Praise for Mary Dyer’s Hymn and Other Quaker Poems

This, for me, is Stanford Searl at his strongest, blending the themes of space, place, and memory, with the theme of Mary Dyer’s martyrdom, part of his faith heritage. The collection is poignant and lyrical and yet also apocalyptic in the ways it continually lifts the veil and pulls it aside to reveal another layer of a still more subtle sensibility. This is a collection that for all the Quaker silent prayer is musical and melodic in the way it calls to us. Searl engages past and present, roots and routes, to offer us fresh visions of how we can relate to the confusion of the human condition in our everyday context.

—Ben Pink Dandelion, Professor of Quaker Studies, Woodnrooke

Stanford Searl’s tender, lyrical poetry leads us into a past time, arrested, yet brought to life, with mystery and nuance. The harsh receptivity of the Northeast Colonies to anyone not Puritan is laid bare, accompanied by strains of music, sounds of the living marshes, prophecies of my ancient Quaker Mothers of Israel. These courageous souls, neither male nor female in Christ, faithful in the face of hideous persecution challenge my complacency and sometimes tepid engagement with the Spirit. The cruel realities of that fear driven time and place, sadly familiar to our condition today, are juxtaposed with the messages of God’s sure presence. The compelling narrative contained in this delicate collection leaves me buoyed up and inspired by the joy and certitude to which these early Friends gave witness. “I am already in Paradise.”

—Deborah L. Shaw, Recorded Minister, Director Emeritus of Guilford College’s Quaker Leadership Scholars Program

Stanford Searl’s Mary Dyer’s Hymn and Other Quaker Poems weaves a fascinating, expressive account that is representative of the ill-fated history of the Quakers in the United States. The verses particularly focus on the Quaker experiences of those living in and around Boston, Massachusetts.

So often, the serenity and faithfulness of the Quaker community are brought to the forefront, with many other details falling by the wayside. Searl expands on this often romanticized past through the use of graphic, sympathetic language to convey a history filled with persecution and suffering. For instance, in an excerpt from one piece Searl vividly expresses, “Sanctified by God and the New Testament / righteous Puritans came to kill and destroy / purging the bodies and souls of Narragansetts, / burning an entire Pequot village, / stripping, whipping and hanging Quakers, / scourging the Massachusetts wilderness / of native people as if they were wolves, / exterminated for bounty.” Through passages such as this, readers obtain a much more informed and accurate summary of the history of the Quaker community. Moreover, Searl pairs his verses with several quotes by other individuals, including writers and musicians, that compliment the tone and intention of Mary Dyer’s Hymn and Other Quaker Poems.

Piece after piece, Stanford Searl’s words move beyond striking and commanding to truly capture the strength of a community of people. From thoughtful and genuine to poignant and authoritative, the verses in Mary Dyer’s Hymn and Other Quaker Poems convey a world and history so often overlooked and concealed from the secular world. Readers will walk away with a far more comprehensive and edifying understanding of the Quaker community in Massachusetts.

In various sections Searl shares explanatory insights that enlighten those unfamiliar with Quaker customs and behaviors. For instance, Searl states, “Because Quakers typically don’t sing / at all it may seem absurd / that I, a Quaker poet, / search for suitable tunes.” These subtle tidbits of information provide invaluable insights into a predominately private community.

The accessibility of the material makes it ideal reading for all age groups, although the violent context encourages educated guidance for younger readers seeking to sincerely grasp the information presented. Moreover, those relatively uninformed as to the history of Quakers in the United States will appreciate the instructive, fluent approach Searl applies. Those well-informed about Quaker history will equally appreciate Searl’s work for the insight and care with which the author addresses prominent Quaker leaders such as William Robinson and Colonel Shaw.

Stanford Searl’s thoughtful and candid representations throughout the work earn this piece a resounding 4 stars. Readers will enthusiastically proclaim the wealth of material shared within Mary Dyer’s Hymn and Other Quaker Poems and eagerly anticipate Stanford Searl’s next work.

—Reviewed by Jessica Tingling

In this book, Stanford Searl writes about four Quaker martyrs who were hanged in 1659 and 1660. He also writes about their persecutors, others from that time, his New England ancestor Richard Waterman who lived at that time, and how their lives affect him.

Many of the poems in this book show how much New England officials of the 1600’s hated Quakers because of their beliefs. They banished, slandered, mutilated and tortured them. Massachusetts judges called Quakers “parasitic weeds that choked healthy herbs and scrubs,” accused them of burning Bibles, and declared that they were “Possessed by Satan as with the Indians.” Massachusetts officials chopped off the ears of some Quakers and whipped others. After they were whipped, some

Condemned Quakers wrapped
their flayed skin in blankets,
flies and mosquitos swarm,…

Images such as these make the suffering of early Quakers vivid. The poems also describe the Quakers’ responses. For example, Searl imagines the thoughts and feelings of Mary Dyer as she is about to be hanged. She feels both happy,
emanating Joy as the Lord wills
and vengeful,
Hell and blood be done, oh tyrant Boston,
strip these my veins.
His plague be upon you,
all present here at these gallows.

