Reviewed by Joshua Levy
In Heart of Goodness, Carolyne Van Der Meer takes poetic license in writing Marguerite Bourgeoys’s memoir.
This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Marguerite Bourgeoys, the French nun who emigrated to Canada and established a school to educate young girls, the poor, and children of First Nations. She founded the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal; Montreal’s first permanent church and one of the first uncloistered religious communities anywhere in the Catholic Church. In 1982, Sister Marguerite became Saint Marguerite, Canada’s first female saint.
As a self-identifying Jewish humanist who was raised in Montreal, I must admit that my only previous knowledge of Marguerite Bourgeoys was a vague notion that she had something to do with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Lady of the Harbour’ in ‘Suzanne,’ and I approached this book cautiously, aware of the myriad of atrocities committed against Canada’s First Nations by the Catholic Church in the name of ‘re-education.’
And yet, despite it all, I found myself deeply moved by this collection: won over by Van Der Meer’s clean, crisp, contemporary sentences that sing with empathy and paint a powerful picture of a historical figure who possessed a seemingly unbending devotion to the betterment of women. I set skepticism aside—a leap of faith, if you will—and emerged on the other end of Heart of Goodness feeling remarkably… healed.
Van Der Meer has arranged Saint Marguerite’s life story into thirty numbered poems that are told chronologically, like chapters. This narrative choice unifies and deepens individual poems, moving the reader along with a propulsion often lacking in a poetry collection. Her language is tight and fresh, lending a contemporary vitality to Bourgeoys’s thoughts that reminds me of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s approach to Hamilton.
Poem #1 begins with a general sense of disillusionment for material possessions:
These trimmings and jewels
fine fabrics soft leather
leave me empty
If Heart of Goodness were a musical, these opening lines would perfectly tee up Marguerite Bourgeoys’s 'I Want Song,’ and indeed the poem concludes with Bourgeoys experiencing a full spiritual awakening:
Walking in prayer to honour Mary
the statue of the Blessed Virgin
across the sanctuary
held new light
Many of the strongest poems in the collection take place at sea. Perhaps this is because water serves as a muse for Van Der Meer. Or perhaps it is because the poet feels more comfortable describing the objects and events that encircled Bourgeoys, rather than make assumptions about what was in a saint’s head.
The sea poems hold an urgency and visual tactility:
The fever swathes them
like rolled blankets
And this stunner:
Our boat moored on a sand bar
festering with illness
we burned it
wholly committed to our new lives
A number of recently published poetry collections have focused on saints, such as Ann Wroe’s 2018 verse book on Saint Francis of Assisi, and Karen Solie’s 2019 collection on Saint Ethernan, but Heart of Goodness, with its lovely sea voyage poems and journey of the soul, fits in equally well among Virgil’s Aeneid and Camoes’s The Lusiads.
Van Der Meer’s feminist poems also deserve special mention and brim with stirring lines, such as:
The trail not blazed by a man
by a man
In a few poems, Van Der Meer also touches tenderly on the life and legacy of Jeanne Mance, the founder of Montreal’s first hospital.
Each poem in the collection has a French twin: the translation by the author. But much like human identical twins, there are subtle-yet-crucial differences between each English poem and its French double. Often, these distinctions are merely cosmetic. For example, one English poem contains this lovely consonant rhyme:
made of stone
a stable school
God wanted it so
while the French translation contains no such lyrical effect.
However, sometimes a seemingly minor language choice affects the meaning of a line in profound ways. The English version of poem #25 concludes with the death of Jeanne Mance:
The French translation reads:
il y a en moi
Which, translated back into English, reads:
there is in me
In the English version, the poet has traced the burning outline of a metaphorical hole left inside Marguerite Bourgeoys’s soul by the passing of Jeanne Mance. But in the French translation, the poet describes only the emptiness. Which version is better? I have my preference (the English version) but for a poet, every word choice can be as critical as a cliff or a summit, and these differences are endlessly enjoyable to dissect. They add an extra dimension to the poems. If the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, this collection is proof that a good translation is greater still.
I do wish Van Der Meer had delved a little deeper into Marguerite Bourgeoys’s emotional interior. The poet has done a remarkable job of shading in Bourgeoys’s halo, but much of the flesh has been left off the woman.
Still, Van Der Meer makes the case as well as the Vatican ever could for Bourgeoys’s canonization by offering us this fine parable:
I was offered a stable
not for the birthing of Christ-like babes
but for the education the moulding of fine spirits
of young girls who had fire
but no chance
Heart of Goodness is a spiritual top-up. By book’s end, I had become a convert—not to Catholicism, but to Carolyne Van Der Meer’s work.
Heart of Goodness is published by Guernica Editions.
Joshua Levy is a poet and prose writer who recently served as CBC’s Writer-in-Residence. Discover his first book, The Loudest Thing, at www.joshualevy.net