In this age of
Francis, in which the Holy Father seems to surprise everyone with his
off-the-cuff pronouncements on matters of passionate intensity, we
would do well to consider the work of David Craig, America’s most
conspicuously Franciscan poet. If one waits with anxiety to hear
what the Pope will say in his next in-flight interview with the
press, then one will perhaps approach in the proper spirit an early
poem of Craig’s, called “Pentecost,” which runs in its
is this Holy Spirit?
what is He doing in the eggplant?
absurdism was a common feature of American poetry in the
nineteen-sixties, when many writers came to embrace belatedly the
anti-rationalist methods of European surrealism as an element of the
carnival spirit of irreverence typical of the drug and rock addled
counter-culture of the day. Craig’s work as a poet shows he is
comfortable in that world, but only because it has certain affinities
with a much earlier spirit of carnival that was inspired by reverence
for God’s creation, for the goodness of the material world even at
its most humiliatingly humblethat of St. Francis of Assisi.
Craig has published
three long sequences of poems on St. Francis, and these lines from
the first of them are peculiarly expressive of their strengths and
weaknesses. Francis, Craig writes, would sprinkle
chaste “Brother Ash” on his food
we never think to do the same.
because Mary had to rummage,
rushed to the ground, ate with the pigs.
the brothers couldn’t see how crucial humility was,
would anyone else?
stop so often, lost in loud sighs:
aloneness, their burden; he’d provoke,
them out of any earned rest, meal.
tell them that when they heard the next sigh,
should praise God for His great condescension;
they should pray for Francis continually,
need was at least as great as their own.
St. Francis must
have struck even his faithful companions as braving exaggerated
gestures in order to make clear the simplicity and poverty of a
holiness that covets nothing only because it sees all that is as a
gift of God. Everything has already been given to us through his
“His great condescension,” and so we have no cause for jealousy
at what the great possess or contempt at what seems beneath us.
Consider the first
two efforts at instruction cited above. He scatters ashes on the
bread, and he gets down on hand and knee to dine with the pigs. Why
he does will be clear enough to most of us, now. All that God has
made is good, is a creature of God no less than we are, and so worthy
of our fraternal love. Even ash, that least remainder of things when
they have been purged of individual form by fire, merits it. Pride
stands in the way of perceiving the goodness of things, and so he
joins the pigs in an act of genuine humility, insisting to us that
this is in fact no humiliation at all. The pigs and poor alike are
beloved by God; to join them is to admit them into the circle of His
creatures, not to debase ourselves. With St. Francis himself,
Craig’s poetry often seeks to express joy in the creation that
should have such a source as the humble love of God.
are dense with meaning, however, and so are hard to interpret just
right. Far from affirming the goodness of pigs and ashes, might he
not have been practicing an uncompromising self-abasement? We are to
be as lowly as the pigs, wallowing in their stench and covered in mud
and ashes. So much the Spiritual Franciscans, or Fraticelli,
concluded not long after their patron’s death. In their desire to
follow the Rule of St. Francis, they would condemn all signs of
wealth as sinful and judge those clergy of the Church who possessed
property as having invalidated their ordinations. Some Fraticelli
engaged in revolutionary violence to enforce their judgments.
Francis’s embrace of all creatures therefore became the grounds for
a rejection of everything but poverty. A world whose intricate and
refulgent hierarchy of goods descended in a pageant from the angels
to the dust came to appear suspiciously simple; there was holy
poverty and everyone else. What began as a comprehensive embrace
fell into monomania and led to, at the last, a view of the world both
distorted and obsessive.
Such is the risk
Craig has run in his own body of work, beginning with poems inspired
by St. Francis, in The Sandaled Foot (1980), and that later
disciple of poverty, the Catholic Worker’s co-founder, Peter
Maurin, whom Craig memorializes in Peter Maurin and Other Poems
(1985), and running on through what is now his twenty-first volume,
Pilgrim’s Gait (2015). Craig’s poems are marked by the
power of Christ to turn one’s expectations upside down; their
explicit subjects, their themes, and their voice consistently express
a sense of conversion, of having been lost among the ashes of the
world and yet somehow called to new life. That new life,
importantly, is one that follows Francis in consuming the dust rather
than in leaving it behind.
Although his poems
can be various in their conceit and voice, most of them fall into one
of three categories. Of greatest bulk are his poems of devotion and
commentary; in these, Craig draws on popular writings or histories of
the saints and composes lyric commentaries upon them. The St.
