POET Doris Peel traveled with a light but sure foot on the frontiers of the 20th century. Unheralded save for a following through this newspaper and some readers of The New Yorker magazine, her career spanned 70 years, three continents, and seven published works. Readers were attracted to her lyrical spontaneity, keen eye, and insight into many cultures and peoples.
But what held them was the tough-minded realism and hard-won conviction of the New Testament spiritual vision that lay just beneath the lines of her verse. Her poems got clipped, copied, frayed - passed to many hands as a shared currency of the heart.
At a time when much poetry has sunk into self-absorbed meditations on trivia and neuroses, Peel's work, intelligently affirming, is ripe for discovery in many parts of the ecumenical and academic worlds, as well as among the broader reading public.
Happily, that is more possible with the publication this month of a unique posthumous collection of Peel's poetry and prose.
"Journey to a New Day" draws mostly from work appearing on the Monitor's Home Forum page in the 1970s and 1980s. But it also contains poetry dating from 1960, and prose pieces from The New Yorker and a previous book.
The arrangement of "Journey to a New Day," done with obvious love and care, was itself the last project of the writer's brother, the late Robert Peel, a scholar and author of a major three-volume biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science and founder of this newspaper. Even as a book, this is a piece of fine art. Put together by a new publisher, Andover Green, it is beautifully illustrated with nine watercolors by artist Peter Ferber.
The collection captures the broad dimensions of Peel's vision - from the changing relations between a mother and daughter to the politics of crisis in Europe and the Middle East.
The poetry is strong, ranging from a piece in the Masterpiece Theatre mode - "The life and times of Elsie, Miss Birdwhistle," about a cockney servant girl who stands up to 'Is Lordship - to a spine-tingler, "O Jerusalem," an epiphany written as a jet pierces the sky over the Holy Land:
Everybody is travelling on a vanished plane:/ inextricably bound on the same flight./ Isaac and Ishmael/ proud - and afraid.
One of the surprises in "Journey to a New Day" is the prose. Most is from "The Inward Journey," Peel's trek through the mental and physical ruins of post-war Europe, published in the '50s. The excerpts are vibrant and still contemporary. Peel came into her own during the post-war period, a time of considerable anxiety and doubt. Paul Tillich's "The Courage to Be" would soon appear. But in many ways Peel was already being that courage.
She visits the bombed-out city of Cologne under starlight. Below Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden Peel befriends a young German who quotes Abraham Lincoln and wants to start a school. Robert Lowell said favorite writers were superb, because they always sought "to be at the center of things" and "got out more than anybody." He might have spoken of Doris Peel.
Yet "Journey to a New Day" is larger than the sum of its parts. Its overall arrangement makes it more a place to go, than a thing to read. Given the aggressions and uncertainties of our time, that's no small achievement.
In its humble way, this book is a place where art becomes an articulation of "the evidence of things not seen." Few modern poets have attempted such an articulation, found a "country beyond words," as Melvin Maddocks writes in the preface. Peel's vision is the preserving and ultimate triumph of the spirit of humanity in a postmodern, scientific world.
"This is the pavilion in which I have been hidden," the book's first poem, hints at a meek but powerful consciousness the world knows not. So "unstrategically" set, "Leaky, ephemeral/ with its wildflower frailty and its trilling birds," this pavilion offer miraculous shelter:
How out-lasted all the citadels that fall?/ Because here/ no marauder would find anything to despoil?/ No arrow a target worth its flight?/ Because, being defenceless, it is given to stand/ as a testament to angels?/ As allowance of light.
Finding evidence of that light is Peel's theme and celebration.