The Prophetic Vocation(s) of Julia Budenz
By Marion Torchia
Can a former Roman Catholic nun turned poet offer help to religious leaders struggling with such problems as the exhaustion of religious vocabulary, loss of belief in ancient doctrine and myth, failure of long-established religious institutions, hostility of secular materialists, and despair of individuals deprived of faith? Julia Budenz lived a quasi-monastic life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, supported herself primarily as a research assistant, and spent her creative life addressing these issues through the writing of a single 2,200-page poem. Reeling from her own religious trauma, she embarked on a highly individual intellectual and spiritual quest. Making selective use of the resources of the past, she formulated her own definition of what it means to be religious, and in the process produced some magnificent poetry.
The Gardens of Flora Baum, recently published in five volumes by Carpathia Press,1 chronicles the epic journey of Julia Budenz’s heroine, Flora Urania Baum, through the entire expanse of Greek, Roman, and later Western civilization in search of beauty, knowledge, rightness in human relations, and wholeness of life. The task of evaluating her contribution awaits us, but this will not be a simple undertaking.2 As the poet Frederick Turner wrote in his World Literature Today review of Budenz’s “masterwork,” not only is it “a work so enormous in size and meaning,” but “because the style, assumptions, aesthetics, and logic of the poem are so radically different from . . . our contemporary literary culture,” it may be that “the word ‘review’ is inadequate for what needs to be done at this point.”3
Turner goes on to suggest that this “newcomer” to the literary world “is in many ways a larger entity than the community itself,” and “it is the community that should be knocking on her door” rather than the other way around. He describes the vast scope and style of the work:
It may be the longest poem by any single author, rivaling Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. . . . Flora Baum encompasses many genres: lyrics, narratives, treatises, prayers, invocations, letters, riddles, birthday cards for the dead, autobiography, philosophical speculation, eulogies, diary entries, and many others; it contains many languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French, in all of which she was fluent. Its subjects range from the latest science to the most ancient history and mythology. She was a world traveler, in the flesh and in her imagination, and this poem is in many ways a world epic as well as one rooted in the tradition of Rome.
Turner and the Scottish poet Tessa Ransford are both awed by Budenz’s ability to work in the “hardest of all forms in English” (Turner)—the Petrarchan sonnet—and indeed, Budenz includes an entire sequence of them in the third book, which Ransford declares to be “this remarkable tour de force of sonnets.”4
These “review” essays begin to do the important work of describing and understanding Budenz’s accomplishment as a poet, and I hope there will be many more. However, I am more interested in Julia’s life story, and in how her sense of vocation changed, expanded, and challenged the way that institutions can limit us to prescribed paths. Though she had self-doubt and faced difficulties along the way, Julia’s life and work reveal someone who took her sense of vocation seriously.
I first knew Julia Budenz as mother Miriam Budenz, O.S.U. (Order of Saint Ursula). She was an instructor in classics at the College of New Rochelle in New York, and I was one of her students in 1962–63. I remember her as a brilliant scholar, but also as an engaging and enthusiastic young teacher, kind to us and tolerant of our ignorance. I met her again in Boston in 1967 or thereabouts, soon after she had left the convent and enrolled at Harvard as a graduate student in comparative literature, but we did not stay in touch.
Just this past year I learned that Julia had died and that her poem had been published. I bought the five-volume set partly out of curiosity and partly to see what insight it might offer about my own life trajectory. After all, Julia and I had gone to the same college. We had in common our choice of an esoteric academic discipline. We had both been deeply immersed in religion during the course of our Catholic schooling. And we had both left the Catholic Church, possibly the same year, 1965. I wanted to see how these common formative influences had played out in Julia’s life and poetry.