Francis Poems (2013) draws one particularly ambitious series of
such poems together, but he has also written a volume of sonnets that
offer a commentary of the first eleven chapters of the Gospel of
Matthew, a number of responses to the Psalms, and an especially
gripping sequence based on St. Alphose Liguori’s Preparations
Another portion of
his work might be grouped under what he calls the “Apprentice
Poems.” Although the character of the Apprentice is left
ambiguous, he seems to be, as it were, a good Franciscan convert
coming to grips with the world about him, one straining to see
reality in the light of Christ. Sometimes this leads to a getting
down with the pigs of late twentieth century America, those who
wallow in the light of dumb commercials on worse television:
front of his cold TV,
Acres or the cracking of pads,
“Christmas with Ed
and the Remote Control” depicts a similar, even more vivid scene,
moving from the “faded color and black and white” of old
Christmas movies on the tube in Ed’s otherwise unfurnished
apartment, out to the burning snow where a moral reckoning sets in,
and on to his own impoverished rooms:
is no life for the weary.
his cot room he hears a clock ticking,
himself age in the dark:
to nothing, like a ball of snakes, he sits
the ugly Christian wait.
I have long admired
the power of the apprentice poems to capture the spiritual and
material poverty of Cleveland and the Midwest in general, and so I
was pleased to see him return to the character in the book-length
Trouble in the Diocese (2014). The volume gathers early
apprentice poems with an extended series of new ones.
publication of Pilgrim’s Gait, it was not entirely clear
that there was much of a difference between the apprentice character
and that depicted in his third body of poems about “Some Kind of
Pilgrim.” The early pilgrim poems, included in Mary’s House
(2007), most obviously stand apart from the apprentice ones in just
that way their title suggests. The apprentice poems seem to be set
in Craig’s native Cleveland, Ohio. The pilgrim poems, though often
recurring to that city, depict episodes of an itinerant who is on the
road and in search of some kind of salvation.
We journey with him
to the Greyhound Station in Davenport, Iowa, out to Denver, Colorado,
and as far as California. In each tableau, the pilgrim is brought to
face the paradox of Christian life, as St. Augustine most
authoritatively expressed it in The City of God. We are each
of us longing for rest in our true homeland, and yet every home we
find in this world is not destined to last. The Christian “dwells
by faith as a pilgrim,” writes Augustine. He treats this life as
“the school of eternity,” using “earthly goods like a pilgrim,
without grasping after them,” and looking always ahead to the “city
of Christ the King” of which the faithful will finally “become
citizens.” So, Craig writes, “Like the rest” of the bus riders
in Iowa, the Pilgrim must confess, “I ride them because there’s
no place for me yet in America. / It hasn’t been invented.”
It cannot be
invented, at least not by human ingenuity. In nostalgia, he pines
for his days freezing in the stands of the Cleveland Browns’ Old
Municipal Stadium, even as he sees it is not truly his home:
third and ten: beers on a bitterly cold day,
half-empty flash of Jack under my sock.
Cleveland is a
fallen, sordid place of passing comforts, and no continuing city. In
another poem on the place, he concludes more radically,
is beyond us: the stars, our hands,
point spread you can name.
did we get here? And where are we going?
live in such mystery it makes me wonder
invented red-tag sales?
why don’t I feel like this is my body?
And elsewhere, the
Bishop was right!
have no home here,
there is no chance of finding one.
After a pregnant
“silence” of white space following these lines, he writes, “This
is a grace.”
And so it is. The
pilgrim’s finely detailed memories of his peregrinations bring to
life both the world he inhabits and the struggle of his soul to find
its true home beyond it. If Craig’s many lyric commentaries on the
saints seems a natural subject matter for a poet seeking to write
about the trials of conversion and the straining after holiness, it
is nonetheless the case that his strongest poems are those about the
pilgrim, and for three reasons.
Franciscan sensibility finds inspiration in images of holy poverty,
and so poems such as one about working in a “Nursing Home, Third
Shift,” where he spends his nights changing the diapers of elderly
inmates lost to dementia, come alive with human feeling and literal
A second reason is
less flattering. Craig’s style is paratactic and clotted with
successions of simple clauses of apposition linked together by
commas, colons, and dashes. One sees little variation of this
whether he is writing in prose, free verse, or meter and rhyme.
