Sarah Law’s poem ‘Therese: November 1894’ appears in issue 2 of Marble.
Poems can frequently be inspired by images and photographs. I am particularly struck by the way old photographs can conjure the past and those long dead who lived there once, in that strange world where life was so different, but where bodies, features, expressions and gestures are still so poignantly recognisable. Photography was still a relatively new medium in the late nineteenth century, and not always trusted truly to convey the inner essence of its subjects. But I find these photographs endlessly fascinating. The sense of a hidden glimpse, a potential affinity of souls, refracted through the generations, pulls me into poetry. I want to write back, acknowledge the contact, so I reply in the only way I know how.
My poem,‘Thérèse : November 1894’ was inspired by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (Marie-Francoise Thérèse Martin), a French Carmelite nun. Thérèse entered the convent at Lisieux in 1888, aged just fifteen. She died at the age of 24, after suffering greatly, from tuberculosis. Her life, seen from today’s perspective, would seem irreversibly distant and incomprehensible but for a series of photographs taken by her sister Céline who, though four years older than Thérèse, followed her into the convent in 1894. In this poem I tried to explore the sense of awe and inadequacy of Céline; the older sister who never quite caught up spiritually: Thérèse had been in the enclosed Carmelite order for six years already. These were hidden years, without photographic record. After Céline was permitted to enter with her box-and-tripod camera, she took some extraordinary photographs of enclosed convent life, and of her sister, up to and including Thérèse after death. Sepia-tinted, surprisingly detailed, the photographs are all available online (at the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux). The Darlot lens she used required a nine second exposure, so while some are perfectly posed, others are a little blurry, enhancing the candid nature of their images. They are a glimpse into a hidden world: the nuns make hay, pummel laundry, sit in meditation, sew during recreation. Thérèse, who lived such a hidden and fleeting life, is now a much-loved Saint. She catches at my (non Catholic) heart for reasons I still can’t quite explain, for all the poems I have written about her.
Sarah Law lives in London, where she is a tutor for the Open University and elsewhere. Other Thérèse poems can be found online at Ink, Sweat & Tears, and Psaltery & Lyre.