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The Mystery Beyond Words: The Poems and Thoughts of Rita A. Simmonds

2020 - Issue Four

Rita A. Simmonds

A contemporary Catholic poet of note, Rita A. Simmonds has published several collections of poetry, among them Souls and the City (2013), Bitterness and Sweet Love: The Way of the Cross and Other Lenten Poems (2014), and He Called: Selected Poems (2020). Her poetry—spare, incisive, and steeped in silence and prayer—has garnered multiple accolades at the annual Catholic Press Association Awards and appears regularly in Magnificat magazine.

Mrs. Simmonds was interviewed by Humanum in December of 2020. Her thoughts on the creative process, the role of silence in her poetry, and the mystery that underlies all of reality, as well as three of her new poems, appear below.

The Fourteenth Station: Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb

The Word

has weight

pondered unbroken

carefully carried

quietly placed

solemnly sealed

remembered

awaited

revealed—

The Word has

weight

seeded

and sown

each step

on its own is

The Way.[1]


How did you first come to write poetry?

I started writing in fourth grade. My teacher gave us an assignment to write a poem. Of course, she never explained what a poem was, gave no instruction. I remember that I looked out the window: it was the first snowfall of the year. I just sat down and wrote about the snow falling. When I handed in the poem, she called me up to her desk and accused me of plagiarism. When I denied it, she sent me to the principal’s office. He believed me right away and told me that the poem would be published in the school newspaper. And once it was published, I was thrilled and started writing a lot of poetry. I showed another poem to the same teacher. She looked at it and said, “This is enough. Just stop.” She thought I was copying all of my poems! I was humiliated and mortified. And that was it. I never talked about it and never wrote poetry after that, except maybe a little bit in college and then, years later, when I fell in love with a man who had written some poems for me. I started writing poems for him, and I kept writing even after we broke up because I enjoyed it. A writer friend of mine took a look at some of my poems and told me that they were very good.

At what point did you recognize yourself as someone who was no longer writing just for yourself, but for a larger public? What was that turning point like for you?

I met the community Communion and Liberation, a Catholic lay community founded in 1954 in Italy by Monsignor Luigi Giussani. He passed away in 2005 and is now a Servant of God. I was reading a lot of his writings, and they made me see that there is a mystery behind everything. I started looking at reality more intensely and intently. That made me write a lot of poetry. I understood that reality was the vehicle to the mystery, and poetry was the way I expressed that. I started writing a lot. Words just flowed out of me for a long time.

One day, my friend Father Peter Cameron, who was the editor of Magnificat magazine, was looking for actresses to be in a play he had written about the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “The Sacrament of Memory.” I auditioned for the play and asked him whether I could read some of my poetry instead of a monologue. He agreed. For me this was a way of seeing whether it was any good. After all, he was an editor. He loved the poems. I read poem after poem during the audition and he just kept on asking me to read more. It was a great moment I will never forget. I got the part—I played Pauline Martin, Thérèse’s sister. I also got my poetry published in Magnificat. He then started asking me to submit more regularly on given themes.

How do you decide what to write about?

When I was younger, I used to write about my feelings. Now, when I am given a Scripture passage or liturgical season to write about, it’s almost like a commission. It’s like God is asking it. I have a lot more confidence if I’m being asked to write.

Also, I try to pay attention to what’s in front of me; reality always gives me things to write about. There’s always something. I just have to try and understand what is going on. Sometimes life can be dry and it feels like you’re always looking at the same things. It takes an effort. You have to sit with things for a while and try and understand what the mystery is that’s revealing itself through them.


Cornered in the Crying Room

I talk to Our Lady every morning—

Our Lady of Sorrows,

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

She’s the same lady.

I ask her to help me

to be a good mother.

I ask her for the graces

no one wants.

This morning

Joey from the adult home

bursts in on my prayer.

His presence is not uncommon,

but always a surprise.

He hugs me tightly around my neck;

his cologne assails the air.

He begs my forgiveness

for telling my boys, “I’m happy

that your father died.”

I smell his cologne on me.

“Let’s sit down and pray,” he says,

his rosary swinging from his hand.

I remain standing; he doesn’t leave.

“Pray for us sinners,” Joey’s words

trail mine from a tongue

too big for his mouth.

We pray the Second Sorrow of Mary—

The Flight into Egypt.

