Sunday, March 3, 2024



STRANGERS & PILGRIMS, Fred LaMotte. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 75 pages, $18 paperback,


            My college poetry professor, Keith Wilson, attempted to jar us sophomores and juniors—most of us enrolled in his World Poetry class in order to fulfill our English requirements for graduation—by announcing to us during our first meeting, “Poetry is more dangerous than a loaded Colt .45.” I doubt that any of us knew what Keith, a Korean War veteran who did three tours of duty aboard battleships and kept a loaded pistol in his hand under the covers as he sweated out PTSD in his dreams years later, fully meant. But, reading LaMotte’s first poem in Strangers & Pilgrims—“Scary” (“The world is in chaos / and I refuse to pretend / that I know what to do.”), and even more so in the remainder of this collection, knowing how these poems can change the intention, the direction, and vocation of a life, with all attendant criticisms, isolations, and abandonments from bosses, colleagues, friends, and even family—I believe that LaMotte has understood for a long time, the power of poetry. It is a courageous thing to write poetry. Ultimately, we poets believe it is a good thing, but “[tell[ing] / the Truth, a sacred / white buffalo / wander[ing] into [one’s] heart / and feel[ing] a peace / the world cannot give / or take away” does not always mean that poetry brings that peace to its readers—particularly if change is not something one is seeking. Strangers & Pilgrims should come with a warning: “Beware, reader! Do not proceed unless you are ready for a change of perspective.” Emily Dickinson said, “I know it's poetry if it takes my head off.” LaMotte’s latest collection will not only take off your head, but it will pierce your entire body, because “The portals to heaven are in the body.”

            LaMotte’s poems use imagery that is convincing on a concrete, sensory level, instantly appealing to the five senses, and at the same time (and often in the same poem, the same line) uses necessary abstraction with strong intention—necessary abstraction because it approaches the unsayable as closely as poetry can, and strong intention because this poet is not writing for the purpose of linguistic gymnastics, but as a form of deep spiritual practice, seeking truth and reveling when he is as surprised at catching a glimpse of it as is the reader. The following passage is from the second poem in the collection, “On Certain Afternoons.”

            Most of my DNA

                 I share with a mouse,

                      infinitude with a gnat.

            Endangered herds stampede

                 through the wounded valleys

                      of my marrow,

            I protect vast swaths

                 of rain forest

                      with a single exhalation.

            I’m certain that the merest weed

                 in its stillness is awake,

                      a blossoming black-eyed-Susan.

            Rooted in listening, I also flower

                 with no seed of thought.

                      The soil is my Being.

            Wonder is the musk of my heart.

                 May my fragrance expand

                      beyond all gardens.

            Come, you lovers of late Spring,

                 the gates are never closed.

            The rain-disheveled azalea

                 will not begrudge your insouciance,

                      nor the rose your burning fingers.

            Let each dare to whisper

                 in your own tongue,

                      “Smell me, I am wild!”


Sprinkled throughout this collection are poems of Mary Magdalene, LaMotte’s inspiration for these poems. The first such poem appears as “How Will You Know Her?”—a reverse personification, where Mary Magdalene is transformed into an abstraction for which she is the personification of spirit. The first three stanzas employ anaphora, setting an incantatory tone:

            Between your heartbeats is a garden,

            the place where Magdalene and Jesus touch.

            She thinks he is the gardener. He thinks she is

            God’s breath, caressing his chest. She is.


            Between your heartbeats is a garden,

            the wilderness where Israel meets Wisdom,

            the Sabbath Queen who sings of loss.

            How could they make love in the desert?

            They pitch a tent of animal skins, and it becomes

            a holy pavilion of gathered silences.


            Between your heartbeats is a garden

            where village girls dance with the Prince of Herdsmen.

            Each maiden is his flute, but only one can be his Song.

            She who wears your inhalation as we wedding gown

            has come to wound you in the pulse of your throat.

            How will you know her? By what signs

            will you prove that she is your Betrothed?