My initial reaction was one of appalled amazement at the poem’s length and vast scope. Why would someone try to write a single poem of such complexity? Why not just let one’s poetic message emerge over the course of a lifetime? The answer seems to be simply that she felt called to do so. The poem found her. The writing of it became her vocation. It became both the vehicle of her search and the documentation of its results. It was a spiritual autobiography, to be completed as Julia lived. But it is definitely not a raw diary; it has a complex circular and forward-moving structure planned out in advance. Nor is it primarily “confessional” poetry, though it does offer personal revelations about aspiration and failure. It is more like a modern-day Divine Comedy or Pilgrim’s Progress, showing us how a post-Christian heroine can find meaning in life.
Perhaps because our paths were parallel, I can best understand how the poem came to be by reference to Julia’s personal history, especially the events that led her into and eventually out of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Vocation,” of course, is a religious idea. According to Roman Catholic tradition, God has assigned everyone a special life-task. But he has favored some people by a vocation to the religious life. In the American Catholic social context of the 1950s, young women who announced that they had a vocation to become nuns were held in high esteem. The nuns who taught and recruited them celebrated the call. And good Catholic families, though they may have felt a daughter’s entering the convent as a loss, generally supported her decision and were proud to have a nun in the family.
However, Julia’s was not a typical Catholic family. Her father, Louis Budenz, had been a leading American Communist, editor of the Daily Worker. In about 1945 he had had a change of heart, and he and his family were converted to Catholicism by the charismatic Monsignor (later Bishop) Fulton J. Sheen. In the aftermath of his conversion, Budenz cooperated with the FBI and testified against his former comrades.5 He was praised by the notorious Communist-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and denounced accordingly by liberals.
Imagine, then, that Julia was initially raised as an atheist, but just as she came to early adolescence (at the age of eleven), she had her worldview redescribed for her. Under the circumstances, it would not be at all surprising if she found politics and current affairs uncongenial. She was of a naturally bookish disposition, and no doubt had always been surrounded by books and ideas. So, enrolled in a Catholic academy, she studied Latin and won prizes. She continued these studies at the College of New Rochelle, graduating summa cum laude in 1956.
Entering the convent at age twenty-two may have seemed a logical extension of this movement away from the family trauma and toward an intellectual life. In any case, Julia believed she had heard and responded to God’s call:
It was such a love
And it was such a choice
And such a being chosen.
(Bk. 5, pt. 2, 112)
She experienced the ecstasy of a religious experience:
I sleep, and my heart watches.
The voice of my beloved, behold he comes
This night, this hour.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Awake, yes, awake, O my soul, I will dress in the dawn.
Yes, arise, I will put on the sun.
I tremble. Yes. I will. I will don this day.
Your eyes are flames. And now
I come. And now I follow.
And now with all my heart I watch and listen and follow.
(Bk. 1, pt. 3, “The Candle,” 37)
Given the intensity of her experience, it is not surprising that an emotional letdown followed. Everyday life was gray, and worse, her religious colleagues were unsympathetic. In a piece titled “Criticism,” she recalls:
They wouldn’t let her say
That she had a soul.
They wouldn’t let her explain
What was caged behind bars
Of bones, within stones of flesh.
They didn’t like the song
That her soul was singing through the chinks,
Feeling the whitest fire
Of the bluest garden.
They didn’t want to hear
The loud beats of the wings of the swan
Splashing the green river of speech.
(Bk. 1, pt. 4, “Criticism,” 61)
Nevertheless, Julia stayed in the convent for nine years, from 1956 to 1965. She went through the entire induction process, which included a six- to twelve-month candidacy, a two-year novitiate, temporary profession, and final vows. During her first year as a novice, called the “canonical” year because it was required by canon law, she was cut off from the intellectual life of the outside world, forbidden even to listen to the radio or read a newspaper, so that she could focus entirely on theological studies.
Once she took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Julia was permanently cut off from property ownership, marriage, and the independent choice of a career. In addition, the Ursulines in the 1950s and early 1960s were a cloistered order. The nuns were free to interact with students on the campus where they taught, but could not go off campus without special permission. Julia knew all this, chose it, stuck with it through final vows—and then, almost immediately, realized that it was wrong for her. She documents this in verse:
Why only after I pronounced my vows
Forever did I know I would be wrong
To keep not to abandon them? The truth
Comes when it comes. . . .