My mind drifts to the desert

where twenty-nine Coptic Christians

lie gunned down in the sand,

their pilgrimage to Saint Samuel’s Monastery

in Minya brought to an uncharted end.

They would not give up

the Child in Mary’s arms.

Their souls are lifted

from the sand

by the Little Child who

found refuge there.

Sand falls like water

as they rise,

blessing the assailants,

comforting the innocents

they leave behind.

Their souls have eyes

that see into mine.

They see across centuries.

They see through shifting land.

I pray they pray for me.

I pray for their families

and enemies. I pray

they pray for mine.

Now, Joey says—

His cologne ascends

like frankincense

at the hour of our death

in the crying room sky.


So often your poems are about a single, specific event that opens up to greater depths. A wonderful example of this is “Cornered in the Crying Room.” It describes a single moment that transports you to a different time and place. How do you identify the instances that give way to deeper reflection?

A moment is given, and if it’s a striking momentlike “Cornered in the Crying Room,” which was a very striking situationI really want to make sense out of it. What did that mean? The best way for me to make sense out of it is to write about it. I try to understand the meaning of what just happened to me, the meaning of what I saw, if I saw something beautiful and it strikes me… When I read the Gospel and meditate on it for an assignment I have been given, I read and read until something strikes me. What is it that is calling out to me from the words, from this event? Thank God that I’m usually asked to write about an event from the Gospels, because for me, if I can’t see it happening, I can’t write about it. I really do have to see it. I can’t write about ideas.

When it comes to your creative process, how do you know a poem is finished?

Sometimes you write more than you need to write. In poetry, you really have to get to the essential. Sometimes I’m a little vain; I like the way a line sounds, so I want to keep it. There are lines I have to cut because otherwise I lose the meaning. And I really think about it: what is really essential here, in this poem? Sometimes it takes years to get it just right.

Your disciplined use of words—weighted and sparse—as well as your intentional spacing of lines force your readers to slow down and to dwell in the silence in which the words resound. Can you talk about the role of silence in your poetry?

The poetry that I write is born of silence, so I guess it would make sense that you can hear the silence because that is the birth place of the poetry. There is an event that happens, but to understand it, you need silence. If I weren’t living that silence, that recollection, I would probably miss some of those events I write about in my poems, or I would think about them differently. I am really looking for that meaning, that mystery in reality which requires a certain silence. I don’t give meaning to what happens. It’s like Advent—you’re watchful, you’re waiting, you’re receiving what’s given. If you hear the silence, that’s what you’re hearing.

I’m more economical with my words now than I used to be. I know you don’t need to say everything. You need to give people some breathing space, some room. You don’t have to sew everything up in the end. I’m more comfortable now with being uncomfortable. As long as I can see the mystery, then I think that’s enough. As long as the mystery is present, then I think I have something to say.


The Pipel’s Execution

from Elie Wiesel’s Night


The young boy

with sad angel eyes

is tortured but will not give names.

He is hanged with two others

who die right away.

But the gentle boy is light;

his noose doesn’t take.

He writhes before all

in the silent roll call square.

The sun sets to escape.

Men who’ve not cried in years

erupt into tears.

Sorrow reigns

as the innocent child

gasps and sways.

“Where is God? Where is God?”

The prisoners say

as they’re forced to march by

and look on at close range.

“I am here in the gallows

dangling in pain.”


Your poetry often challenges the reader. “The Pipel’s Execution,” for example, is deeply unsettling and calls for a new perspective, an interior change. Is this something you strive for in your writing?

I don’t live in a very comfortable place, because I am so ambitious about my own conversion. In my poetry, I am telling you what happens to me, and I am trying to be honest about it. I have to be unsettled—I’m personally unsettled by what I see and hear, and I desire the change it brings. I want to be converted. But you are not converted if you don’t tell the truth. If you tell the truth, then you’re not going to be comfortable because we know we don’t completely correspond to what is good, beautiful, right and true. We know we don’t have the answers. I think the Covid pandemic has taught us that if it’s taught us anything. So I’m comfortable being uncomfortable, because I know there’s a change that’s happening. That’s what I desire even though it hurts.

