St. Francis: Book Review
Francis: A Life in Songs
by Ann Wroe
“He was stamped with Christ’s brilliant seal.” Thomas di Celano Life of St. Francis 2, ix
In her beautiful collection of poems entitled Francis: A Life in Songs, Ann Wroe biographizes Francis in rhyming verse because as she says, “his was a life lived in poetry rather than prose.”
Divided into four parts connected by the narrative thread of his story, Wroe’s call and response style of writing uses lyrical verse interspersed with multiple quotes from hagiographies of Francis by Thomas di Celano and St. Bonaventure. These biographical clips are followed by terse lyric verse with varying rhyme and rhythm which evoke Francis himself.
The four parts echo four major phases of Francis’ life: Conversion, Mission, Oblation and Consummation. Each part includes lines from the hagiographies followed by verse about Francis and verse about scenes and experiences from Wroe’s life which have reminded her of Francis, the “call” part being the verses from Francis and the “response” Francis’ alternative orthodoxy applied in our world today.
In “The Call” section of Part 1 Conversion,a quote from Celano says,
“But gradually he withdrew bodily as he had already turned deaf mentally
to those things, while he sang to the Lord in his heart.”
Following it is a poem in deliberate four beat rhythm, the common rhythm of the troubadour songs which Francis loved, written in second person addressed to Francis, describing the various ways the message of his call came to him and how he finally accepted it…
But now in drunk stone-stumbling dark
it grabs your feet, and drives your staff
deep in sweet ground.
and so, staved through,
you ask Him what to do.
The response follows with a vignette in first person free verse telling the story of one hearing and answering a call in the modern world, concluding with a final line:
the feet obey
I was charmed immediately by Wroe’s brilliant simplicity and her unpreachiness in this collection of verse about one of the most famous saints of all. Francis’s response to God’s sacred intent for his life led him to imitate Jesus in the most practical of ways…through action and lifestyle. Wroe captures the essence of that practical lifestyle by blending biographical notes, cleverly punctuated verse and real life real time vignettes. This collection is a wonderful addition to the wide variety of books already published about St. Francis, but it is also a very unusual approach to a biography of a saint making it one that will be more accessible than most to a wider variety of people. I would even go so far to say that book clubs might enjoy it as a read together/call and response title. Whatever you use it for, be sure to read it and share it. It is too good not to!
PS…if you would like a quick read on how to interpret poetry, I offer Billy Collins’ excellent poem below, “An Introduction to Poetry.” It is a super way to approach a poem or not!
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.