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 162, 372)
I can speculate about what propelled her out of the convent. The Second Vatican Council, initiated by Pope John XXIII to bring the church more into tune with the modern world and its needs, was causing enormous disruption. The location of the altar was shifted forward so that the priest would face the people; Latin was replaced by the vernacular. Nuns were asked to adopt civilian dress. Naturally, many older nuns found these changes distressing; but what about young nuns like Julia? We who were her undergraduate students had certainly welcomed the breath of fresh air that seemed to be sweeping through the church. Did these changes come too slowly for her? Did the loss of the esthetic support of an ancient tradition cause her fragile faith to collapse? Or was it that she was reading more broadly and beginning to feel intellectually compromised?
Based on my recollections of the seminar I took with Julia, I would put the greatest weight on the intellectual impetus. Julia didn’t limit us only to a close reading of the Greek and Latin texts. She had us reading and discussing modern literary theory. She was already straining beyond the limits of a single academic discipline.
Of course, many priests and nuns leave the religious life without leaving the church. Often, they just decide that they are not suited to the life, or they may have quarrels with church institutions while retaining their religious faith. But Julia apparently experienced a deeper disillusionment. In 2006, she looked back on her time in the convent with horror, as “the darkness / Of the unreasoning of belief,” and as “the torture / Of the slaughtering of the self” (Bk. 5, pt. 2, 119). Although she continued to say that religion was very important to her (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 31, 207), she left the institutional church once and for all. She called herself an atheist, though she wondered what “atheism” meant and whether religion and atheism might coexist.6 Interestingly, her protagonist, Flora, attests to the essential continuity of Julia’s religious life after she left the convent: “Everything changed except what was everything, a secret depth and an aspiring height, vaguer but even greater, in desire and intention, if not, alas, in attention and execution, than all that preceded” (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 47, 236). When Julia finally left the convent in 1965, she had to reframe her life plan for herself. It must have been frightening to be thrown out into the world after so many years of seclusion, lacking an easily marketable profession. Though she had the beginnings of good scholarly credentials—a master’s degree in classics from Catholic University, a Harvard summer program on Greek tragedy, and several years of college teaching experience—still she faced an enormous adjustment.
She initially enrolled at New York University, and then in 1966 began a PhD program at Harvard in comparative literature. But she found herself being drawn to writing poetry, and she eventually terminated her academic studies at the master’s level, obtained a job assisting I. Bernard Cohen with his Isaac Newton project, and in 1969, at the age of thirty-five, began the poem that would be her life’s work.
Julia’s new vocation actually entailed three intertwined roles: scholar, mystic, and poet. She set herself the task of writing erudite poetry that would bear witness to transcendence. As Turner puts it, the point of her work seems to be “to live, not just advocate, the reincarnation of paradise into the world.” In Flora Baum, she sums up her multiple callings (she calls them “my religions”) in retrospect:
For ten years I knew nothing of religion.
I was still, on my tenth birthday, The Atheist.
At twelve I felt the stirring of my spirit
To hope, to strive, to pray, to be made The Mystic.
At thirty-one I confirmed myself as The Scholar.
At thirty-five I began to write The Poem.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
These are my religions.
I have not chosen them,
For they have chosen me. Should I not choose?
If I reject their choice, what do I lose?
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 33, 214)
Julia answers this last question for herself, writing that “To fail is not to do what one must do” (Bk. 5, pt. 2, 104). Even after leaving the convent and the church, she still felt she had a vocation, that it was religious in nature, and that she was compelled to answer the call. Yet, very likely, Julia “confirmed herself” as a scholar because, consciously or not, she felt she needed to equip herself with a new vocabulary and a new set of metaphors to replace the resources of Catholic theology, philosophy, and liturgy that she had just rejected. She naturally fell back on her resources from her study of Greco-Roman civilization. But just as she could not bear the restraints of the church, it seems that she found the traditional academic path to be constraining, as well (perhaps because it would not allow her mysticism to flourish?). She did not stop in a career in comparative literature, but instead began to write “The Poem.” True to form, she wouldn’t be constrained by any one time period; she felt free to traverse the entire range of Western literature, history, and mythology, and to use whatever she found however she pleased. It seems that poetry promised her the freedom to travel (intellectually and spiritually), to be the scholar and the mystic all at once.
