Desert Saint

Poet Jane Candia Coleman divines the spirit of a famed Jesuit missionary

Eusebio Kino was an Italian Catholic priest who arrived in Mexico in 1681 and founded the Southwest mission of San Xavier del Bac (White Dove) near Tucson, among other missions. A soul forged in the Age of Enlightenment, Kino wore several hats: mathematician, mapmaker, adventurer, astronomer, architect, horse breeder.

But his legacy is a progressive one, for even as he introduced Christianity to what was then still deemed the New World, he also supported the indigenous people in conflict with their Spanish employers at the silver mines. Kino cemented relationships between the natives and Western representatives at a time when such negotiations were not well-regarded by the church.

In other words, Kino was a refined individual thrust into a harsh landscape. He was a dove of peace in violent surroundings, and his story is one that has been told before. Now, a poet takes a turn at rendering Kino's experiences in verse with the publication of The White Dove: A Celebration of Father Kino. Produced by Wyoming's High Plains Press, The White Dove offers a message of empathy at a time when understanding and respect for others--at least on a geopolitical scale--has bottomed out. Jane Candia Coleman is a gifted poet who penetrates the mysterious heart of a man many are still eager to canonize.

Coleman divides her book into three sections. The first consists of Kino's lyrical meditations in the years (1678-1685) during which the missionary undertook his journey. The book's hello is also a goodbye, titled "Farewell," with Kino giving a last backward glance to his home in Genoa:

A tree ripped from its earth
cries out, as does a child
taken from its mother.
Europe recedes
behind a curtain of cloud,
and with it youth,
my mother's face wash in tears.

This metaphor of Kino being born anew by his voyage is powerful, but Coleman isn't content to let such symbolism carry the book forward. She goes so far as to illustrate the limbo status of the young priest after his ship, the Capitana, arrives in Cadiz, Spain, too late, causing him to miss the Spanish fleet bound for Mexico. He waited two years for another departure, fashioning sundials out of boredom. The poem is called "Sundial":

So my hands labor
while intellect mocks
Earth turns, spinning.
The sun's immovable.

The reference to Galileo's Copernican theory--the Earth revolving around the sun--is pure heresy, of course, and would have made Kino subject to the Inquisition. But when you're stuck delivering babies in Seville, waiting for a boat to carry you into to the wilderness, your faith in certain concepts and institutions may wane a bit.

Part Two covers the years during which Kino acclimates. He is forced to confront "barbarians" that martyr a fellow priest at a neighboring mission, burning everything. The poem is called "On Martyrdom," and in it, Kino learns the truth of "charred bones pierced by arrows, / the ecstasy, if ecstasy was there." In other words, there is no pleasure in obliteration--just more death and destruction. This is the section that tests and reinforces Kino's faith in God, man and himself.

Part Three depicts Kino settling into his role as the "Padre on Horseback," a man now capable of finding joy and beauty in an inhospitable terrain. Whereas he once struggled with boredom, he encounters blessings including a "flight of butterflies, / noiseless as light striking / the league-long cloud." Kino's transformation from ambitious young European priest to wisdom-filled, nature-loving Jesuit is complete, and Coleman's creative tribute is as fitting as it is unforgettable.

The White Dove soars in its effort to commemorate a complex missionary who was as much a part of the church as he was outside of it, intellectually and physically. Although Coleman's take on Kino is supported by much of the written record, it requires a leap of faith for the reader to accept the idea that Kino underwent such a dramatic change in his spiritual design. However, the poet's words are so well-chosen, her poems so well-crafted, that the leap is easy. The White Dove is an absorbing account of one of the Southwest's crucial figures.

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