by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (Reviewed by Pegge Erkeneff)
Poet David Whyte introduced me to this absolute gem of a book, Early Music, poems by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, published by Whyte’s company, Many Rivers Press. Ó Súilleabháin was a musician and master of rhythm in notes and letters. He was Irish, inherited both traditional and sacred song from his parents, and held a master of arts in ethnomusicology and a specialization in Irish rap music. He died in November 2018 just shy of sixty-eight years old.
As I have grown into my later fifties, I increasingly seek simplicity to counter the noise of the world and to celebrate beauty and life. Poetry guides me to become still, increasing my capacity to be embodied in the now of time, hear invitation and whispers of Spirit, and cultivate deep listening presence for others. Really good poems guide us into deep universal truth and connection. I often use poetry when giving talks in corporate settings or when accompanying someone who is deeply grieving, in life transition, or reconciling and visioning into a new future. This slim volume of Early Music will soon have dog-eared pages, and its evocative lines will become penned in cursive script in my journal.
Why is a book of poetry valuable to a spiritual guide? In addition to offering presence, more and more I listen for and offer powerful questions to help someone to discover something they do not know they already knew or to be present to their experience of life. A good line of poetry, or a poem to sit with, can serve as a sacred text or an open door. Poems in Early Music offer this very invitation. Forty poems are framed in five themes: “Admonition,” “Love,” “Belief,” “Water,” and “Myth.”
In “Mixed Blessing,” we hear an admonition, a place many seekers experience in this excerpt: “You thought you knew / what you wanted and / encouraged the best / in the folly. / Then that fell away, / leaving you standing, / knees shaking / close to buckling, / crying out before / the ends of sentences. / Your compass will still. / It is shuddering / to its pin point” (22–23).
Moments like these traverse to another experience alluded to in the closing lines of “Dark Sky,” when we breathe into “The pure privilege / of not knowing, / the volatile wisdom / of letting. / The dark sky / is your life” (27).
Love and belief are central to life, and poems in these sections illumine the human condition and times when our heart cries new tears from the sheer poignancy and beauty of being alive. “Tears in the Lane” concludes with “My future in your face, / your future in my eyes. / Our eyes welling up / ready for more, / tears in the lane” (40). In an excerpt from “Home of the Carers (for Milford Hospice),” we are reminded that “People die here, and / we die here with them. / The pain that lives / here is medicine / for the pluming / a healing thing. / Day by day, we pass away / and nights are full / of letting go and / holding on, and / mornings do not break. / Here they shatter into light” (43).
Ó Súilleabháin’s poems are personal and collective. His voice is a welcomed new addition to my poems as a prayer collection of books. An excerpt from “This Is My Prayer Room” could begin a virtual or in-person spiritual companioning session or simply be preparation to meet with a spiritual directee:
Pray with me, say the words, / ring the bell, we’re almost there. / This part is my favourite, / it’s where god feels the closest. / So ask for mercy, or for help, / or forgiveness, no need to tell. / For my story is your story, / is every body’s story. (48)
I believe Early Music could offer a heartbeat into your own spiritual practice and, perhaps like me, also into your guidance and presence with seekers you accompany.
Pegge Erkeneff is an author, spiritual guide, and director of communications for a school district in Alaska, USA. She received her training in 1996 from the Formation Program for Spiritual Directors offered through the Center for Spirituality at Work in Denver, Colorado, USA, and she taught in the program for several years. She can be reached at Pegge@outlook.com.