Classical mythology offered significant advantages for Julia. Its cosmic orientation must have offered a welcome counterbalance to the introspective emphasis of Catholicism. The Greek and Roman divinities are forces of nature, and Julia loved nature, especially the sky, trees, and flowers. Multiple divinities offered flexibility: Julia was able to relate the old divinities to the new; she didn’t have to deny the validity of her earlier mystical experience in order to find new inspiration. As she describes it, she—or rather, her alter ego, Flora—had experienced successive, not contradictory, hierophanies, or appearances of the divine:
She wanted to tell her tale.
The sky spoke to her once and once the hammering Jehovah and once the sweet Jesus with sad brown eyes
And once the anointed victor, the living Christ, leaning from above the heavens, reaching to her with fire,
And Esse glistening crystalline far over sunrise and Scire like scarlet sunset around the bend
And once Zeus raining the golden petals with which she trembled,
And once she was shot up, up, and up the glimmering redwood,
And once she was caught in the lovely lingering tentacles of the elm.
(Bk. 2, pt. 1, “Hierophanies,” 71)
Interestingly, Scire (knowledge) lay “around the bend,” just out of reach. In the poem, Flora visits the Oracle at Delphi, to call on the god Apollo for insight about her vocation—
And begged the god: “What great thing shall I do?”
“Be your own prophet.” The answer shimmered in glare.
(Bk. 2, pt. 3, “Oracles,” 144)
This answer places the responsibility squarely back on Julia’s shoulders. The poet would have to figure out the message; she would have to instruct herself.
Classical literature also offered the theme of descent into the underworld. The epic heroes Odysseus and Aeneas had gone down to Hades to commune with their ancestors, to gain insight about their missions. Dante’s Divine Comedy expanded on the theme. Julia draws on this literary history. In Flora Baum, she envisions a sort of manhole, a “local municipal mundus” or opening leading to the underworld, located on the Harvard campus precisely between Harvard Hall, Hollis Hall, and Holden Chapel, through which she and nineteenth-century progressive thinkers, especially the feminist Margaret Fuller, could come and go (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 92, 299–301).7 In the poem, she and Margaret have an extended series of conversations, with more than three hundred entries (Bk. 5, pt. 3, sec. 1, “The Margaret-Ghost,” nos. 1–310). Julia saw Margaret as having lived a life eerily parallel to her own. She felt that Margaret’s calling, to work “as a woman / For woman and for women,” was similar to hers (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 62, 262).8 Julia had entered a religious order dedicated to the education of women. She also treasured her privilege of studying in Harvard’s libraries, a privilege Margaret was denied. Julia especially feared that Margaret’s tragic ending—she drowned and her last book was lost with her—might be repeated in her own life (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 212, 427).
Julia acknowledges that the Greek gods belong to a world long gone. The heroine, Flora, visits Greece. She holds the hands of “the dancing Attic ghosts,” and the divinities watched from their thrones—
Gazing till the scene became the sea.
The Attic ghosts all sank.
(Bk. 2, pt. 3, “Mneme,” 146)
Flora is left stumbling through the rubble, and Flora’s creator is left to explore the problem of how to make ancient intellectual resources relevant.
Turning to Rome for inspiration in Book 3, Flora examines the value of scholarship by means of a series of reflections about the politician-philosopher Cicero’s experiences in the civil war that led to Rome’s transition from republic to imperial rule. She tries to pin down the facts and at the same time decide what is worth studying. Her repeated refrain, with variations, is—
I don’t know, no, I do not know.
It seems so, yes, it does seem so.
How delicately, how deeply can I dig
In time’s soil with my ascertaining twig?
