Necessary Words

Murray Bodo is one of those lucky writers whose first book flourished like wildfire in a steady wind. Since his Francis: The Journey and the Dream hit the presses in 1972, more than 150,000 copies have sold, and it’s been translated into at least seven languages. Bodo, a Franciscan priest, produced an essence of the 13th-century saint for which the world was hungering. The poetic and lyrical nature of Bodo’s writing perfectly suited the playful, life-loving, generous spirit of the "Little Poor Man" of Assisi.

Almost 32 years and nearly 30 books later, Bodo now has published The Earth Moves at Midnight, a new collection of poems based on the rich experiences of his life. At 14 years old, Bodo jumped on a Greyhound bus in his hometown of Gallup, New Mexico, and headed for Cincinnati, location of the oldest Franciscan seminary in the United States. It has been Bodo’s home base for much of his life since. Both of his parents were Italian and his grandparents were coal miners. Bodo’s father, also a coal miner, was active with the United Mine Workers. His mother, who instilled a deep Christian devotion in Bodo, worked in a laundry and at J.C. Penney for 25 years.

THE POEMS IN The Earth Moves at Midnight are simple and elegant. While they spring from Bodo’s own journey, he writes in a way that invites the reader to authentic and joyful relationship with very human experiences. "Home Visit" walks the reader through that difficult rite of passage: the death of a parent. "Mother’s ill," he writes while describing the train journey through northern New Mexico. "Behind the soundproof window I try to call out, but my voice breaks whatever I meant to say." The title poem comes from miners’ lore Bodo heard from his dad. "The earth moves at midnight, shifts a bit so timbers break, cave-ins happen." It’s a haunting poem about the disjointed stories that surface at death and the hidden stories they reveal.

Bodo dedicates these poems to his friend and great American poet Denise Levertov, who died in 1997. He includes his poem "The Visit" (which first appeared in Sojourners), which recalls his last visit with Levertov at her home near Seattle, and his experience, while traveling in Europe, of reading in The New York Times that she had died. "Your death covered with words I wish were your new poem: another glimpse of the unseen garden," Bodo writes, "the line you crossed without us." (In September, New Directions Publishing released the paperback edition of Levertov’s Selected Poems, a lovely collection.)

Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." Bodo has lived a life faithful to this calling. And, when he finds it necessary to use words, he uses them beautifully.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet

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