By Stanford Searl. The Poetry Box, 2019. 48 pages. $12/paperback.
In Mary Dyer’s Hymn and Other Quaker Poems, Stanford Searl boldly tries to reconstruct, through poetry, an era of Quaker persecution, banishment, and hangings. Searl seeks to engage both his imagination and historic memory to explore how those seventeenth-century experiences felt then, and how they might speak to us today.
Most of the poems relay Searl’s reconstructions of events in the lives of well-known characters like Mary Dyer and Roger Williams; others, like Richard Waterman and William Leddra are perhaps less well-known. All suffered under the declarations and “noisy drumming” of Puritan rulers and the Massachusetts General Court.
Searl clearly admires those early Quakers who did not succumb to the demands of the courts and had the courage to suffer banishment and hanging for their beliefs. Indeed, in a self-reflective poem, “The Soul,” Searl writes that as he studied these early Quakers, he “searched for a secret theme, / one that could unlock the Quaker soul.” And he asks, “Why can’t I join these 17th century prophets / and be penetrated by the Inward Christ?”
Searl’s imagination offers widely divergent responses to the persecutions: from William Leddra’s wish to “testify how all is wrought in God” and to admonish “Through his will, I exhort you, brethren, / enter into wisdom through the Light / to know that by grace we are saved” to what he imagines Mary Dyer thinking at the gallows:
Hell and blood be done, oh tyrant Boston,
strip these my veins.
His plague be upon you,
My eyes are clear to the inward Christ.
Searl’s work raises old and important questions for the contemporary reader: How do we understand the faith that drives martyrs? And what might we learn from these Quakers of the past? How might we reach “across the centuries” so that our souls too might be “propelled / in this walk with . . . God.”
Searl asks that his readers join with him “to explore how some of these 17th century experiences may speak to” us today, hoping, I think, that as we are reminded of how the early Quakers in the United States were treated, we might also gain some useful perspective on how this country continues to treat people who are seen as “different” and/or “dangerous.” What are today’s equivalents of the scaffold? Of banishment? What role does our government play in the persecution of religious “others”? And what sacrifices are we willing to make? How does our faith call on us to show up and bear witness?
Especially today, when the fear of folks who are different from us is being fed and encouraged, and when, paradoxically, the opportunities for compassion and community seem to be emerging in a new light and with new urgency, it is useful to be thinking about the ideas that Stanford Searl’s Mary Dyer’s Hymn calls to our attention.
Michael S. Glaser is a former Poet Laureate of Maryland and a professor emeritus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. His website is michaelsglaser.com.