(Bk. 3, pt. 1, no. 11, “Entry,” 99)
Cicero backed the wrong side in the war and was banished from Rome. Julia is very concerned about what this kind of dislocation does to an individual’s or a social group’s sense of identity. Cicero complains to his friend:
Not just my possessions,
Not only my family and friends,
But my self.
(Bk. 3, pt. 1, no. 7, “Exile,” 35)
Julia’s heroine, Flora, is in a similar predicament. She’s lost somewhere in the country, perhaps on the West Coast of North America, literally in a fog. She feels bovine, as though she’s been turned into a cow. Traveling back in time, the poem relates a skewed version of the myth of Io, a princess who, much like Julia, was a precocious scholar and spent nine years in a convent, until Jove, the father of the gods, desired her beauty and his jealous wife, Juno, turned her into a heifer. Io had to wander over land and waters (giving her name to the Ionian Sea); eventually, as the story is told here, she found relief by appealing to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and patroness of scholars. The poem “Exile” concludes with Io’s affirmation, which
Julia and Flora presumably share:
A central self,
Is my desire.
(Bk. 3, pt. 1, no. 7, 63).
Similarly, Cicero and his friends recovered their identity with the help of the philosophical and literary works of their friend, the philosopher, linguist, and satirist Marcus Terentius Varro:
We were visitors, strangers, and lost
In our own city, Rome,
But your books brought us home,
And who and where we were we could tell at last—
As Cicero said, not of Caesar,
Of Varro, of the scholar.
(Bk. 3, pt. 1, no. 11, “Entry,” 88)
At the same time, the symbols of the Roman Catholic liturgy, so much a part of Julia’s life as a nun, remained readily available for her to use. She used them freely, connecting them with comparable symbols in classical mythology and in folklore, melding them all together and relating them to her own current experience. Her use of the symbolism of the color red illustrates this process.
Red is a multivalent symbol in the Roman Catholic liturgy, referring both to the blood of martyrs and the fire of witness, as exemplified in the flaming tongues of Pentecost. Another connection, with power, is superimposed on these meanings. The Romans had connected red with Mars, the god of war, with the army, and with power and authority in general. The Catholic Church adopted this connection by dressing the cardinals in red.
Red can also symbolize knowledge, as the red apple of the Garden of Eden is the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Perhaps for this reason, red is prominent in academic regalia.
A letter Julia wrote to Margaret Fuller from an Arlington, Massachusetts, rehabilitation hospital is dated June 29, the Roman Catholic feast day commemorating the martyrdom in Rome of Saints Peter and Paul, and contains an extended meditation on the fact that the priests wore red vestments on that day (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 61, 259–60). Julia draws these meanings of red together and adds several of her own. She reminds Margaret Fuller of the red of the road to Rome that she and Fuller traveled—the road traveled by the “crimsoned imperator.” She is reminded of the red brick of her apartment building, which houses her books and papers, and of the library she misses so much. She remarks that the red brick rehabilitation hospital, her current residence, has a guardian beech tree, which she thinks of as “gleaming with dark red leaves.” In this environment, she says, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil feeds me chiefly the knowledge of evil.”
The letter is a deeply personal, anguished meditation. She asks, “Does this feeling reveal the evil deep within me? Am I Eve?” She makes the connection between the tree of Eden and the cross of Calvary, between martyrdom and witness to the truth. She asks, “Does knowledge demand blood? Does knowledge produce fire? Must I be ready to bleed as a martyr? Will I be willing to flame as a witness?”
Here and elsewhere, Julia acknowledged that pedantry was a temptation for her. She was a natural-born scholar; she reveled in reading and research. But she recognized that nature was a source of knowledge as valuable as the library. In one poem, written on one of the three days of the year when, according to the ancients, the gates to the underworld are open, Flora expresses relief that the library (very likely Harvard’s Widener Library) was open and the system working, but also gratitude that even in November some leaves remained on the trees. She concludes:
I have rushed once again between this and that leaf
To gobble knowledge, never tasting truth.
