As we move towards autumn, we offer our debut poetry booklet, Harvest, by Sister Mary Agnes.
We are delighted with this little book of newly discovered work from the contemplative nun-poet, Agnes, which we have paired with the ‘camera-less photography’ of Dartmoor-based artist Garry Fabian Miller.
Sister Mary Agnes (1928-2014) was a nun in the Poor Clare monastery of Lynton in Devon. She published three slim volumes of her poetry through the 1970s with Workshop Press and Thornhill. Her debut, Daffodils in Ice, was a surprise hit for Workshop’s editor Norman Hidden, outselling their other debuting poet that year, Andrew Motion. Newspapers and the television took an immediate interest in Agnes and her contemplative life, and she found her life and writing the subject of many articles and programmes.
Agnes’s poetry was still and meditative, reflecting the divine as well as intimate natural observations:
I have a window in my cell – the view is magnificent, hills and trees & wonderful sunsets. There’s a cypress tree right outside the window … . I love watching it. You can learn so much from watching things & listening to them.
Year after year, season after season, Sister Mary Agnes watched and listened. The cypress tree recurs throughout her poetry, as do the flowers and birds of the Lynton garden.
Her poetry brought Agnes many admirers, among them Kathleen Raine and Elizabeth Goudge, but as her writing gained momentum, she herself was facing crisis. She had fallen in love – a more worldly sort of love – and while the poetic slippage between the divine lover and the worldly beloved is extraordinarily powerful in her poetry, the tension between monastic discipline and romantic promise led her to the brink of despair. She suffered a terrible breakdown, attempting to end her life, and after almost thirty years clositered at Lynton, Agnes left the monastery, first moving to convalescent homes, then to London. There in the city she continued her quiet life of devotion.
Sister Mary Agnes’s three published collections are Daffodils in Ice, No Ordinary Lover, and a world of stillnesses. Following her breakdown, she published no more. Yet she continued to write, and when she died, in 2014, she left behind a number of full manuscripts and a great many occasional poems.
From these, Harvest was gleaned. The poems of this 40-page booklet chart the period of Agnes’s hope, despair and recovery, offering her signature blend of death-infused delight and devotion as the physical presence of Christ and Lover are explored in beautiful crystal-clear imagery.