Monday, March 18, 2013

Ms. Jean Connor

Not enough people in her and my Vermont (not to speak of elsewhere) know that a miracle dwells among them. I am referring to a profoundly gifted and –the adjective seems inevitable– spiritual poet named Jean Connor.  Ms. Connor is 94 years old, and it was not until her 86th year that her first book, A Cartography of Peace, was published by Passager Press, which has the commendable mission of publishing poets who are emerging after their 50th birthdays.

I have only met the woman once, when she did me the exquisite honor of attending a presentation I gave to Champlain Union High School students in Hyde Park, Vermont. I look forward to spending more time with her when I visit Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne, where Jean now lives.

Jean received an undergraduate degree from Middlebury and a graduate one from Columbia. Thereafter, she worked as a librarian for more than three decades in New York State. It was after her retirement that she began vigorously to write poetry.   But although I speak of her vigor, which is a subtle one, in fact her deep strength as a poet resides to no small degree in her quietness, her gift for contemplation, her utter lack of presumption. Hers is not a poetry of razzmatazz. It may be refreshingly accessible on first reading, but in order to capture its full resonance, the reader must take on the quietude of mind that is a hallmark of her work.

This is not an easy attitude to strike; one must have the patience that she herself exhibits in seeing a wide world in what is simply, and often all but imperceptibly, right in front of our noses. As my friend, the Pulitzer poet Stephen Dunn has said, “She has the rare gift of being able to startle us with equipoise..."


                                    Of Some Renown
                                          For some time now, I have
                                          lived anonymously. No one
                                          appears to think it odd.
                                          They think the old are,
                                          well, what they seem. Yet
                                          see that great egret

                                          at the marsh's edge, solitary,
                                          still? Mere pretense
                                          that stillness. His silence is
                                          a lie. In his own pond he is
                                          of some renown, a stalker,
                                    a catcher of fish. Watch him.

So many of us –poets no less than the hardest-striving captains of finance or industry or academe– seem bent on being as unanonymous as we can be. “Of Some Renown” reminds us of the opportunity that lies in relative anonymity, which in this poem’s case is all but identical with humility. Connor knows it’s wrong of so many to dismiss the old, for example, as “well, what they seem.”  Notice, however, that she does not rail against such cavalier and shallow judgment; rather she turns for ratification, characteristically, to something outside herself, something that will subtly illustrate the uniqueness of everyone and –thing, and not just aged human beings. Her refusal to rant and rave, in my opinion, is what makes her terse commandment at the end of this lovely piece of writing reverberate as vividly as it does: “Watch him.”

Jean Connor is –if we will let her, if we don’t make the egregious mistake of confusing her deliberate inconspicuousness with any sort of blandness– a supreme watcher herself, and, whether we are aspirant writers or not, a supremely endowed teacher of how to watch. As she herself has said, "There is a sense of dedication. Writing is part of my effort to become fully myself, to understand myself and my world more deeply. Poetry for me is less stating a truth I already know, than finding a truth I want to share."

One can’t help noticing that the wonderful mixture of modesty and brilliance in Jean’s work, so patently connected to that very quality of dedication, has something to do with her spiritual convictions. Whether we share them in any doctrinal way or not, that Jean Connor is somehow lit from within, that she has both experienced and exemplified what her fellow Christians call grace, is everywhere evident:

                                    When the Time Comes

                                    My epitaph should read
                                    I was surprised by grace.
                                    It bore no face,
                                    only radiance and joy.
                                    Incise the words on stone,
                                    or better, in your heart,
                                    and, to please me, sketch
                                    two birds to sit within the text.
                                    Please write this down. "I never
                                    expected such song. It was,
                                    but it was not, orioles singing
                                    in the orchard of His grace."

I can’t of course speak for anyone but myself, but Ms. Connor –here and in many other places– has incised her words in my heart.

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