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|Continuing a Literary Tradition
—by Marianne Amoss ’04
The poetry of Maura Eichner, SSND ’41, brought national recognition to Notre Dame of Maryland and put it on the literary map. Sister Maura inculcated a love of writing in many students over her 50-year career teaching creative writing and literature at Notre Dame. More than 350 of her own poems appeared in literary magazines and journals, newspapers and collections, including After Silence, a collection of poems chosen by her friends and colleagues that was published after her death in 2009.
The tradition Sister Maura established continues with the publication of three new works this academic year by members of the English department: Jeana DelRosso, professor of English and Women’s Studies and director of the Morrissy Honors Program; Shelley Puhak, assistant professor of English and holder of the Sister Maura Eichner Endowed Chair in English; and Gene Farrington, professor of English and drama.
It’s exciting news, to be sure, but it comes as no surprise to department chair Margaret Ellen Mahoney, SSND. “One of the great strengths of the English department has always been the scholarship of the faculty, particularly in publishing books,” she says. “The recent publications of critical analysis, fiction, and the collection of poetry indicate the diversity of our professors and our continuation of the tradition of department faculty publications.”
Jeana DelRosso (co-editor)
The collection centers on unruly Catholic women’s responses to the many mysteries that the faithful accept. Cited by the co-editors in the introduction are the doctrines of papal infallibility, the Holy Trinity and the Catholic Mass itself, which centers on the transformation of bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood—as well as Church teaching that limits women’s achievement of leadership positions within the institution and regulates some of their personal decisions about such issues as homosexuality. For some Catholic women, this leads to a conflict, between, as Dr. DelRosso puts it, religion and spirituality. “I think [Unruly Catholic Women Writers] speaks to a lot of the issues that those of us who were raised Catholic and who have also come to some sort of feminism in our lives struggle with.”
In essays, plays, short stories and poetry, the contributors explore this intersection of the Church and the world. The pieces are organized thematically in three sections called The Joyful Mysteries, The Sorrowful Mysteries, and The Glorious Mysteries—terms that Catholics will recognize from praying the rosary, an activity linked closely to women and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. (In fact, as the co-editors write, “Many women continue to envision Mary as an unruly woman, choosing to become the mother of God, embracing her fate, and standing strong as she watches the murder of her only son.”) Each section both reflects the traditional understanding of these mysteries and refracts them in a more modern prism: for Catholics the Joyful Mysteries include the visitation of Mary by the Angel Gabriel, the birth of Jesus and Mary and Joseph finding the lost, young Jesus teaching in the temple; the Joyful Mysteries section of Unruly Catholic Women Writers explores the contributors’ perspectives on motherhood, childhood and growing up. Appearing in that section is “My Soul Sisters—or, How the Nuns of my Childhood Inspired a Feisty Feminist,” by Renée Bondy. She writes with great warmth about the religious sisters she knew as a young woman—notably Sister Bernadette, her tenth-grade religion teacher, who sounds a lot like many of Notre Dame’s own SSNDs. “She had just returned from 10 years’ missionary work in Lesotho, Africa, and had countless stories to tell about her adventures. I didn’t, even for a second, want to be a missionary, but Sister Bernie’s compassion and zeal were contagious, and I know I wasn’t the only student who walked away from her classes ready to take on the world.”
The collection closes with The Glorious Mysteries section, which charts a new possible course for Catholic women and explores the ways that “Catholic sacrament and ritual, combined with female unruliness, offer new visions for a Catholic future for women.” Altogether, it’s an emotional and gripping read; the contributors are clearly grappling with their complicated relationships with the Church.
This is the second collection about unruly Catholic women that Dr. DelRosso has co-edited with two colleagues: Leigh Eicke, an independent scholar, and Ana Kothe, a comparative literature professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. In 2007 Palgrave Macmillan published their first book, The Catholic Church and Unruly Women Writers: Critical Essays, for a mostly academic audience. The more-accessible writing in this new collection, published in November by State University of New York Press, will likely appeal to a broader readership. Readings and other events to mark the book’s release will take place later this year, including a session at the National Association of Women in Catholic Higher Education’s conference in Seattle this coming June led by Dr. DelRosso and several contributors. “I really hope that it will speak to a lot of women and to their experiences,” said Dr. DelRosso, “and maybe help them also to start to find ways to live within that tension that the Church creates for us.”
