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A Pilgrim’s Poetry (1990-1993)

A Pilgrim’s Poetry (1990-1993)
Noel Jeffs, Society of Saint Francis (SSF)
IndieMosh, 2023

I declare my not very remarkable prejudices. I like poetry that, audibly or not, involves a voice, a created tone or timbre that seems the authentic expression of a particular consciousness. What is expressed, those ideas, attitudes or sentiments with which are revealed or intimated livingness that has ideas, attitudes and sentiments and whose utterance of them said, or sung I am made to feel genuine, true and thereby beautiful.

While studying at St George’s College in the early ’90s, Noel was the recipient of a pilgrim scholarship to the Holy Land, which encompasses modern-day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, western Jordan and south-western Syria. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital; Israel maintains its primary governmental institutions there, and the State of Palestine foresees it as its seat of power. Noel embarked on his pilgrimage from England 30 years ago during the time of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process and the establishing of the Oslo Accords of 1993. The historical peace agreement between Israeli prime minister of the time, Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, was meant to initiate future peace talks with the desired goal of a two-state solution, which was never achieved. Today, negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have continuously failed. The West Bank lies fragmented, the blockaded Gaza Strip stands isolated in what may be called an open-air prison and Israel has no plans to relinquish occupied East Jerusalem, with many people, in both Israel and Palestine, believing the two-state solution is dead. In recent months we have borne witness to the war between Israel and Hamas-led Palestinian militant groups. It’s day 58 of the ongoing conflict with an estimated 15,500 Palestinians killed by Israeli strikes.

Noel is a member of the Society of Saint Francis, an international religious community within the Anglican Communion that recognises the dignity, equality, human rights and humanity of all people. On the opening page of A Pilgrim’s Poetry, Noel prefaces: “If there is a constant theme throughout, it is the one which I find in the life of St Frances of Assisi, that his life was a search of God and a search for a father, which brings together the spheres of spirituality and sexuality.”

The collection has been written with three partitions of place, the first in Hilfield Friary in Dorset, England; the second in Rome and Assisi in Italy, and in Jerusalem, at St George’s College. These revolutions of experience are actuated in the three poems in the cycles of his journey.

As a Franciscan, living off the land and working with animals is a customary patronage. Noel’s father, Kenneth James Jeffs, was a dairy farmer in Victoria, and set in place the founding degrees of awareness to the devotional care of animals, plants, and the natural forces.

In the Friary of England, in the beginnings of the journey, an intrepid Noel poses a number of questions that lay the path of human experience in which he is then to undertake. There is a manifest of destiny, of a consciousness intuitively felt. Noel wants to soothe these cultural anxieties with a positive assurance, but the very hesitancy of his affirmative formulation, the conditional drift of the syntax, suggests his own anxiety.

In the second stanza of The Hilfield Cycle, page 1:

Eros and Psyche shall match.
She with the path before her
Must trust in all that the mother
Of the deep has laid before her.
Each unsteady step brings its
wariness of shadows, and the
constant fear of falling.

Nicknamed “kangaroo” in Italy, Noel, like many pilgrims, was awed by the ancient landmarks and ruins of Rome. However, in the second Assisi cycle various component voices with philosophical transformation, each gives way to converse, contradiction or contrary in what seems an infinite series of struggles and embraces. The nature of imagistic oppositions is quickly revealed and inner attitudes towards life, disembodied utterances precipitated out of his contemplated experience. Its gift, which moves at the heart of its levity, is a belief, a vital sense or instinct.

Last stanza, p. 20:

Travel, travel, the pilgrimage to beyond glass:
a wall against which the butterfly beats its wings. The
metamorphosis of life’s healing spaces into a forward
resting place

A key sequence in the self-examination, which then brings him at length to a true sense of his genuine vocation, a discovery symbolised by the assumption of common bread in The Jerusalem Cycle. One has to be strong-nerved and self-possessed to survive and thrive in such a wealth of ruins, and the great Italian poets, from Dante to the present have been so.

Questions arise confronting what’s possible for an ethical or social position to find adequate definitions or a concern with whys rather than hows inevitably antisocial and inhumane. Feeling a personal aspiration towards some sort of harmony and integrity, the troubled awareness of limit, instants of ecstasy and despair, such elements are all “engaged” in the realm of objective human values, involved in what it is to be a human at any time.

A quote noted by Noel:

He said, “In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. I realised, through it all, that in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back” (Albert Camus).

Last lines, end stanza, p. 31:

… For all things new confound old plots, and life-
giving dimensions seed new ground.
This is my winter’s crop.

Clearly the answer for A Pilgrim’s Poetry is a corporate “Yes”.

This is the third book of poetry following Walking in Stealth: After Pushkin (2022) and Maturing in the Religious Life (2021), with a fourth book also released this year, Balmain Contemplations (2023), released by IndieMosh.

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