Natural inspiration

In “Tracing Thin Places,” her new book of poetry, Alice Feeley revisits Block Island as muse and measures the distance between “what’s there and yet to come.”

Long before Block Island became a part of her, poet Alice Feeley was a part of it.

Growing up in Brooklyn — where reading and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s cherry blossoms were favorites — Feeley listened to stories of her great aunt Emma, a high school administrator, visiting the resort island, located 14 miles east of Montauk Point, Long Island, and 13 miles south of Rhode Island. Hearing about Emma’s sojourns there was as far as it went, however. “I never got there,” she says.

That would come later. Twenty-five years ago, Feeley, a member of the Sisters of the Divine Compassion, took a summer boat trip to the island from Montauk, which is not far from where the sisters have a small house in Hampton Bays. 

“It was a magnificent day,” the Dobbs Ferry resident recalls. “The shoreline was breathtaking.”

For Feeley, though, Block Island would prove to be no mere summer resort but a place for all seasons — thanks to her friends Dr. Mark Clark, director of The Block Island Medical Center; and Michael Chapman, a visual artist who also lives and works there. They encouraged her to think of the island as a writer’s retreat. Several winters ago, she took a ferry there from Point Judith in Narragansett, Rhode Island. She remembers the sun setting on one side of the ferry and the moon rising on the other. Between sunset and moonrise — that razor’s edge between present and future — she discovered, is where life is lived.

It’s a theme she explores in “Watch the Gaps,” the last poem in her new collection of poetry, “Tracing Thin Places” (Lulu Press, $25.80, 73 pages), which takes its title, Feeley says, from the Celtic idea of rending the veil between heaven and earth, between our physical and spiritual selves.

“A lot of it was inspired by Block Island but not all of it,” she says.

There’s no question, however, that the island serves as a muse. There she records images in words that she later laces together with others to create poems. Like many writers, Feeley is particularly sensitive to images — and particularly good at capturing the visual in the verbal. Some of “Places’” poems are ekphrastic, that is, based on artworks. “Noticing ‘Winter’” considers Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture “Winter” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art — and the fear within us that art can conjure — while “Anna” offers reflections on gratitude and hope filtered through Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting “Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus.”

Other works are directly inspired by nature and the seasons, which became the framework for the poems and Chapman’s accompanying photographs and design, though some of the photos — like the shot of Feeley’s beloved cherry blossoms across the page from the poem “Time in Spring” — were taken by the poet herself.

There is a tranquility to this book, as if you were there with Feeley and company, hearing the lap of the waves, scenting the tang of the air and feeling the sun on your skin. It is a vacation, a journey, of the mind that grew out of Feeley’s long career as a teacher, administrator and counselor. After graduating from Good Counsel College in White Plains, where she majored in English, she entered the convent — a vocation that had been developing over a period of time — and taught first grade at Sacred Heart School in Hartsdale before moving on to Preston High School in the Bronx. 

I first encountered her in my junior year at the Academy of Our Lady of Good Counsel in the 1970s when she taught me not only literature and writing but compassion. I’ll never forget her kindness to me when my maternal grandfather died during end-of-the-school-year exams. She made a difficult time easier.

Feeley would tap that compassion in a number of counseling roles, including as director of Pace University’s CLOUT program, in which she helped young women raising children on public assistance hone their employment skills. She also served four terms as president of the order’s Leadership Team.

But something was missing — a particular kind of contemplation and creativity that writing marries and that would be filled by poetry.

Feeley describes herself as a slow writer, preferring to write in the morning. That’s not always possible. She remains on the Leadership Team and serves as a spiritual director. Recently, Feeley, Greenburgh’s onetime poet laureate, has been doing some readings, including with The Poetry Caravan in Westchester County. But she is still that woman who took the ferry to Block Island several winters ago and now invites you to:

Let your eyes stretch your soul
From west to east, sea to sky and behold
Sunset purpling rose and gold
As platinum moon hangs its light on
spreading indigo.
In the gaps
Trace what’s there and yet to come.”

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