Guinevere in Baltimore provides an insider’s perspective on the doomed love affair that causes the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom and the end of the glorious age of Camelot. It’s a story we know well, both from history and the present day. As Baynard Woods wrote in his glowing review in Baltimore’s City Paper, “Guinevere is also a decidedly post-financial-collapse collection, which perfectly sets the corporation’s financial difficulties in line with the marital troubles between Arthur and Guinevere and the end of an era of legends and myths and heroes. We can understand the demise of the Round Table more clearly having seen Lehman’s once-gallant knights fall and bring down an entire economic order with them.”
Ms. Puhak said more reviews of the collection are forthcoming this year; she was also profiled in Baltimore magazine’s February issue. Ms. Puhak has also put a contemporary feminist spin on her retelling. “In all of the Romantic poems about [Guinevere] there is one where she gets to speak for a little bit, but generally it’s men deciding the fate of these women,” she said. “It was fun to give her the opportunity to talk back to the Romantic and Modernist poets who have used her as a launching pad for their own ideas—to give her a chance to speak for herself.”
Ms. Puhak graduated in 1997 from Notre Dame and returned to the English department in 2008 as a writer in residence and 2012 as full-time faculty. She holds the Sister Maura Eichner Endowed Chair in English. She also runs the Sister Maura Eichner Award for Young Poets competition, which recognizes promising high-school-age female poets, and organizes 4 Under 40, an annual fall reading series featuring young women writers. Ms. Puhak continues Sister Maura’s tradition of writing economic, striking verse. In “Arthur, Pantoum for an Empty Table” (perhaps the Round Table?), she writes, “We were two but it seemed there was a third / walking the white road home, the city wavering / before us. At the table bare, its varnish chipping, / we waited for servants who had already fled.”
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic selected the collection as the winner of the eighth annual prestigious Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, which included publication and release of the book by The Waywiser Press, both here and in the UK. He and Ms. Puhak gave a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in mid-November to celebrate her award. In the book’s foreword, Simic praised Ms. Puhak’s craft.
“What makes Guinevere in Baltimore work as a whole is the sheer brilliance of the individual poems,” he wrote. “The finest poetry, the kind one wants to keep re-reading, mostly comes down to memorable turns of phrase and vivid detail, and that is what one finds here. … Guinevere in Baltimore is masterfully crafted, a veritable feast for any lover of words.”
Is it possible that “opech” could indeed be the fabled chief who led the Jamestown massacre of 1622, in which one-quarter of the English settlers were killed in the Native Americans’ attempt to force them to leave Virginia?
This is just the first of many questions that crop up in the beginning chapters of The Blue Heron. There are others: How does Opecancanough know that Molly’s last name is Sharpe? And why does the main character in d’Ersby’s novel, David Sharpe, have the same name as Molly’s deceased father, who was descended from those original Jamestown settlers?
As the novel progresses, more questions are raised, and more details about the characters are revealed. Slowly, a web is knit that connects them all, characters and events both fictional and historical. In this way, The Blue Heron evokes themes of identity, history and truth—made even more pointed by the book’s postmodern novel-within-a-novel construct, in which d’Ersby is constructing the narrative of the fictional David while in real life his family and their estate are crumbling around him. It all leads d’Ersby to wonder, “Was he, himself, only a construct of words or a deconstruct?”
“The book, thematically, is about the way we were developed by language,” Dr. Farrington says. “[It asks] the question, is it possible to exist without language?”
The Blue Heron is to be published this spring by Water Street Press. This year will see several other publications by Dr. Farrington, who has taught literature and creating writing (playwriting, screenwriting and fiction) at Notre Dame for twenty years. [In early 2014, Doubleday reissued his 1984 historical novel, Breath of Kings, set just before the Norman Conquest of England in the 11th century.] Six of his plays have been collected into a book (appropriately titled Six Plays) that is slated for March publication. And several of his other works—a coming-of-age novel set in 1940s rural Iowa called Aperture and a series of detective novels featuring Michael Roland-James, an openly gay criminology professor living in Washington, D.C.—are also awaiting publication. As Dr. Farrington writes on his website, genefarrington.com, “Prospects for 2014 are excellent. It should be a really good year.”
Fearless and Faithful:
THE YEAR IN REVIEW
HONOR ROLL OF DONORS
THE LAST WORD
CALENDAR & EVENTS