In her memoir Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote:
No doubt, [these] three privileges are my vocation—Carmelite, Bride, and Mother—but I feel within myself other vocations. I feel the vocation of Warrior, Priest, Apostle, Teacher, Martyr…. Oh, my Jesus! To all my foolishness, what are You going to reply? Is there a soul that is smaller and more powerless than mine! However, even because of my weakness, You were pleased, Lord, to fulfill my little childish desires, and You now want to fulfill other desires that are bigger than the universe.
It is in this spirit that Sarah Law has written her sixth collection of poetry, Thérèse: Poems, an exquisite new biography-in-verse of the saint known for her “little way” of love who has become, in the words of Pope Pius X, “the greatest saint of modern times.”
Law allows this paradox of littleness and greatness to speak organically through a faithful rendering of significant moments from Thérèse’s life, making particular use of photographs from the archives of the Lisieux Carmel. These photographs, carefully-gathered biographic detail, and the words of Thérèse all come together seamlessly in poems which act as portals into the life and heart of Thérèse. Law’s keen eye, compact lyricism, and precise diction translate small moments, objects, gestures, and actions into a portrait of a young woman filled with the fire of God’s love, “self-sealed as she is, in her heart’s / dry chambers; willing to burn.” (“Photo 29: March 1896”).
The collection begins with the childhood of Thérèse, and the poems here offer selected vignettes critical to understanding the trajectory of growth in the spiritual life of Thérèse. She lost her mother Zélie at four years of age and “struggle[d] / through a flicker-book of mothers” (“Photo 1: July 1876”). Her sister Pauline became “teacher and mother” to her; in “A Glass Full” we witness both roles as Pauline gently answers Thérèse’s question about how someone very small can be filled with God’s grace, by pouring water “into cup and tumbler; / liquid shimmers at the brim of each. / And which is fuller? Both, she answers.” Another radiant cameo captures the moment Thérèse claims the contents of her sister Léonie’s basket of discards: “All of it, says Thérèse, / She stretches out her hands. / I’ll take it all. / Twenty years later / when she was already / starting to die, / she remembered. / It made her smile. / I’ve never refused / what God offers” (An Offering (i)”).
The collection next turns to events which shaped how Thérèse perceived herself and her vocation. In “Papa Picks a Flower,” Law deftly captures the poignant moment after Thérèse, also now known as the Little Flower, tells her father of her desire to enter Carmel: he “shuffles to the flowerbed / while Thérèse stays seated, / back straight, and soul straighter. / When he returns, he offers her / an aster, its little petals / and fragile roots / lifted entire from the family soil.” We glimpse Thérèse’s sense of becoming mother to those for whom she prayed in “Pranzini: First Child”: “This is what she calls him, / the dashing murderer, / shackled unrepentant / … His face is grainy, grey, / in the pages of La Croix; / she traces her blessing, / lifts her smudged fingers / and pleads for a sign.” In one of the most memorable poems of the collection, “L’Ascenseur,” Law vividly illustrates one of Thérèse’s key metaphors for God’s love: “Back at the hotel, the girls / take the elevator. Each / feels the pit of her / stomach lurch. / Céline imagines / that this is what love does; / Thérèse, as the lift ascends, / understands love.”
The remaining poems consider the life, and ultimately the death, of Thérèse in the Lisieux Carmel, and are notable for their sensory detail in imagining both the exterior and interior experiences of Thérèse. For example, in “Laundry”: “These are hard days: / the sodden sheets, robes, scapulars / are scrubbed with salt and ash / and now need rinsing, /… they jostle / each other at the water’s edge, / grip their wooden paddles, / plunge their hands into the cold.” The chant of the office “cast[s] its Latin as a silver thread / unspooling over the bowed heads / of sisters who respond like doves” (“Hebdomadaire”). In “Rattled,” Law manages to simultaneously speak to the outer and inner experience of Thérèse: “A tiny scrape / of nail on tooth / distracts her / from the silence; / …The clicking / itches through her resolve, / a mouse scratching / at the soul’s low door.” While outwardly serving the needs of an unpleasant elderly nun, Thérèse is attuned elsewhere: “Somewhere in her body / music plays; the fizz / of a waltz perhaps; a ripple in the skin / of life beyond its walls” (“Sister St. Peter”).