(Bk. 5, pt. 1, “Diary of Flora Baum, November 8, Mundus patet,” 61)
Flora reports that Julia found the path to knowledge arduous and frustrating; it was at war in her heart with her appreciation of beauty—her mystical side. She described a “huge conflagration” in Julia’s heart, with two flames—one blue, one red. The blue flame, representing beauty, yielded serenity and was perpetually replenished. But the hunger for knowledge, represented by the red flame, was never to be satisfied. It was a goal which would be “yearningly, diligently, sought, searched for, over and over, which entices and excites, which eludes and evades, which is glimpsed and is grasped and is tasted and is dropped and is lost” (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 30, 205).
“Witness,” the opening poem of Book 1 of The Gardens of Flora Baum, is Julia’s manifesto. She announces that her vocation is to bear witness to the reality of the world beyond the everyday:
I don’t ask you to believe what I have seen.
I don’t believe it myself. I only see it,
And I tell you as a point of information.
There are some cracks in the world.
There are some windows in the sky.
(Bk. 1, pt. 1, “Witness,” 5)
She acknowledges that her mystical experience defies logic, but nevertheless has a validity that she wants to attest to. She is an unbeliever, a skeptic, but also a visionary. In spite of her skepticism, she heard the harps of heaven while admiring an oak tree.9
Nature became her sourcebook, mostly trees and flowers, illustrating universal aspects of reality. Elm trees appear again and again, showing her “the immense effort / Of motionless motion” (Bk. 2, pt. 1, “Cell,” 52), “Thrusting, groping, wrestling into the sky, / Pouring, prodding, probing into the ground” (Bk. 2, pt. 1, “Rotation,” 57).
In one poem, she concludes that the beauty of the flowers, with their gorgeous colors, can be a sufficient connection to transcendence. “It can if it must,” she says (Bk. 2, pt. 1, “Florale,” 25). In another poem, Flora announces that, in her role as Julia’s literary persona, she knows Julia as well as anyone can know someone else (including oneself). She reports that Julia has stopped suddenly to look at the first rose of the season:
What is that roundness and that brightness and that closed openness unfolding?
What is that scent that whispers in the air?
I think it is the message of life’s adventure, of a life’s venture,
I say it is the rose-colored message
Of the authentic thought of the rose’s smile
That is the smile of the rose, at the rose, with the rose.
There were dimensions and implications
And explications and exhalations.
There were depths penetrated, were profundities fathomed,
In a second of time,
In a glint of an eye,
In an intake of breath.
The poem concludes:
She [Julia] said: Julia does not matter.
She said: Only Flora matters—
Only Flora and the rident rose.
(Bk. 4, pt. 3, “Diary of Flora Baum, May 31, 2004,” 343–44)
Transcendence, then, means getting beyond the narrow concerns of self, losing oneself in what is important, acknowledging the mystery of all that is. It also means losing oneself in a creative project, the creation of Flora, the poem. This is how Julia saw her vocation as mystic.
In a 1997 article in Poetry Porch, Julia explained the poem’s rationale and organizational structure in some detail.10 The five books are five successive gardens, with the third garden taking central place. They are: 1) the garden of the holy, a “paradise lost” that draws on imagery from the Bible and liturgy; 2) the garden of the beautiful, “a paradise regained” that makes use of Greek literature, mythology, and geography; 3) the garden of the true, which emphasizes academic knowledge and is centered in Rome; 4) the garden of the good, based in the British Isles, which utilizes English and Scottish literature, folklore, and geography to talk about human relations; and finally, 5) the garden of the whole, a conclusive philosophical meditation, situated partly in America but also in Flora’s wider homeland, the earth and the universe. This last book, which Julia hoped to live long enough and become wise enough to write, would draw on the insights of social science and physical science as well as philosophy.
Julia also explained that the name of the protagonist, Flora Urania Baum, refers to flowers and trees, plus the additional imagery of the sky; that it also refers to the poem’s particularly fruitful linguistic sources, Greek, Latin, and Germanic; and, furthermore, that the heroine’s name in the pivotal third book takes the special form of Julia Flora of the Tiber, to indicate the centrality of Rome in the poem.
