Poems Forged in Grief Echo A Formidable Love
By Gloria Hutchinson Published in the May/June 2012 issue of CORPUS Reports www.corpus.org
“A poem begins with a lump in the throat,” wrote Robert Frost. And anyone who reads Elaine G. McGillicuddy’s first volume of poems, Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Poems is bound to share the truth of Frost’s observation. McGillicuddy, of Portland, ME, lost her husband Francis to cancer on Jan. 3, 2010. He was 82 and they had been married for forty years.
Their love story is particularly poignant because, when they first met, she was an Ursuline nun and he was a diocesan priest. They shared a commitment to the peace movement during the Vietnam war. Their mutual devotion led them to marry and pursue together interests in yoga, Pax Christi, war tax resistance, permaculture, the Dances of Universal Peace, and membership in CORPUS.
The reader meets the McGillicuddys on the cover of Sing to Me. All the poems can be considered a commentary on what is revealed by that portrait. The faces of husband and wife reflect the unrestrained joy of mated souls saturated with love for each other, for life, and for its Source.
Poet Jane Hirschfield points out that poetry “is based on a thoroughly lived life.” Elaine McGillicuddy did not become a poet until her 75th year. But her writing draws on the deepest of wells, a life and a love thoroughly lived. She wrote these 65 poems because she needed “a reason to go on living.” They are the fruit of her daily contemplative prayer or “sitting practice” which she does wrapped in her husband’s shroud as a prayer shawl. Reading them will be a healing experience for bereaved widows and widowers, friends and kin.
One of McGillicuddy’s most affecting poems reveals the origins of her memorable title. “Duet” begins with Francis’ words to his wife when he knew that he would not survive the excruciatingly painful bone cancer: “As death approaches me, . . ./even if I seem beyond your reach,/sing to me and I will hear you.” She did. And she knew that he did.
In the poem’s second movement, McGillicuddy celebrates her husband’s transformed presence which she experiences as right here, right now. She knows that Francis lives on. “When Great Mystery beckoned, you entered Her depths,/ but left the door ajar for me./Now I can hear you sing!”
McGillicuddy’s narrative poems draw us into the small case events of a widow’s daily life where familiar settings have the power to wound or hearten. “Big Love” recounts a seemingly minor incident wherein the poet is driving home from a visit to her chiropractor a few months after Francis’ death. She suddenly remembers how he would say, “Drive carefully.”/(revealing love’s concern).”
The remembrance of her husband’s voice, emblematic of his manly protectiveness, makes McGillicuddy’s heart swell with the recognition of “so much love/I was surprised,/said out loud, still driving - /”It’s big! IT”S BIG – YOUR LOVE!” Her profound perception assures the reader that love not only does not die after a loved one’s death, neither is it diminished. It expands.
The lyrical and alliterative “The Tang” compares the McGillicuddys’ wedded life to a “dance all these years,/its rhythm and beat pulses now in my life/with such force/I can feel both your hand and your step.” The poem closes with this telling stanza: “We’re still moving together/though the melody’s new.”
Several poems in this volume incorporate actual dialogue from the closing months of Francis McGillicuddy’s life, as his wife kept a journal to store up his precious words. One of the most memorable is “Whoever Heard” in which a hospice nurse at the home patient’s bedside asks him, “What’s holding you back?”/”It’s the joy,” you said.”
A few of the poems are spiced with welcome humor. In “Hospital Walk,” McGillicuddy recalls how her husband demonstrated a squat to a surprised physical therapist and impishly proclaimed, “It’s yoga.” In “Two Firsts,” the poet connects Francis’ first radiation treatment with another first. She boasts to the therapist that “this man of mine,/20 years ago/at 62/kicked up/into his very first-ever/handstand.” (To those who knew him, this image of the lanky patient upended is delightful.)
Although most of the poems are focused entirely on husband and wife, “He Stood On Our Ladder” broadens the poet’s perspective and reminds us of both the McGillicuddys’ global concerns. The “he” of the title is an African youth who had fled persecution in Burundi. The poet has hired him to pick peaches, while she gathers the fallen fruit on the ground. He tells her his sad story yet breaks into song as he enjoys the beauty of the day.
The poet wonders if her husband, through his “loving communion” with her, continues to grow as she does in her new solitary life. She realizes that he is with the Source of life and can have nothing further to gain. But she concludes with these lines: “Yet remembering/this Wellspring, our God, counts/”the very hairs on (our) heads,”/I know/that you grow when I do.”
Readers of this love-soaked volume will likewise grow through their exposure to a rare relationship between two graced souls destined to share a formidable love. In their 40 years of marriage, the McGillicuddys gathered around them a widening community of peacemakers, earth-stewards, and justice-doers. They enriched the world as they found it.
I once visited a Unitarian-Universalist church in Portsmouth, NH where the co-pastors were a married couple whose gifts visibly complemented one another. Remembering that holy and wholly human man and wife, I see in Elaine and Francis McGillicuddy what the Catholic Church deprived itself of by saying no to married priests.
Sing To Me And I Will Hear You is a beautiful book. Read it and be lifted up by the company of two priests, one on either side of the thin place separating this material world from the everlasting City of God. For, as Wallace Stevens observed, “The poet is the priest of the invisible.”
(Gloria Hutchinson is an author whose latest book is Glimmers of God Everywhere: Catching Sight of the Daily Divine soon to be available from amazon.com. She lives in Bangor, ME.)