Picturing Daniel Berrigan's poetry

Before he was killed in World War I—tragically, just days before the Armistice—the poet Wilfred Owen wrote these words as preface to the book he never got to hold in his hands: “The poetry is in the pity.” One could make the case that Owen’s assessment applies to all great poetry that bears compassionate witness to human suffering. It certainly applies to the poetry of Daniel Ber­rigan.

In Prayer for the Morning Headlines: On the Sanctity of Life and Death, photographer Adrianna Amari responds to selected Berrigan poems with her remarkable photographs of statuary in aging Baltimore cemeteries. In a sorrowful time of war—our own time—Amari’s photography is a gift to the weary peacemaker. For here the poetry is indeed in the pity, seemingly inexhaustible, embracing the saints who have suffered and died, as well as the witness who turns the pages.

Berrigan’s poems have long been recognized for their spiritual beauty. Kurt Vonnegut once called him “Jesus as a poet,” and added, “If this be heresy, make the most of it.” Amari’s art may not be as well known, but her striking photographs will surely draw her an appreciative audience. And yet what truly recommends Prayer for the Morning Headlines is Amari’s vision. She has made of her cemetery photographs—the human form in weathered and broken stone, the inevitable creep of weed vines, time rolling in great clouds, drifting in snow and leaf and rose petal—a contemplative place in which to utter the Berrigan poems as prayer. The vision of Prayer for the Morning Headlines is incarnational. Amari recognizes the divine in the human cry of these poems written out of the “Meantime / dare time and wind and war.” She seems to have lingered long in the cemeteries of Baltimore, toting her camera, but seeking more than fitting images. She seems also to have been listening.

“O how lovely / the words never spoken,” concludes the poem “Here the Stem Rises.” Opposite these words extolling the loveliness of the unspoken, Amari has placed a photograph of a marble statue seemingly fallen, overtaken by shadow and underbrush. She has captured the glance of the eye beneath the twigs, the ear with its dark portal, the nostrils that seem almost to breathe, and the single red leaf that has fallen lightly, covering the lips. As if a stone could speak anyway. Never­theless, one gazes upon this face and feels the presence of one who would speak of the human condition, and yet lovelier still are “the words never spoken.”

AFTER SUCH quietness, the title poem arrives in the arresting typography of the headline, a block of prose that seems to shriek its imperatives: “ HALT! WE CRY: PASSWORD! DISHONORED HEART, REMEMBER AND REMIND … INTO OUR HISTORY, PASS! SEED HOPE. FLOWER PEACE.” Risks have been taken here with the suffocating typography. But on the opposing page is the same statuary angel that graces the cover—the stone flesh darkly pitted, the hands folded in prayer, the deep eyes raised to the heavens, which are covered with thick rain clouds. The effect is that of the very moment after the pitiful cry.

It’s likely this book will be shelved under “poetry,” perhaps under “photography.” Hopefully no one will mistakenly relegate it to the shelf of angel picture books in the gift shop. In truth, Prayer for the Morning Headlines is a prayer book to keep on the breakfast table, companion reading for the newspaper, wherein the names of the recently dead stare back at us, silenced now, and holy.

Madeleine Mysko, a registered nurse, is a poet and the author of Bringing Vincent Home, a novel. Currently she serves as elder at Towson Presbyterian Church in Maryland.

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