Turner, Ransford, and other reviewers also focus on the carefully conceived structure of Julia’s epic work. Turner describes the five books as being “organized both as a concentric or chiastic structure and as an ongoing journey or argument,” and Ransford calls the five books “poem-gardens” (though she points out that “they were not written and do not need to be read sequentially,” since “Time is kairos, the now-time, spiralling and patterned”).
Did Julia have a fully articulated theory of poetry? I leave the answer to this question to those qualified to discuss poetics. There are hints in her poem, however. She believed that poems, like gods and goddesses, exist in the “paracosm,” a parallel universe (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 283, 514), but the existence of a poem is somehow more necessary than that of gods and goddesses. Literary personalities like Flora and Margaret Fuller’s character Leila11 exist in a sacred space and time, and their existence is a hint of divinity (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 28, 201–202).
However Julia saw her specific task as a poet, she was plagued by doubt. She often asks anxious questions like, “And who are we who fill pages with words?” (Bk. 5, pt. 1, “Diary of Flora Baum, May 24,” 29). She calls herself a “poetaster,” a would-be poet (Bk. 5, pt. 2, 95). But in a more optimistic moment, she expresses the hope that—
Of that without and of that deep within,
My mouth and pen will make it all anew.
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 29, 203)
Later, in a letter to Margaret, she expresses—
My little tunes
Do not demean.
My rudest runes
Construct. They mean.
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 138, 348)
Flora, in a series of couplets addressed to Leila, asks questions that must torment every poet, about the worth of their enterprise:
Is it a way of thinking?
Is it a substitute for thinking?
Is it doing, creating, control, Apollo?
Is it helpless servitude to the Muse?
Is it the most serious, most liberating, commitment?
Is it the addiction to a game?
and so on, until finally Flora asks—
Is it the choice of life?
Is it the voice of death?
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 163, 373–74)
As it turned out, life caught up with the poem. Julia’s health failed in her last several years, and she died before she could bring the project to completion. Book 5 in particular does not fulfill her earlier expectations. Instead, it is the repository of Julia’s anguished questions about the value of her life and her poetry. It also contains grim documentation of her suffering, despair, and loneliness, and of the insults of being shuttled back and forth from hospital to nursing home. It lapses into prose as her ability to compose poetry gives way. And it contains an unforgettable prayer that reflects back on Jesus’s death on the cross:
Deus meus, quare me dereliquisti?
My God, is it that I abandoned you?
(Bk. 5, pt. 2, 76)
Still, in the poem she indicates that she found a solution to these vexing existential questions related to her concept of vocation. Her poem is a kind of offering to the universe. Even if it is valueless or meaningless on its own terms, and even if the universe to which it is offered is mindless, the poem has value because it is a gift:
Suddenly I seem to see it:
The poem must be the offering.
As once the self was sacrificed,
Was given, was devoted,
With joy and fervor to the Absolute,
So now the poem, the other self,
Is offered to what it may be offered to,
Even if this is an emptiness,
Even if this is the nothingness,
Even if the poem is null and void.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Here is a kind of meaning
Even in meaninglessness:
The poem as the gift,
The poem as the tribute
To the possibles,
Here to the slim green blade of grass,
There to the round orange ball of fruit,
There to the violet hour before the dark,
Here to the violet bloom beside the path
Of grayness to impossibility.
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 33, 211–12)
The argument within Julia continues, never to be completely settled. In a letter to Fuller in which she alludes to the latter’s drowning, Julia concludes that—
It is better to write
Than not to write
Even if the leaves go flying out into the whirlwind,
Even if the sheets sink sodden down underneath the waves
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 212, 427).
