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Contemplation for the Unchurched:
Amanda Jernigan's Years, Months, and Days

Amanda Jernigan, Years, Months, and Days
Windsor: Biblioasis, 2018.

Amanda Jernigan’s small and beautiful book should be on your bedside table even if it is as heaped as mine. Just 4” by 5” and fewer than 70 pages, the book consists of untitled, spare, and simply-worded poems which evoke the cycles of life, the seasons, and human longing for meaning and connection. The poems expand in your head, opening your mind to matters beyond the day-to-day.

The title derives from gravestone inscriptions of an Old Order Mennonite cemetery. The inspiration for the text is a 180-year-old collection of still-earlier German hymns compiled for Ontario Old Order observers. Jernigan’s poems―“not translations so much as… meditations on the possibility of translation”―were written to accompany music composed during a multi-disciplinary retreat.

Jernigan, though she describes herself as “unchurched,” infuses her lines with the spiritual. In the first poem, in the section called “Prologue,” the poetic voice is not identified, but the poem echoes the “invocations” of my United Church youth, only flipped. Instead of congregants calling for God’s attention, it seems to be the reverse:

O you who know my will
but do not understand it
and must be driven still
in restlessness, or stranded,
your soul will not be still
until you are resigned
how gentle is your friend
and kind.

The next three sections, named after the elements of the title, contemplate the cycles of life: “Years”―life and death; “Months”―seasons of growth and decay in a rural community; and “Days”―night and day, joy and sorrow. The following poem illustrates Jernigan’s ability to create intimacy out of an idea as big as the continuity of human life: “Death we inherit, / one from another, / so we pass on, / one to another.”

In many of the poems, Jernigan makes use of repetition, regular metre, and rhyme, recalling traditional hymns. Several poems are left without opening capitals or final periods. These “fragments,” the poet notes, are intended to “loop” like their musical accompaniment. The loops and repetition embody the cycles Jernigan captures in her lines. The work mostly avoids direct reference to Christian language and symbols, which allows the words to move secular readers. For example, in the following poem, “the little child” could refer to a Christ figure or to one’s own childlike innocence:

Day breaks, arise,
the morning star
will guide us now:
awake, my soul,
and do not stop
until you find
the little child.

In Jernigan’s notes about the work, she recounts her hesitancy in attempting translations from another language, culture, and religious sensibility. She asks, “What can be carried across the boundary between languages?” By the evidence of her work, the answer is, “much.” These intense but graceful poems express her connection to the original texts, the people they nourished, and the landscape which helped to shape them. I will revisit them as sparks to contemplation.