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Mary Dyer’s Hymn (1st review)

Donald W. McCormick
On Art (March 2020)
Mary Dyer’s Hymn and other Quaker Poems
written by Stanford Searl
reiewed by Donald W. McCormick

In this book, Stanford Searl writes about four Quaker martyrs who were hanged in 1659 and 1660, and about those Friends’ persecutors and other New Englanders of that time, including Searl’s ancestor Richard Waterman. Searl also expresses how all those lives affect him today.

Many of the poems in this book show how much New England officials of the 1600s hated Quakers because of their beliefs. They banished, slandered, mutilated, and tortured them. Massachusetts judges called Quakers, “parasitic weeds that choked healthy herbs and scrubs,” accused them of burning Bibles, and declared that they were “possessed by Satan as with the Indians.” Massachusetts officials chopped off the ears of some Quakers and whipped others. As Searl conveys in gruesome detail, “Condemned Quakers wrapped / their flayed skin in blankets, / flies and mosquitos swarm . . .”

Images such as these make the suffering of early Quakers vivid. The poems also describe Quakers’ inward responses to their persecution. For example, Searl imagines the thoughts and feelings of Mary Dyer as she is about to be hanged; imagining that she feels both happy, “emanating Joy as the Lord wills,” and vengeful, “Hell and blood be done, oh tyrant Boston, / strip these my veins. / His plague be upon you, / all present here at these gallows.”

Searl’s poems about his seventeenth-century ancestor Richard Waterman reveal an almost psychic connection between the two men, which grants Searl a special entry into that time: “Through dreams and hallucination / I dropped into this world of the 1630’s Massachusetts Bay Colony / And eavesdropped on grandfather Waterman . . .”

Most of this book is about the 1600s, but it starts and ends more or less in the present. The first poem depicts Searl walking in the sand near the Shelter Island Quaker Monument, where “Memory pulses through the granite slab” as he presses potting soil around the roses that encircle it. The book ends with a poem about the Massachusetts State House statue of Mary Dyer, seeming to speak across Boston Common to a stone monument of a civil war regiment on the other side of the square.

I was engrossed by the world described in this book. I love history, but this book is personally meaningful in a way that I don’t find in works of nonfiction, maybe because these poems delve so deeply into the characters’ psyches and spiritual lives. Searl writes about ways these lives resonate with his own; and he writes about the spiritual confusion he feels when immersing himself in the past:

I am lost in this language of Man Christ
     and indwelling God

and also led to a spiritual yearning,
Why can’t I join these 17th century prophets
and be penetrated by the Inward Christ?

Overall, what strikes me most about these poems is the way they make me feel that I am there beside Searl and the women and men he writes about – able to catch a glimpse of their hearts and experience some of their world.  ~~~

Don and Anita McCormick are Co-Clerks of Grass Valley Friends Meeting in Nevada City, CA (PYM).

Mary Dyer Poetry

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