiquitous garden statues in a different way.
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