These lines from his new series on the Franciscan Saint Anthony of
Padua are typical in this regard and will stand in for a great many
other possible examples:
man would offer new forests, its ways,
thick enough for contemplation. Yes!
a nut tree grew in a roundBiblical
trunk crowned by six stout horns, limbs:
something out of Daniel, a fitting alleluia:
for the hiding of days.
Notice how the
interjection of “its ways,” of “Yes,” of “Biblical,” and
especially of “limbs,” and the final two phrases of the stanza
halt the rhythm of the sentence again and again in order to give us
an apposition, which intends to elaborate but instead repeats meaning
and frustrates enunciation.
In the last of the
Matthew Sonnets, Craig says to his son Jude, who has Downs Syndrome,
“You know, I’m really not very learned.” Jude replies, “Me
neither, Dad.” It is a funny, loving, and beautiful moment. And
yet, it is clear that Craig is not just a Franciscan but a poetic
Fraticelli. He seems deeply suspicious of all poetic artifice and of
all elevated learning. His style is relentlessly bare, the
vocabulary and range of references demotic with only the partial
exception of his invocations of the literature of Catholic popular
piety. A well-balanced, complex sentence whose rhythms do not trip
over their own feet would seem a dangerous sign of luxury and risk
invalidating his own ordination as a particular kind of poet.
In free verse, this
constant self-interruption and cutting short of auditory and
conceptual complexity passes almost unnoticed. Indeed, it seems well
suited to form, subject, and voice. When Craig turns to metrical
verse, however, it becomes a liability. When I first began reading
Craig’s work a decade ago, I had expected to like his metered
devotional poems the best. His rhymed quatrain poems on the Fioretti
of St. Francis seemed like an inevitable triumph. It had a wonderful
narrative source and a flexible but congenial formal structure. But,
I soon discovered, the poems really are “lyric” commentaries that
leave behind straight narrative past tense for the slightly
generalized conditional, even as the content never rises by way of
abstraction to reflection and definition. The poems hang suspended
somewhere between narrative and meditation, never attaining to
The Sonnets from
Matthew are much more successfulindeed they contain some of
Craig’s best writing and reward close studybut the use of rhyme
also exposes the peculiar liability of his style. In one sonnet, the
Apostle Matthew marvels at Jesus’ strange ways: is he a mere
magician or the Messiah? Should he follow Jesus even among sinners,
whose company would humiliate him? The closing couplet runs,
was the only, and sane way to go.
knew that, but not how far he’d have to row.
line stretches out with three anapests until it can get to the easy
rhyme word of “go,” while the closing metaphor, far from making
for a pithy close, appears apropos nothing in the poem and in
consequence seems forced on Craig by the rhyme. So might we also
judge of this couplet from another sonnet:
speech, which He is, offers us life, our God.
then He’s gone, and we’re left with His absence: a rod.
The “our God”
and “a rod” seem tacked on, clumsy extensions of the line needed
for the sake of rhyme. They may not be, though, for, in fact, this
kind of repetitious apposition is typical of Craig’s style. As I
said, it passes as natural in his free verse, but in meter it betrays
a general discomfort with artifice and a tendency to repeat and
elaborate rather than risk the exactitude that only a more refined
vocabulary and unhesitant embrace of formal artifice makes possible.
There is a still a
third reason that Craig’s pilgrim poems may be his best, and it
becomes especially clear in this latest book, Pilgrim’s Gait.
A sensibility alive to the grit of his own life and that of his
country and his Church, and yet in constant doubt about the road down
which his beliefs or his words may be leading him, consistently
generates work of frank moral power. None of the new work in this
volume surpasses the earlier pilgrim series, but it sheds light on it
and deepens our understanding of, as it were, the pilgrim spirit.
