a quorum of saints poems by rennie mcquilkin

picture of rennie mcquilkin and his dog wizard
Photo by Hunter Neal, Jr.  

Eamon Grennan, who knows his saints, says “This may be the most unusual and entertaining Lives of the Saints ever written. Rennie McQuilkin has composed a spirited set of short, often humorous biographies of energetic, eccentric men and women caught up in and confronting—whether in legend or fact—the toils of their own times, from the First Century A.D. to the present day. With the down-to-earth St. Francis as a kind of spiritual guide, the poet mixes the comic with the awful, the tender with the unimaginably violent, the sphere of articulated spirituality with the ferocity of the secular, political, historical world. Without any of the melodramatic signs of rapture, he can still communicate what is the signal mark of his collection—joy: joy residing in a plainspoken, gritty, close-to-home language, evoking like religious paintings of an earlier age the ordinary world the saints and their often extraordinary actions inhabited. Stories of these spirit-startling men and women are here translated into a modern, skeptical yet always affirming idiom. What I most enjoy as a reader is McQuilkin’s own brand of sidelong piety that offers humor, irony, tenderness, and fellow feeling ‘every blessèd day.’ " A Quorum of Saints has a surprisingly modern feel to it, since the saints lived in dire times not unlike our own, their courage and joie de vivre being the very ingredients we need as we navigate our own troubled waters. It is also interesting to note that some of the most compelling figures in the collection are women, which vigorously refutes the sort of denigration that is all too prevalent in certain quarters these days. Nor are all the saints of the usual sort. The second half of the book presents saints as unexpected as the cashier in a convenience store, a backyard turkey, and a nun playing badminton.
  a quorum of saints cover image
  Woodcut: “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” by Duncan Walker.

Rennie McQuilkin is the Poet Laureate of Connecticut and the author of fourteen poetry collections. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. He has received numerous awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Center for the Book. In 2010, his volume of new and selected poems, The Weathering, was awarded the Connecticut Book Award. For nine years he directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which he co-founded at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut. With his wife, the artist Sarah McQuilkin, he lives in Simsbury, CT, where he is the local poet laureate.


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ISBN 978-1-943826-14-8

Copyright © 2016 by Rennie McQuilkin

6" x 9" paperback, 148 pages



Copyright © 2016 by Rennie McQuilkin


July 25: Celebrating St. Christopher’s Feast
Day Sitting in the Garden, Reading John
Stanizzi’s Hallelujah Time

Stanizzi’s hallelujah poems were wailing so wildly
with Bob Marley and assorted saints carrying on
and the dead coming alive

that I didn’t see an inch (more a millimeter) worm
begin to let itself down from the bill of my
Red Sox cap by its life line

until I noticed there was something, not a floater
inside my eyes but out there in the wild wishing
to find a bite more edible than air –

to which I had to take my hat off, which I did
and carried it, with the pale green newborn thing
still dangling by a thread from the bill,

and held the creature over a pale green dill plant
just its color, watched it cling to a sprig like the shore
to which St. Christopher carried a drowning infant.

The mite lay low a while, then began to test the sprig,
finding it good and bunching into an omega
to get on with it. So small a thing to be so big.

Hallelujah, Saint C, I know how you must have felt
when the Child you carried through such dire straits
revealed Himself as God and continued on His way.


July 31: Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez

They all died, the ones he loved, all
but the one he watched for always
when he retreated to serve Loyola's
Order, for which he was too ignorant
to be more than the porter greeting all
at its Majorca college,
awaiting the One imagined so entirely
He arrived time after time
at the gate Alphonsus minded, arrived
cleverly disguised but no match
for the purity of a simple porter’s heart.
Each visitor, greeted by Alphonsus,
felt an unexpected angel rise in him.

August 8: Saint Théodora Guérin (1798 – 1856)

Poems are not words, after all, but . . . ropes let down to the lost.
                                                                                – Mary Oliver

And there was Theodora
sent from the comfort of her convent home in France
to the frontier of the New World to found a mission in 1840 –
Saint Mary-in-the-Woods, Indiana
for God’s sake! – that forsaken outpost, convent farm
in a land whose language, droughts, crop failures, and
infestations of locust were beyond her and the sisters.
Her words sent down to them like beads on a rosary:
Be confident though the way is unclear. Grope along slowly.

My friend Allan is no less dislocated
and courageous, never on leave
from loss inflicted over forty years ago
when he served as a “Registrar” in Vietnam, counting
and recording the dead to be body-bagged for transit.
Now, day after day he punches in, encouraging
all, not least of all himself, telling his story in bursts of verse.

