Powers, Jessica

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Religious name: Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit; American poet and Carmelite nun; b. Cat Tail Valley, Wisconsin, Feb. 7, 1905; d. Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Aug. 18, 1988. Jessica Powers grew up in a small farming community near Mauston, Wisconsin. The grandchild of pioneers, she counted the Scottish poet Robert Burns among her ancestors. Catholicism, nature (especially winter), and death are major themes in her lyric poetry. Her formal education ended after one semester at Marquette University's School of Journalism (192223). For the next few years she worked in Chicago in a secretarial pool while nurturing her inner work of poetry. Her poems regularly appeared in newspapers, journals, and anthologies. However, when symptoms of tuberculosis appeared, she returned to Cat Tail Valley.

After her mother's sudden death in 1925, Powers gave up her dream of living and writing in New York in order to help her brothers with the farm. It was during the "farm years" she first read the poetry of john of the cross, to whom she has been compared. Her brothers eventually married, and in 1937 she felt free to go to New York, where she was active in the Catholic Poetry Society. There she met Clifford Laube, a New York Times editor. Laube had his own publishing company, Monastine Press (after SS. Monica and Augustine) in the basement of his home. In 1939 he published her first volume of poems, The Lantern Burns.

As her poetic work was becoming recognized, Powers abruptly left New York in 1941 to enter the new Mother of God Carmelite monastery in Wisconsin. She lived there for the remaining 47 years of her life, exploring the secrets of the soul in prayer and poetry. Her largest collection, the Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, was published posthumously in 1989. Her papers are in the Marquette University archives.

Bibliography: m. kappes, Track of the Mystic: Carmelite Influence on the American Poet Jessica Powers (Kansas City 1994). d. r. leckey, Winter Music: A Life of Jessica PowersPoet, Nun, Woman of the 20th Century (Kansas City 1992). r. morneau, Mantras From A Poet (Kansas City 1991). j. powers, Mountain Sparrow (Reno Carmel 1972) illustrated by Sr. Marie Celeste, OCD; Journey to Bethlehem (Pewaukee Carmel 1980); The House at Rest (Pewaukee Carmel 1984); Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers (Kansas City 1989; includes bibliography of secondary sources).

[d. r. leckey]

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