            Although LaMotte is interested in uniting with the ineffable, his path to that union is in the body—both the human one and the granular, concrete body of the Earth and all that is within it. That truth is shown, not merely told (as in “Never Again”—“never again let it be said, ‘I am not / this body’”), in several poems, e.g. “Wings” (“Thou shalt notice the toadstool, / the forget-me-not, a web / of dew, a pebble”); (“The arc of healing does not shower / down from the sky, it gushes / upward from the dust”); “Hum” (“…Hum stars / through your belly. So Hum sap through your cervix”); “Mollusk” (“In a mollusk of prayer, yearning chafes the sandy grit of “I” into a pearl”); “The Choice” (“The portal to the kingdom / of contentment has never been closed. / Find it in your body…”); “Latte” (“Even the pilgrim snail / on a hosta leaf feels starlight / that hasn’t yet arrived”); “Swan” (“Surely, you’ve been told / a Goddess flows / through your darkness,…Her wings are your inbreath / and exhalation. / That is why you have a body”); “Vocation” (When I discovered / the emerald in my chest / I gave up every calling…just to follow this menial/ vocation: I became / a Jewel Polisher” and “Let me be ever quenched / by my own thirst”); “Secret” (“Everything is spiritual. / A toadstool made of God. / If you look close up, / the wing of a fly is scripture”); “Smudge” (“In the birth canal / you were anointed / with the mighty host / of earth’s bacteria, / smeared and smudged / with the microbiome”); and a poem that is emblematic of this “messy” book of poems, “Solstice”:


            Today is slightly longer

            than yesterday or tomorrow.

            So what?

            The earth is wobbly.

            Somewhere a stray kitten

            is shivering in summer rain.

            Somewhere a neglected boy is

            loading his father’s gun.

            And a mother flees across the river

            ever Northward in search

            of a home for her child.

            This inhalation could be a summer solstice,

            this exhalation a winter one.

            So what if Mercury’s in retrograde?

            You are not your horoscope,

            you are the sky.

            So what if the Lion and Bull,

            the Ram and Scorpion cross horns,

            their fangs and stingers

            in outrageous combat?

            They’ll come down at dawn to drink

            from the silent oasis

            of your waking.

            You are not that riot

            of ancient fires and distant sparks.

            You are the largesse of immemorial darkness

            through which they glitter, rear, and clash,

            stagger back, and wander on.

            If there is a God, she doesn’t care

            so much about your stars

            as she cares about the smile you could have

            shared with a friend last night,

            The grace you might say to a stranger

            this evening, the breath you could savor

            this very moment,

            like a sunrise in your chest.


Miles Davis, the legendary jazz trumpet player, was once asked about playing the wrong note or making a mistake. His answer was “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note—it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” I’m betting that Davis would like Strangers & Pilgrims. I know that he’d like “Broken,” which echoes his own musical and personal philosophy, seeming to this reader a poem that “all the law and the prophets” can hang on.


A broken commandment

is the open gate

to a wilder meadow.

It may be your sacred duty

to violate the rules.

I smoked an Arturo Fuentes Robusto

with the Bodhisattva.

Asked him if he had any precepts.

He said, just one: be healed by your tears.

Then he opened up to me about

his sadness, admitted

he had to come back

because he was lonely.

I said maybe Anthony Bourdain

or Sylvia Plath. He said,

maybe Jack Kerouac. I said,

all of them wounded one-eyed Buddhas.

My belly was thirsty for repentance

so, I made a bourbon smoothie

and shared it with Jesus.

Asked him if he had any rules.

He said, just one: call me brother, not Lord.

Cucumber, mint, and kale

with a shot of Wild Turkey.

Forgive me, it was delicious.

A broken commandment is the open gate

to a deeper rule, unwritten,

harder to disobey.

The laws of the body lead

to the precepts of the soul.

Like the one that says, love anyway.

The one that says, make friends

with the brokenhearted.

The one that says, forgive yourself

again and again…. So I discover

the rules I cannot break

by breaking the ones

I can.

ALFRED LaMOTTE has authored four volumes of poetry with Saint Julian Press, including Strangers & Pilgrims, and co-authored three coffee-table art books with artist and earth-centered activist, Rashani Réa. With degrees from Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Fred has been an interfaith college chaplain, instructor in World Religion, and a meditation guide who loves to explore the liminal space between word and silence, poetry and meditation. He lives on the shore of the Salish Sea near Seattle WA with his wife Anna.


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