To go back to “Cornered in the Crying Room,” what Joey, the disabled man, did to my kids—telling them he was happy that my husband had died—that was rough, but I started out with a prayer to Our Lady, to help me to be a good mother, to give me the graces that no one wants. And then I realized she answered both of those requests with Joey. But it wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t want to mother that Joey. I didn’t want to forgive him. I didn’t want to pray with him. I felt cornered—he cornered me. And yet I said okay. This is where I am now. I was able to be who I was and work through all of the discomfort that was in that moment.

Now, as for “The Pipel’s Execution,” it came from reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. I was floored and I wondered, “Where is God in all that horror that happened to those people?” I had to really ask that question. And once I was willing to really look for God—because I know God is there, the mystery is always present but you have to be willing to look—it was so obvious to me. I had to write about it because it is just too important.


The Word Made Flesh

I

Nothing comes before you

whom nothing came before.

Your being, a silent orb

spinning into darkness,

fire to a cold star,

earthquake to sea,

tsunami to land,

invisible blast

over everything made

through you

to the sound of your voice—

a promise posed,

a tuning fork.

Minds enlarge,

kings engage

a constant course.

You re-enter time to await.

Word suspended

on a Virgin’s acceptance—

II

Yes, and you enter

infinitesimal

into her darkness—

the space you created.

Your emptying unites

to her purest cell

the size of a seed

clinging to her wall.

It forms flesh,

curls around a red flame

fanning fingers and toes,

liver and lungs,

your blazing heart beats,

feeding on your mother’s blood.

Her water breaks.

For the first time, you cry.

What can you know,

you who knew everything?

It’s cold.

You have no memory,

lost in your mother’s eyes.

You, the reason for everything,

must grow to the age of reason

and leave your family grieving

when first you hear

your Father’s call.

III

“Why have you done this to us?”

Your mother asks.

You speak strange yet simple phrases.

You say you say what you hear.

It is not your time

when the bride and groom

run out of wine.

Yet you bend yourself,

spend yourself

at your mother’s request.

The best is for last.

She enters your darkness,

the space you created for her.

“Father, forgive them.”

Your heart beats

beneath the beating,

flares at each fall,

combusts as you’re lifted up

on the dry wood.

You thirst. You burn.

The Father’s voice—unheard.

For the last time, you cry.

Your flesh hangs.

Your mother folds.

Blood and water explode

from your side.

Your spirit descends

into the depths of time

to free the prophets and kings,

the enlightened minds.

Your flesh is lowered

into your mother’s lap.

How well she knows

your fingers and toes,

the shape of your eyes, and

Yes, the blood from your veins

that blankets your flesh.

There is nothing left

but to rise.


Could we talk about the relationship between your poetry and your prayer? “Word Made Flesh,” for example, felt almost like a rosary in miniature. Could you comment on it?

I was not satisfied with “Word Made Flesh” until I started addressing the Word. Then it really took on a beautiful shape. It’s very much a prayer. You could say that that is how I see things, how I pray. Also to think about Christ as a tiny embryo—a theme that always comes back to me—to think about God himself who became something so small. I am struck by the humility of God. He’s so humble to become one of us, to be dependent on us. And wherever Christ is, there is Mary. She is very much a part of everything that I do and think and write.

Your poetry calls the reader to see the world anew, to convert, yet you never start out with a didactic purpose.

I am worried about my own change. If someone can change because of my change…That’s what I mean about telling the truth. I think the truth speaks for itself. I don’t try to tell people they have to change. I try to allow myself to be changed by what happens to me, and if people can benefit from that, then I offer myself, I offer my life, as an agent for change. I guess that’s where vulnerability comes in.

I am by nature a somewhat bossy person. But with poetry, silence is the space you have to give people. That’s where their freedom comes in. Sometimes I think that a poem has to have a lot of air—it has to have doors and windows for people to come in and out. I don’t like to tell people what to think. I like to present something truthfully. People often want some kind of a resolution at the end, but I am happy to strike a nerve and allow them to fill it in themselves.

Sometimes I am preachy, but I don’t want to be—that’s not the way I see the mystery. That’s not the way that I see Christ. I see him as a person, not as a lesson that’s being driven home. I want people to meet him, to meet the mystery, to see the mystery, to love the mystery. I think my poetry is a failure if the reader doesn’t say, “Something’s behind this. Let me dig…”

[1] Rita A. Simmonds, Bitterness and Sweet love: The Way of the Cross and Other Lenten Poems (2014), 15.


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