Hannah Overton’s letters from prison are rich with spiritual reflections. They are “unvarnished,” both in style and in content: Hannah has raw realities to relate, and equally raw determination to forgive her enemies and carry the Gospel wherever God leads her. The value of the letters is overwhelmingly spiritual instead of literary. But Hannah does pepper the letters with literary images drawn from the Old and New Testaments, especially the psalms and the prophets. There is poetic material waiting to be used.
For months now I’ve been trying to convert one or two of her letters into poems. The idea is to preserve the meaning of each letter and even Hannah’s own metaphors where I can, while capturing the controlling thought or emotion in sonnet form. The sonnet requires a great deal of discipline. It gives a poet only 14 lines to work with, all in strict iambic pentameter, end rhymes to work out, and a closing couplet to sum it all up. I admit to playing a little fast and loose with the rhyme schemes (as you’ll see below). But the discipline of the sonnet form seems right to me. What about Hannah’s ordeal has not been a matter of discipline, physical and spiritual?
The following poem is adapted from one of Hannah’s first letters, way back in 2007. The letter is about the impending Christmas season and Hannah’s emotional struggle at being away from home. Hannah uses the imagery of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness–imagery which fits very well with the fasting season of Advent, though Hannah is not from a tradition that observes Advent as such. Hannah’s letter also talks about the struggle to live daily by faith, even when God never seems to provide more than is just enough to get through each day.
I want to start by thanking you, my friends,
For holding up my spirit, like the hands
Of Moses in the hostile wilderness.
I ask your prayers. The Advent emptiness,
The dearth of all things dear to me, begins;
And like the Hebrews on the endless sands,
I wander seeking grace; I seek the face
Of Him who holds the stars, but bids me walk
Through deserts for the sight of promised lands.
And these he does not give me yet. Instead
I live by what I know not how to speak:
A manna measured slowly, rationed bread,
A food of faith, a food never replete,
But fallen new each morning at my feet.