Law evokes striking glimpses of Thérèse in her other myriad vocations as well. Drawing on photographs of Thérèse dressed as Joan of Arc for a play, Law depicts the warrior: “She always said she would die / with weapons in hand, and here / she’s dressed for the battle, stepping / in for the warrior maid of France— / drawn sword in her right hand” (“Photo 11, 1895”). We see the priest in “Tonsure”: “at the monthly cropping / of each nun’s hair beneath / wimple and veil, Thérèse / would ask to be shorn / on the crown, like a monk, / or a priest… how happily / she wore it, her / hidden ordination.” In her encouragement of a seminarian, we detect the apostle and teacher: “he writes of the path on which he stumbles, / she offers her response: just keep on trying” (“Brother”). As the poems approach the end of Thérèse’s life, Law does not balk at portraying the martyr, for Thérèse suffered horrifically in her battle with tuberculosis: “All through the long / months of her dying / her struck lungs / coughed up cups of blood, / the body’s offering / … to accept / the twisted gut and breath, / to offer each staggering step—/ all this she does, / for a God she cannot see” (“An Offering (ii)”).
Law also bestows special attention on an often-overlooked vocation of Thérèse, that of a writer. In her short twenty-four years of life, Thérèse wrote letters, poems, plays, and her memoir, which she was charged
to write as an act of obedience: “Thérèse / takes on the task, weaving / the story of her soul, / the lines of her small world / a prayer like any other” (“The Warming Room”). In the superb “Writing Desk,” the cost of Thérèse’s writing efforts toward the end of her life is signified in the desk itself: “Now she works with heaviness, / splintered corners; one great split / rending the surface. It comes / to suit her suffering soul: / she pens her final memoirs / the last few poems, and / a Credo, in the ink of her own blood, / writing her heart out on dark wood.”
While Law gives careful attention to the outward historical life of Thérèse, also woven into these poems is a remarkable expression of Thérèse’s interior life. Law makes use of many of Thérèse’s spiritual images and metaphors, creating a fresh resonance in the process. For example, Law brilliantly portrays Thérèse’s “little way” in image after image of a pure simplicity and littleness; in “Little Things,” the poet enumerates small objects which refract the love Thérèse brought to each thought and action: “the little pencil and the little brush. / A little touch—at night a little smile, / a little way of love throughout all time.” Likewise, in “Letters,” the “little bird” of Thérèse is employed, fittingly, as a descriptor of letters sent to the convent in the wake of Thérèse’s death. In “Petition” we, along with the pope, catch sight of the fire of Carmel enkindled within Thérèse, “the gold flare under her lace.” The kaleidoscope, an image she used to explain God’s ordering of our small efforts into beauty, appears in “Youngest”: “She dreams young of making / her oblation—a petal, flaming high / in Christ’s kaleidoscope.”
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this collection is Law’s ability to take a photograph as a visual point of departure and dig deeply. Each photograph seems to have its own shimmering secrets to reveal, and we trust the alert, compassionate and knowing voice of the speaker to interpret for us. The retrospection seems both contemporary and timeless, as in “Photo 43: July 1897”: “Thérèse is softly blurred, as though / …she has already started / her steps into eternity, / the atoms of her mortal body / beginning to phase-shift.” “I will come back, she promises” (“Photo 44: August 1897”), and this new collection is one more way the promise has been realized: Thérèse seems to stand just beyond the threshold of these poems. Whether you are new to her story or not, you will relish—and profoundly benefit from—the encounter with her through this stunning collection.
Laura Reece Hogan is the author of Litany of Flights (Paraclete Press, 2020), which won the Paraclete Poetry Prize, the chapbook O Garden-Dweller (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and the nonfiction spiritual theology book I Live, No Longer I (Wipf & Stock, 2017). She has contributed to America, Dappled Things, U.S. Catholic, First Things, Relief, The Cresset, Anglican Theological Review, Whale Road Review and other publications. She is a professed Third Order Carmelite.