But all the poems aren’t about Quaker martyrs and the people that oppressed them. Searl also writes about his ancestor, Richard Waterman. These poems show an almost psychic connection between the two.

Through dreams and hallucination
I dropped into this world of the 1630’s Massachusetts Bay Colony
And eavesdropped on grandfather Waterman…

Most of the book is about the 1600’s but it starts and ends more or less in the present. The first poem is about Searl walking in the sand near the Shelter Island Quaker Monument, where

Memory pulses through the granite slab

as he presses potting soil around the roses that circle it. The book ends with a poem about the Massachusetts Statehouse statue of Mary Dyer speaking across Boston Common to a stone monument of a civil war regiment.

I was engrossed by the world described in this book. I love history, but this book is personally meaningful in a way that I don’t find in nonfiction–maybe because it goes so deeply into its characters’ psyches and spiritual lives. Searl writes about the way their lives resonate with his—how immersing himself in them both stirred up spiritual confusion,

I am lost in this language of Man Christ and indwelling God
and also led to a spiritual yearning,
Why can’t I join these 17th century prophets
and be penetrated by the Inward Christ?

But overall, what is most striking about these poems is the way they make me feel that I am there, beside Searl and the women and men he writes about—able to catch a glimpse their hearts and experience some of their world.

—Reviewed by Donald W. McCormick

As ever, Stan’s poems are a glory, a pleasure, and an incantation, whether he hymns to the glory of God or records a man’s heartfelt, sometimes agonizing love for his child. This volume, however, is a history lesson as well. The benign version of the Puritans some of us learned of in childhood is overwhelmed by facts as we see them hang Mary Dyer and drive colonists and Native Americans to their deaths. His sources provide a choice setting for his poems, and having looked online for further pictures of the historical places he mentions, I now have pictures of the Shelter Island Quaker Monument, of his 9th grandfather’s grave, of Mary Dyer’s statue at the Massachusetts State House peppering my walls, and a stack of articles on these historical people I’m looking forward to reading. He has graced history with a rich voice, bringing the dead to life, and their voices—and strong and plangent. We are lucky to be able to eavesdrop.

—Reviewed by Anita Hemphill McCormick

Mary Dyer’s Hymn and other Quaker Poems
By Stanford Searl
Star Rating: 5 / 5

The first (and for years only) mention I heard of Quakers was in elementary school history classes. They came up during the section on the American colonies—partly as a bit of flavor to show the different sorts of people who lived there. To tell the truth, we didn’t learn much: the Puritans weren’t fond of them, to say the least, and they were pacifists. Part of why we didn’t learn much was likely that we didn’t have time. We often didn’t even have time to get past World War II before the end of the year. Even so, I fell quietly in love with the Quakers and always wanted to know more about them.

Years later, Mary Dyer’s Hymn dropped into my inbox. I spent a whole day with it, and I was far from disappointed.

This short collection contains twenty-three poems, each lovingly crafted. Throughout, you can feel the affection Searl has for his spiritual forebears and even those who were not fascinated by the Quakers of old as I was will find themselves stirred. The poems are short—few are longer than a page—and simple, mostly composed of unrhyming quatrains. Their length makes them flow almost like a song, particularly the eponymous “Mary Dyer’s Hymn.” Others, such as “Isaac Penington’s Peace,” are much shorter, but no less powerful for their brevity. “Isaac Penington’s Peace” and “Passageways” both took my breath away with their skillful use of repetition, and the short space makes the repetition all the more powerful.

Searl’s skill shines throughout the collection. He never once attempts to show off, either, which, in my opinion, only makes the poems more powerful. I’ve read many collections where the poet attempts to demonstrate his skill, and while that can produce works of incredible beauty, just as often something fails and a poem comes across as pretentious or pointless. This collection never falls into that trap. The devotion isn’t to the reader or to the poet’s own ego. Instead, Searl devotes himself to the subjects of the poems, to Mary Dyer, and to every other martyr who died before their time for a faith that still lives today. It isn’t just a collection of poetry; it’s a love letter.

While I know people interested in history and poetry would enjoy the book, I don’t want to recommend it to a narrow group. I think just about anyone would enjoy it, and it might spark fresh appreciation for a group of people so often placed on the sidelines of history.

—Reviewed by Jo Niederhoff