Oh Lord, may each of us take a cue from him.
Let us devise strands of words like ropes
let down to the lost.
Let us climb out of our dark wells
toward the light above
by inching from knot to knot on the ropes we lower
to our selves no less than to others,
counting on the knots like beads to save the day
every blessèd day.

                                                                 for Allan Garry

August 9: Saint Lizara of the Shell
Convenience Store

I reach Hartford’s Asylum Hill, but how to find a way
to the heart of the city? Road blocks, neon cops, carnival
in full swing. Floats of revelers, punk rock blasting.
Detour. Take Broad toward Frog Hollow. Wrong lane!

Swerve right, not far enough to miss a concrete divider.
Which is why two wheels are kaput where I park now
by a Shell convenience store, forlorn enough
to attract locals who scent blood, are moving in by foot

and two in a boom box car. Do I need help, a ride?
Maybe protection? Could I spare two dollars?
All the king’s men. At last I make it to the counter.
Smokes, lottery tickets, Pepsi? No? So what do I need,

she asks. She has magenta nails, big red hair, and a smart
phone. Would she call Triple A and Rent-a -Wreck?
She would, magenta thumbnails quick as lizards.
She won’t accept two dollars.

Before I know it, I’m back on Broad, then headed down
Capitol to the reception. Soon champagne is popping
like a handgun or tires exploding. I hear
just the tap of magenta nails dancing like angelic lizards.


August 29: Saint John the Baptist
(first Century AD)

Among the snakes, the muck and stench
of the Jordan, I held Herod under longer
than most – quelled his lust for her
I railed against, the woman now queen

whose husband he'd sent to die in battle,
whose sly long legs had played his below
the royal banquet table. From here
in the cell her men have dragged me to,

I hear belly bells jangling, know the death
warrant he’ll sign, despite himself, as he lies
with his head on the dancer’s lap,
know what is to be before I hear boots

heavy on the stone steps,
catch the glint of an ax in the torch light.
I see my head impaled on Herod’s bedpost,
a gift to him from the queen,

my eyes gouged that saw too clearly,
tongue ripped out that spoke too honestly,
teeth strung on a hank of my hair
she wears around her neck.

September 15: Saint Mary


That he has her this Sabbath noon
as flour dust settles in his bakery
and dung stinks in a Nazarene alley

is not what Mary had in mind.
Nor is this she sees come over her
beyond his acrid sweat, dank fur –

this darkness risen high above,
and descending like accumulated

storm – a serious sky consumed
with interest in the earth, a sky
electric enough to spark the start

of everything. Now, deep in her
this Sabbath noon in Nazareth,
a sudden shock – I Am, I Am.


His words in extremis grow so slurred and gargled
those beneath the cross move closer, spattered by
blood, and know more than ever why they love him
when he begs John, his “beloved disciple,” to take Mary
as his own mother, take her into his heart and home.

He will soon cry out, forsaken, but as his eyes fail
and the huddle below him fades,
his single consolation is seeing John hold Mary,
guarding her against a world and a heaven now empty.

Lament of Barry the St. Bernard

I'm called a saint for saving any in a sorry pass.
I hear an avalanche, sprint to dig out whoever’s
buried. What I do for a living gives me pleasure.

But there are times when my keg of brandy’s
an albatross. On long winter nights how dandy
to be tiny, a dainty toy cuddled on a lap

with no one to save,
the favorite of some huge, warm, human savior.
Oh lord, lord, how hard it is to be a saint!


2003. A second Gulf War. We chant against it,
hold up our small lights, candles in paper cups
casting an otherworldly glow down the row of us
lining the sidewalk,
asking traffic from The Hartford and Travelers
to sound their horns in support. In vain.

I long for another age when paper cups,
the string stretched tight between them, meant
speaking privately into the echo chamber of one,
hearing the answer coming in happy vibration
down the line from the other. I found peace in
that, entrusted my secrets to such a phone.

Disconnected now, I’m less and less where I am . . .
It’s 1970, another war. I’m fleeing the country
while napalm and Agent Orange burn ’Nam,
fleeing to celebrate Christmas in Mexico,
a separate peace right down to the ripe red
pomegranate seeds served up by Aeromexico.

