This lovely book by Regina Walton, which Paraclete Press kindly sent me to review, won the first Phyllis Tickle Prize in Poetry and no wonder!
Christian poets, poetry students, and all lovers of poetry won’t want to miss this highly recommended anthology by Paraclete Press.
Edited by Edward Hirsch, this year’s edition of The Best American Poetry, 2016, astronomically abounds with rising stars and a constellation of brilliant poets.
Remembering Softly: a life in poems
Review of poetry book by Catherine Lawton
In the book, Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All, which was kindly sent to me to review, the poet-author-teacher Charlotte Digregorio conversationally discusses these two favored forms as one who avidly reads, writes, and teaches other poets and poetry students.
In the new poetry book True, False, None of the Above, which Cascade Books kindly sent me to review, poet-author Marjorie Maddox shows how literature opens doors into people and worlds unlike our own, helping us to emphasize with others and better understand them, ourselves, our faith, and the type of literature we would like to write.
In his home country of Brazil, Carlos Drummond de Andrade was considered a great poet in his own lifetime (1902-1987) with his poems going beyond borders, thanks first to John Nist then such well-known American poets as Elizabeth Bishop and, later, Mark Strand, who translated his work from Portuguese into English. Now, Richard Zenith has translated poems in a new bilingual edition Multitudinous Heart, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, who kindly sent me a copy to review for which I’m grateful. Without this highly recommended book, I might never have discovered a new-for-me poet whose work I look forward to experiencing and reading again.
Zenith’s Introduction presents a brief biography of this fascinating poet, who, as a child of 10 or so, begged his father for a 24-volume set of Western literature to study, “beginning with Homer, as well as many selections from nineteenth-century British and American authors now more or less forgotten. This hodgepodge of poetry, essays, fiction, and theater became the literary foundation for the little boy,” whose readings as an adult “would continue to be a mixed bag of irreproachable classics and recent literature of uneven quality.”
Reading those words from the Introduction made me wonder if a poet’s academic study of literature today has been impoverished by a lack of poorly written poems and stories! Conversely, a self-taught poet, such as Carlos who initiated his own studies at an early age, might be apt to come up with an eclectic mix of writings, whose inconsistencies could help a poet discern the characteristics of well-written works on one hand and provide a list of “Things Not To Do” on the other.
No doubt Carlos’ background as a lifelong lover of literature and his adult employment as a government bureaucrat helped to shape his view of himself and the world as revealed, for example, in the opening piece entitled “Seven-Sided Poem.”
“When I was born, one of those twisted
angels who live in the shadows said:
‘Carlos, get ready to be a misfit in life!’”
The poem “Elegy 1938” gives us another glimpse of that ongoing push-pull between a literary life and the everydayness of the working world, beginning with “You work without joy for a worn-out world/ whose forms and actions set no example.”
Then midway in the poem, these sad but insightful lines appear:
“You love the night for its power to annihilate
and you know, when you sleep, the problems stop requiring you to die.
But you fatally wake up to the Great Machine existing,
and once more you stand, minuscule, next to inscrutable palms.
“You walk among dead people and with them you talk
about things of the future and matters of the spirit.
Literature has ruined your best hours of love.”
The intrusion of literary arts goes “Hand In Hand” with the resolutions put forth in these lines:
“I won’t be the singer of some woman, some tale.
I won’t evoke the sighs at dusk, the scene outside the window.
I won’t distribute drugs or suicide letters.
I won’t flee to the islands or be carried off by seraphim.
Time is my matter, present time, present people,
the present life.”
That life spent “In Search Of Poetry” finds what works in poems and what does not. For example:
“Don’t write poems about what happened.
Birth and death don’t exist for poetry.”
Also, “In Search Of Poetry”
“Don’t sing about your city, leave it in peace.
Poetry’s song is not the clacking of machines or the secrets of houses.
It’s not music heard in passing, nor the rumble of ocean on streets
near the breaking foam.
Its song is not nature
or humans in society.
Rain and night, fatigue and hope, mean nothing to it.
Poetry (don’t extract poetry from things)
elides subject and object.”
Despite the negatives “In Search Of Poetry,” the poem “I’m Making A Song” acknowledges that…
“My life, our lives,
form a single diamond.
I’ve learned new words
and made others more beautiful.”
The title poem “Multitudinous Heart” also reflects the connections poetry brings to us through other people or places, for instance, where
“The sea was beating in my chest, no longer against the wharf.
The street ended, where did the trees go? the city is me
the city is me
I am the city
Connecting the self with the city hints at the “Truth” found in the poem by that name:
“The door of truth was open
but would only let in half
a person at a time.
And so it wasn’t possible to have the whole truth,
since the half person who entered
returned with the picture of a half truth.
And the person’s other half
likewise brought back a half picture.
And the two halves didn’t line up.”
We need our full selves and one another to see a whole truth, which, like any subject for poetry, often eludes us. Therefore, “Truth” tells:
“…. And so each person chose
according to his whim, his illusion, his myopia.”
