EVEN THE DARK: POEMS BY LESLIE WILLIAMS

Award-winning poet Leslie Williams grew up in North Carolina, lived and worked in Washington D.C., Seattle, and Charlottesville (where she earned a grad degree in English), got married, moved to Chicago, had a son, moved back to DC, had another son, and moved to Boston area where she and her family have been for fifteen years.

She’s been writing and doing community and church work ever since, including teaching poetry and Sunday school.

Her first book, Success of the Seed Plants, came out in 2010 and garnered the Bellday Prize. Her latest collection, Even the Dark (2019) was co-winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition.

She has received several artist fellowships. Her poems appear widely in such magazines as “Poetry,” “Kenyon Review,” “Image,” “America,” and “The Southern Review.”

Most notably, as her website states: “She is always wondering about the Divine.”

She also hosts a blog, accessible from her site, that focuses on Scripture and is called “Finding the River.”

Of Even the Dark, her newest collection, Williams says: “I worked on many of the poems for probably fifteen years and they slowly came together into this book. Poems are a way of thinking through my role in the world and in others’ lives and are for me a kind of prayer and conversation with God. I also really like words and sounds and the music a poem can make.”

Williams’ poems soar, collide with reality, wonder, observe, ache. They are about the seeming paltriness and inefficacy of our love, and the way we offer it anyway, because the alternative—to withhold our love or to yield to despair—would be the one thing blacker than life, with all its suffering.

From “When Walking by Lilacs, a Burning Smell”:

“I’m overwhelmed: the sublime
perfumed featherings of lilac, never knowing what
to do for others but letting swallows make a home
here because I can spare the eaves.”

Moments that might bypass a less keen observer crystallize as quicksilver shafts of light: shorthand messages from the world beyond. “Forgetful Green” enshrines a stab of transcendence while gathering tomatoes toward dusk from the garden: each dinner with family, in its way, a “last supper.”  “In Which the Bread Crumbs Were Eaten by Birds” reflects on the memory of a childhood friend lost to suicide.

“Even the Gladioli,” “Prayer that Starts in the Eye of a Bird,” “Exile from the Kingdom of Ordinary Sight”: these are poems that grope for transcendence in the missed chance, the offer to help rebuffed, our inability to reconcile the human condition.  

“Create in Me A Clean Heart, O God” includes the lines:

“When my mother was sick
I didn’t go
I rolled over in my own bed
I thought she wanted

to be alone,
alone how I like to be
to keep my misery.”

The title is borrowed from Psalm 51, which runs in part, “O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived.” The compact lines of Williams’ own “psalm” evoke our cognizance of original sin; our knowledge that original sin alone doesn’t absolve us; and the way our mothers both shape and wound us, sometimes forming us to be unable to show up for them just as they may have been unable to show up for us. Our absolution, the poem nonetheless manages to suggest, consists in our longing to be better, to love more deeply, to be less afraid.

These are poems, one senses, whose seeds were sown while sitting in the bleachers at a soccer game, or standing in line at the grocery store, or nursing a child.

“If American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work
they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year,” ran a recent NYT headline.

Maybe, but how do you assign a price to poems of such rare beauty,
that germinated in snatched moments of silence and solitude when the poet’s husband was perhaps away at work and the kids at school? How do you cost-benefit analyze such precious works of art that might not have come to be but for the paradox of motherhood in which the insistent desire to bring life into the world requires us in some sense to die?

From her window one morning, Williams sees a young girl in
pajamas—“The parents, their only child, the apple, the amen”—pad down the driveway.

This might be the start of an idyll—except that the child is en route to another chemo treatment:

“Thinking of God’s Goodness While the Ten-Year-Old Neighbor is Suffering” reminds us that religion has no answers. Religion—our religion—patiently endures. It plods. It drags its heavy cross, broken and bleeding. It praises when there seems nothing left to praise, when we seem to be howling into the abyss.

Against the existential uncertainty that at times seems more than human beings can bear, the world has assault weapons, nuclear bombs, closed borders, surveillance.

We have St. Michael the Archangel.

The poem ends like this:

                                                                                                  “I do
believe a sickness can be rebuked, vanish with all the darkest
days; that they could return to singing. That one day this
devastation could be shadow only, a conquering. Where even
the dark is not dark to see. My God can do this but my God
might not.”