Then the inn in Cuernavaca, a walled garden,
no serpents allowed. Tree-high poinsettia
line one wall of the enclave; purple bougainvillea
drapes from window boxes everywhere; the flower
beds are as lush as the town itself is desiccated,
its shanties hobbled along the deeply rutted streets.

Our children are enchanted by so much attention
lavished by the staff, which at least has work
unlike the desperate in town. There is no revolution
yet, though it will come, and the drug lords, the killings.
Still, all that is in the future.

For Christmas Eve, Angel, one of the cooks, invites
our children to walk with his own and their friends
in a “Posada.” At the corner of Juventino and Del Sur
we find them holding candles,
their faces lit from below, full of the wonder
of American guests and tonight’s search for an inn.

We all set off down Juventino, adults remembering,
children chanting Ora pro nobis, Pray for us
each a little Joseph or Mary
searching for a place to spend the night. We go
from doorway to doorway, are told at each
No hay albergue en la posada – No room in the inn,
until we come to the chosen house,
this year’s posada. A child knocks, the gate opens,

and in the small courtyard a señora is grilling
tortillas for us. From a stunted jacarandas tree
a white, star-shaped piñata hangs. When a broomstick
is not enough to break it open, a burly young man
swings a sledge and the star explodes,
spraying a rain of red candy on the courtyard cobbles
to the delight of the children, who go to their knees,
collecting in a frenzy.

Filled with history, I see too much
in a star exploding on Christmas Eve – an end of light,
flowering of cluster bomb flak in a Da Nang market,
civilians down on hands and knees, praying
among the parts, medics saving what they can.

Meanwhile the children are giddy with joy,
some of which returns to me at the midnight
mariachi service in the cathedral. Guitars, trumpets,
accordions, cymbals, castanets, drums
invite the Child to be born. When it’s time for
the abrazo, an ample mestiza takes me in her arms.
I return the blessing.

At midnight the bells ring out,
and from several quarters of the city
fireworks flower. I try to see
not flak, not flares or tracers, but bougainvillea,
bougainvillea. I try to think
how love is born tonight.

Back on the sidewalk, imploring Travelers
and The Hartford, I hold my paper cup close and
credulous as a child, consider speaking to the small
flame within, hoping to be in touch with someone
at the other end: Ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis,
ora pro nobis.

Sister Marie Angelica Plays Badminton

with Sister Marie Modeste most afternoons.
Today, because of lengthy vespers, they are late.
A pale moon has already risen and early bats
are darting like black shuttlecocks.

Except for the whisper of wings
and the Sisters’ hushed encouragement,
the only sounds are the plinking of rackets
and a monotone of mourning doves.

On all sides of the court
the sculpted yew in cubes and columns
might pass for black so deeply green it grows.
And now it moves closer,

Marie Angelica would say,
who has been known to have visions.
Though she moves as aptly as the bats,
doesn’t miss a shot,

when she fades for a long one
from Marie Modeste, sways on her toes, arches
her back, raises one arm
and the other to keep her difficult balance,

she is lost, a long-legged girl again
in mare’s tail, mullein, milkweed,
leaning on the sudden sky as if it can sustain her
like a hand in the small of her back. It does.

Her nerve ends quick as a shiver of poplar,
arms like branches in a wind,
she feels a cry begin
to rise, to force the self before it

and burst, all colors one. That white.
It vaults straight up, a feathered cry
that hovers in the heart of heaven, hovers,
and plummets to the gut

of the racket she sights it in,
the perfect bird, the shuttlecock
Marie Angelica keeps in play, will not let fall
despite the darkness gathering.

after “The Badminton Game” by David Inshaw


after “Baptism in Kansas,” John Steuart Curry

Things keep going on the way they do
except one day in the middle of nothing
they don’t.

I remember how hot it was—not a creak
from the windmill
and the Fords our folks had come in

We stood around.
Our pockets were no place for hands,
they said, and wouldn’t let us in the dark
of the barn or anywhere God wouldn’t be
because the preacher was in the yard
to baptize whoever he could
in Tatums’ water tank.

Six lined up.
I envied them the cool of their gowns
and the year or so they had on me
but not the way he dragged them under
and kept them there so long they bucked
like bullheads.

Mostly, I went along with the hymnbook
someone pushed at me
until he got to Ellen McGee,
held her under and didn’t stop,
thinking maybe anything that pretty
was bound for goings on.

I was ready for something like the cat
I had tried to drown and failed
when up she came as sweet . . .
and stood for a spell at the edge
of the tank, at home in the sky.

And her gown, wet through, was true to her
and her face was where the sun had been.