Epiphanies: Poems of Liberation, Exile, and Confinement

By Harvey Gillman. Self-published, 2021. 104 pages. $9.59/paperback (available in the United States on worldofbooks.com/en-us).

Harvey Gillman, a linguist and writer of prose and poetry, is the author of the much admired 1988 book A Light That Is Shining: An Introduction to the Quakers, which he wrote while serving as outreach secretary for Quakers in Britain. He has for many years been a regular contributor to the London-based Quaker magazine The Friend. In addition, since at least the 1990s, Gillman has contributed occasional articles and book reviews to Friends Journal. In 2015, the editorial staff of Friends Journal conducted a survey of volunteer book reviewers and published the results in the November issue. In response to the question, “Why do you write reviews for Friends Journal?,” Gillman replied: “Writing is a form of ministry in my life.” This statement is amply borne out by his many thoughtful and honest writings and presentations directed to Quakers and other spiritual searchers.

A second item included in the Friends Journal survey was more lighthearted: “What would you title your Quaker novel?” Gillman’s answer was And Yet the Light Shines.

Now it’s 2021, and Friends worldwide would still affirm the truth of that title. It is also evident that the Light of Gillman’s ministry of writing yet shines, this time in his illuminating book Epiphanies: Poems of Liberation, Exile, and Confinement. It features a collection of poems written over many years as well as 21 new poems, grouped under the heading “2020 Poems of Confinement,” composed during the most intense period of the global pandemic.

“Questions,” which introduces the book, might be described as a prose poem. It recounts the experience of someone queried (“interrogated” might be a more apt word) about his spiritual beliefs. It is not revealed who the “they” are that ask the questions or who the man is who answers them, though it’s safe to say that the “he” referred to in the poem speaks the poet’s mind. In my fanciful reading, I imagine the questioners to be curious first-time attendees to Quaker meeting and the “he” in the poem to be—well—me, responding to them with ideal ease and eloquence about what it means to be a Quaker.

Extravagant as this may sound, I would recommend that Friends acquire Gillman’s Epiphanies for access to this poem alone. It models the I-Thou sensibility of a weighty Friend who has long journeyed inward and who has traveled openly among the many linguistic and cultural expressions of the Divine.

The final question in “Questions” is, “What is your hope?” Here’s the reply:

That we may continue to cherish our questions, cherish each other. That we be not afraid to be silent with each other. That, in spite of the pain we and the day inflict upon each other, we still can believe, have faith, pray and even dare to love. My hope is that we go on hoping, though our hearts and our history and the shadows of the moon may teach us to give up hope. That despair may not be the last word.

For Gillman, despair is never the last word. His poetry collection ends by saying that the last word, indeed, is ever-embracing love: “You ask for my faith. / I offer this haiku. / Mind, heart, soul. Loving.”

In glancing at Gillman’s bios for his Friends Journal book reviews, I noticed that he would refer to himself as a longtime seeker. On the back cover of Epiphanies, he still describes himself as a seeker and an explorer—but he now feels ready to see himself also as a finder.

Gillman has spent his adult life in authentic and loving communion, with people who share his heart and values, and, at times, with those who do not. He has dwelt in silence with Friends and other spiritual seekers, striving without fear to cherish them and life’s questions. What has his exploration of the Mystery over many years allowed him to find?

He addresses the matter of “finding” in a poem about walking the pilgrimage path of Spain’s Camino de Santiago. The stanzas alternate with accumulating responses to two questions: Why did you go to Santiago? And what did you find at Santiago? These verses interact with and build upon one another. I have space only to share one strand in this richly textured poem.

What did you find at Santiago?
that the body has its needs
that the soul will not be forced
that little is required
that the living need their rest
as do the dead
that the dead also need to move
as we the living do

There is so much more for Friends to find in Gillman’s artful, allusive, socially committed, insightful, and humane poetry. I encourage you to seek it out.

Bob Dixon-Kolar is an associate professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He and his family are members of Evanston (Ill.) Meeting.

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