4 Replies to “EVEN THE DARK: POEMS BY LESLIE WILLIAMS”

  1. Patricia Langer says: Reply

    Thank you Heather, for these beautiful poems.
    This morning I stood in the ‘Senior’s line’ at the grocery store in my Ontario, Canada town. They would be letting us in at 7 am for our very own hour. We stood the required 2 metres apart in silence some of us wearing masks and many still in winter gloves. People seemed afraid to use their voices perhaps because 2 metres is a chasm that will swallow and old and perhaps frail voice, and besides someone in authority might hear.
    They have stolen our words. And they’ve done it with one word – pandemic.
    My parish is closed as is every parish in Ontario. Churches are not an essential service. Dry Cleaners and abortion clinics are.
    We are not allowed to visit neighbours or relatives and can only walk with the people who share our houses. Important words are lost here. We can’t compare notes, question the loss of liberty, dignity and theft of humanity. Kafkaesque.
    A child falls from his bike near the foot of my driveway and I can’t run to him. I am policing myself, but at least I drop the trash bag I was carrying to the curb and call out, ” Are you okay?” while looking for his mum. She says thank you from a safe distance. I’m new in this neighbourhood so this could have led to a chat, a brief getting to know you. Just enough for an introvert.
    From my large front windows I see the teens and young adults dragged along toward the lake by the family dog while they text on their phones. SYL and LOL, ROTFL, LMAO – a crippled language.
    We are at risk of losing a great deal during this time having given in to an “Emergency State”. Words are power, freedom and beauty and I think demand to be spoken as well as freely written.
    So thank you for this gift of poetry today and of course for your own beautiful words.
    I would like to suggest a Canadian Catholic author to you – Michael D. O’Brien. He is my favourite these days. Some of his novels – Father Elijah, The Plague Journal, The Circle of the World.
    God Bless,
    Patricia

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Hello Patricia, Bonnie, and S.K.–deep thanks for your comments. Patricia, your description of standing in the “seniors” line is chilling and beautifully articulated. I had to look up most of those acronymns and thus learned something new (sort of). I especially like “We can’t compare notes, question the loss of liberty, dignity and theft of humanity. Kafkaesque.” At the same time–we are comparing them and questioning them, in some rudimentary sense at least, here. That abortion is considered an essential service is emblematic of the whole toward-death culture…the disintegration we’ve seen esp in the last few years of the literal identity of the human person and the human family.

      I walked down to St. Andrew’s, my local parish, last Tuesday (as I had done the day before), planning simply to sit in silence before the Blessed Sacrament and pray a Rosary for the many people suffering in my life and in the world. I was tired, it was raining. And when I got there, the church was locked up tight, the gates even to the courtyard shut, and a laminated sign reading, “Per the Archdiocese, all churches must remain closed till further notice.” I literally sank to my knees and wept on the steps of the church. “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they put Him…” After a while I got up and figuring that I was at least close to the tabernacle, sat on a bench outside and started praying a Rosary there. After a few minutes a car pulled up–another woman, also hoping to go in and pray for a bit, also crestfallen. We chatted for a bit: she works at a hotel as a chambermaid; she, too, had just been to the church the day before. I thought of the Eighth Station of the Cross: Jesus Speaks to the Women. “Don’t weep for me; weep for your children”…

      At the same time, the way I understand it the Church is not closing its doors because Mass and the Sacraments are “non-essential” (which in any case refers here to the civic, social realm). The Church is closing its doors because to its everlasting credit, it elevates the spirit of the law over the word. The Church is our Mother and a pandemic is raging and she is protecting us even as she knows that to require us to fast from the Eucharist during this time is a painful if not excruciating deprivation. To do otherwise would in a sense be to stand on the edge of the parapet and throw ourselves down, tempting God to protect us. Christ himself knew better. To have consumed a single neuron of the Eucharist, once in our lifetime, would the the most stupendous imaginable gift. Here’s a wonderful post from Dr. Tom Neal on the subject. Still–to have to fast from the Eucharist when we need it most…that is hard.

      Nonetheless, I see acts of kindness and signs of hope everywhere…the light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…blessings to all this Sunday evening. I am “going” to 5:30 Mass!

  2. Bonnie Lewis says: Reply

    This comment is in response to Patricia’s statement about what has been determined necessary services – dry cleaners and abortion clinics, but not the church. Her statement took the air out of me. I was also reminded of what we are losing as I read CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

  3. Thank you, Heather, for bringing Ms. Williams and her art to our attention.

    And thank you, Patricia, for your penetrating comment, and also for mentioning Mr. O’Brien. I”m going to try and find some of his work.

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