The volume begins
with a short series of poems of pilgrim places, such as the shrine at
Lourdes. We are indeed with our pilgrim, for he reminds us, when
visiting “The Santa Fe Staircase,” “People ate the soil, back
when they had no shame, / nothing to lose.” Most of the book,
however, consists of a first-person spiritual memoir of Craig’s
pilgrimage to the Madonna House, a lay apostolate to the poor,
founded in Ontario in 1947, by Catherine Doherty. The clotted
deficiencies of style, a preference for repetitious apposition rather
than speculative precision, mar the memoir, but not by much. They
certainly capture the young narrator’s psychology. We hear of
Craigcalled “James” in the textas a young “pagan,”
grown unhappy with a life of idle drug use, casual sex, and desultory
reading in a graduate program in literature, coming to the Madonna
House farm almost out of boredom.
of life in the apostolate is honest and unvarnished. The people
there are devout, their spirituality an intriguing mystery, but they
are not necessarily any wiser than he is and their character not
always agreeable. The ritualized life of the farm provides James the
stability and chance for reflection he knows he needs, but he finds
the labor exhausting and tedious. Catherine Doherty’s public
meditations are rich and provocative, they reveal the saintly spirit
within, and yet many an auditor drifts off before her lengthy
speeches come to their close.
These are indeed
pilgrim people, already in love with Christ and seeking to realize
his City in the flat and frigid plains of rural Ontario. And yet,
while that City may grow even now in the hearts of these faithful,
Craig makes clear that they are wandering, they have not yet arrived,
and cannot arrive, here and now at the perfection toward which they
An old story about
St. Francis tells that he and his friars would wander without aim,
choosing their road by spinning about like a top, always trusting to
God’s grace. Just so does Craig’s account of pilgrimage place
more emphasis on itineracy than destination. James does not appear
as an especially charming character. He is a naïf who thinks his
saturation in drug culture counts as a disillusioned kind of wisdom,
but who nearly suffers his intellectual Waterloo in chatting with a
Canadian customs officer. The northern shore of Lake Erie might as
well be a different planet. An unbelieving Fraticelli from the
start, he sees Canada’s clean cities and reacts with a “paranoid”
fear, as if dirt were a sign of authenticity and moral virtue and
hygiene a sure mark of bourgeois arrogance. Once at Madonna House,
he makes lame attempts at humor of the “doobie” variety and, when
these fail, he adopts a most cloying “Tennessee” persona.
He is no Christian,
and yet here he is, a pilgrim among pilgrims. He finds their rituals
so to resemble “cultish behavior” that he begins plotting escape
before the first day is over, and yet he can see the holiness in the
faces about him. He can feel peace rumbling beneath the tedium. The
story as a whole is a marvelously honest account of how the city of
God really does grow up among the city of man, sometimes like moss in
cracks of stone. The unrefined prose seldom becomes more precise
than this effort of James to describe his natural yearning for and
resistance to Catholic piety: “I had to admit I was always a pulpit
kind of guy. Still, you had to be such a company man.”
Central to Craig’s
purpose is capturing this fumbling grasp with a self that one never
knows as well as God does. And God, we see, knows James. The young
man undergoes conversion but, he narrates, he also has to learn the
limits of conversion. When he has done so, he is ready to take to
the road again. He sets his sights on Denver, where a pious Catholic
aunt lives, and where he thinks he might be able to continue the
apostolate’s work by ministering to addicts.
Still “puffed up”
with an image of himself as streetwise and, now, prophetic, James
fears that the Bishop there will be “locked up in the old ways”
and insistent “on dried-out time worn legalisms, ineffective
ecclesial position politics.” The incoherence of the language here
(is the problem with “ecclesial position politics,” whatever that
means, really just its want of efficacy?) tells us James has still a
long ways to wander.
The volume concludes
with two extended sequences of poems. The one on Anthony of Padua
quoted above, whose wanderings mirror the pilgrim’s in compelling
ways, and a concluding one that celebrates what Craig calls the “Beat
Catholic” or “blue-collar” Catholic line of poets. Here is
Craig’s effort to define the tradition to which his Franciscan
poetry belongs. His is a poetry of what Robert Lowell, that most
refined, or “cooked,” high modernist of Catholic poetry, called
“the raw.” It is one that pairs experiences of poverty with a
deliberate poverty of language, and one which views all refinement
with a suspicious and admonitory eye such that we cannot always trust
we are seeing the world in fullness as it really is.
Readers will find
much to admire in Craig’s work, but they will also find, as I have,
that its Franciscan love of poverty risks becoming something other
than an embrace of all creatures however humble. Poverty may cease
to be a sign of holiness and become a substitute for it instead. And
then, it leads us to look upon the world not with charity but a
jealous and violent kind of zealone the Church has struggled to
overcome before, and which it risks even now in its efforts to honor
Pope Francis’s call for “a Church that is poor.”
by David Craig