Saturday, August 15, 2020

New Poetry Book: Heart of Goodness by Carolyne Van Der Meer


This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1700) the French-born nun who emigrated to Canada where she established a school to educate young girls, the poor, and children of First Nations. She founded the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal, one of the first uncloistered religious communities in the Catholic Church. She was canonized in 1982, becoming Canada’s first female saint. 

To mark the anniversary Guernica Editions have just published HEART OF GOODNESS - The Life of Marguerite Bourgeoys in 30 Poems by Montreal poet Carolyne Van Der Meer. 

This bilingual book pays homage to this pioneering woman in a series of poems which explore Marguerite’s inner feelings at various stages in her life. The style is direct and contemporary, the short succinct lines giving a freshness and immediacy to the life and the thoughts of the pioneer as she faced the successes and the difficulties of her chosen mission. 

A lesser writer would get lost in the complexity of such an important life but Van Der Meer avoids this by focusing on important stages in the life and by the use of telling details and simple direct statements as, for instance, the first lines of the first poem:  

These trimmings and jewels

fine fabrics soft leather

leave me empty 

Very soon Marguerite has decided on her vocation, the furthering of women’s education, and again this is expressed in a few striking concise lines: 

in this man’s world

they are at a deficit

I will help them

become equals

God willing 

The perils and difficulties of Marguerite’s first voyage to Canada are likewise conveyed by the use of a few stark details: 

with no priest aboard

I found myself

ministering last rites eight times

bodies we left to sea graves

three months of God challenging us.


The poet shares not only the positive and hopeful moments of Marguerite’s life but also the uncertainties, the heartbreaks, the disappointments and her continual summoning of the courage to face all of these. All this is conveyed in simple language, pared to the essential as when her best friend and helper, Jeanne, dies Van Der Meer has Marguerite say: 

I feel

a deep

and blazing



and when she worries if her own weaknesses have contributed to the order’s difficulties:         

            have I been slipshod


has my desire to inspire

made me less a leader

less discerning

should I have been

a firmer guide


Carolyne Van Der Meer’s achievement in these poems is to capture the essence of this remarkable seventeenth century woman, humble but fiercely determined. She allows us a glimpse into Marguerite Bourgeoys’s soul, appreciate her deep spirituality and her practicality in thirty intricately crafted poems which, pared-down and polished, shine like their subject with sincerity, originality and fidelity to essential truths.

 A number of recent poetry collections have engaged with saints, Saint Francis of Assisi in the case of Francis: A Life in Songs by Ann Wroe  (Jonathan Cape, 2018) and the more obscure St Ethernan in the case of The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie (Picador, 2019) also a Canadian poet and this collection is a worthy companion to those. It is beautifully presented by the Canadian publisher Guernica Editions.

 Well done to the author, the publishers and all who helped in this important publication.

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