‘Paintings do not have conclusions’
It is too soon to judge Julia’s place in literary or religious history. However, we can certainly say that she participated in an important religious enterprise, one made necessary by strains within traditional Christianity. Having left the convent and her Catholic faith, she engaged in a lifelong struggle to create a new form of religion for herself, one that called on her to acknowledge the deep mystery at the core of reality, appreciate beauty and goodness, and live a life of integrity and dedication to the work she felt called to do. In her sense of religion, the power of language was key. Poetry was an important, or maybe the primary, vehicle of discovery. There is another message that may be of use to twenty-first-century religious leaders. Julia’s poem calls attention to the fact that Greek and Roman literature and history, and the folklore of northern Europe as well, offer valuable alternative religious resources, resources that have coexisted, albeit in a subsidiary or suppressed mode, right alongside Christianity for two millennia. Perhaps it is time to look with fresh eyes at the pagan religious resources of our ancestors.
The clarity of Julia’s voice, the unblinking way she looked at life, her ability to span the centuries in a scholarly effort, all these qualities make her poem worth reading. But what is most awe-inspiring to me is her tenacity, the faithfulness with which she fulfilled her vocation, in spite of her own skepticism and the suffering imposed on her at the end of her life. She continued writing her poem until just days before she died. At the end she was able to say—
This is a picture.
Paintings do not have conclusions.
I have watched five gardens wanting to bloom.
The tree is an epic without an end.
The beauty is breaking my heart.
(Bk. 5, pt. 7, no. 5, 583)12
- The individual titles of the five volumes are: Book 1, By the Tree of Life; Book 2, Towards a Greek Garden; Book 3, Rome; Book 4, Towards Farthest Thule; and Book 5, By the Tree of Knowledge.
- Julia’s personal papers are now held in Harvard’s Houghton Library, available for readers and researchers. See Julia Budenz papers, ca. 1960–2010. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library.
- Frederick Turner, “A Garden of Forking Paths,” World Literature Today, January 2014, www.worldliteraturetoday.org.
- Tessa Ransford, “Arborified,” Arion 20, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 164.
- He told his side of the story in Louis Francis Budenz, This Is My Story (McGraw-Hill, 1947). His wife also wrote a memoir: Margaret Rodgers Budenz, Streets (Our Sunday Visitor, 1979).
- She explicitly wonders this in verse: Flora asks: “. . . Will some reasoning show her how her religion can coexist, perhaps must coexist, with atheism? Or is this logic not necessary? Is it even logic? // The religiousness may be her self. Maybe her true self is that being which is both atheistic and religious.” (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 36, 221)
- In the wikipedia entry about the Roman goddess Ceres, under “The mundus of Ceres,” it states that the gates to the underworld were open on three days each year: August 24, October 5, and November 8.
- They had both embarked on their vocation near Fishkill Landing (now Beacon), New York. There, Margaret had devoted herself to writing her feminist manifesto, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published as a full-length book in 1845. And the Ursuline novitiate that Julia entered was also located in Beacon, New York.
- See “To Hear the Harps of Heaven,” in Bk. 2, pt. 1, 6.
- Julia Budenz, “Query Re One’s Work,” The Poetry Porch, 1997, pt. 3, Poetics, www.poetryporch.com/jbessay.html.
- Leila is a character in a story about female self-reliance and creativity first published by Margaret Fuller in 1841 in the transcendental journal The Dial; see arcadiasystems.org. Julia’s Flora is a similar character. In Book 5 of The Gardens of Flora Baum, Flora and Leila engage in worried conversations about Julia.
- Thanks are due to several friends of Julia’s for their helpful comments on drafts of this essay: Emily Lyle, Frederick Turner, Roger W. Sinnott, and Barbara F. McManus. Thanks also to Mary Freeman, Julia’s poet-friend, who shared her memories and showed me many of Julia’s letters. And finally, thanks to my teacher Kim Roberts; my college classmates Dana Greene, Jane Perkinson, and Nancy Shashaty; and my cousin Sister Barbara Lucas, O.S.F. (Order of Saint Francis), for their advice and encouragement.
Marion Torchia, a retired editor, lives in Rockville, Maryland. She is a member of the Unitarian Universalist denomination.