The truth in that statement gives us a subtle truth about poetry in general as we search for ways to encounter new experiences through the written word while connecting our own experiences with ones richly provided in insightful poems such as these.
©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes (for children) and Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books.
Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems, hardcover
Scott Cairns collected his poems in a new book entitled Slow Pilgrim, which recollects his pilgrimage as a Christian in many of the poems.
Using the concept he refers to as “sacramental poetics,” Cairns brings together theology and poetry as did poets of the past, who saw this connectedness in the “Logos.” Indeed, as the Introduction to the book reminds us, “The Greek word for ‘word’ is logos, familiar to us from the opening of the Gospel of St. John. But Cairns believes that in modern Western thought logos has too often reduced ‘word’ to disembodied abstraction. He prefers the Hebrew word davar, which means both word and thing – and even, as he notes, a power.”
And “yet one of the key milestones along his pilgrimage has been his embrace of the Orthodox tradition of ‘apophatic’ theology, which is an expression of humility before the inadequacy of language.” This apophatic theology helps us to know God by stating Who or What God is not, rather than Who or What God is. For example, when we say God is immortal, we’re saying God does not die. Or if we call God a Spirit, we’re saying God isn’t confined to a physical form as we are. Or if we say God is truth, we’re saying God does not lie.
Often Christian poets and writers rely on metaphor or analogy to equate God with this or that. Or perhaps we present a particular point-of-view or communicate an experience. Conversely, Cairns’ pilgrimage is more inclined to take us from communication into communion, slowing us down, so we can listen between the lines and hear the silence that arises into worship or poetry.
This is not, however, a devotional book, nor collection of inspirational writings. As the Introduction tells us, these “poems address us in our quotidian experience of life: they are best experienced in an armchair, not in church.”
For example, “Taking Off Our Clothes” strips us down to our real selves where:
“We’d talk about real things, casually
and easily taking off our clothes. We would be
naked and would hold onto each other a long time,
saying things that would make us
grin. We’d laugh off and on, all the time
unconcerned with things like breath, or salty
skin, or the way our gums show when we really
smile big. After a while, I’d get you a glass of water.”
This use of the visible, the tangible rather than the abstract, calls us to recognizable truths, such as how getting real with ourselves and each other makes us feel naked. In these times of vulnerability, we might do nothing more God-like than bringing each other a cup of cool water in Christ’s name.
Since the poem just quoted in part comes at the beginning of the book, readers will know upfront not to expect anything sentimental or puritanical. Having squirmed through too many of the latter types of poems or flat statements of belief or long-winded diatribes, a subtle invitation to find God among real people in real life can, itself, be as refreshing as that glass of water.
This time I knew to expect such an approach as the publisher, Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a review copy, had done the same last year for Cairns’ book, Idiot Psalms. However, to claim familiarity with the work of this respected poet would be misleading as I suspect I’ll never fully catch what’s compressed into each poem.
Sometimes this slowness to comprehend occurs because of differences in male and female perspectives but also because of the poet’s artistry in drawing negative spaces that may or may not be filled with God’s invisible presence. That said, Cairns can use metaphor well when he wants to as shown in the poem “4. Mortal Dream” where “It is not a very clean city, even the air has fingerprints.”
For the most part, though, I found the poems accessible and occasionally amusing. For example, “5. My Imitation” begins:
“I sold my possessions, even the colorful pencils.
I gave all my money to the dull. I gave my poverty
to the president. I became a child again, naked
and relatively innocent. I let the president have my guilt.”
But what seems to be humorous turns into a common union with Christ as the poem continues:
“I found a virgin and asked her to be my mother.
She held me very sweetly.”
“I rose again, bloodless and feeling pretty good.
I forgave everything.”
Unlike the sweet greeting card verses that assure us all is well even when it isn’t, I’m more attuned to the hope we have in Christ when reading such lines as: “And still I have suffered/ an acute lack of despair.” Yes! How true!
Besides our lack of despair, aren’t we all archaeologists? As shown in “Archaeology: A Subsequent Lecture,” we see:
“…the pleasure lies
in fingering loose ends toward likely shape,
actually making something of these bits
of persons, places, things one finds once one
commences late interrogation
of undervalued, overlooked terrain –
what we in the business like to call the dig.”
In addition to digging through our collective or individual past, these poems give us a new take on familiar Bible stories such as told in the poem “The Entrance of Sin.” In its departure from the Genesis 3 story, the second paragraph of this prose poem offers a prior scenario:
“For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.”
I love that a man wrote those lines! And I welcomed the insight into relationships today. I also enjoyed the dry humor, as in “Possible Answers To Prayer,” where:
“Your petitions – though they continue to bear
just the one signature – have been duly recorded.”
Then these exquisite lines in “I. Nativity” give us a glimpse of that biblical scene as told from the perspective of a man gazing on a woman beloved:
“As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend
the tiny God is wrapped
in something more than swaddle. The God
is tightly bound within
His blessed mother’s gaze….”
The poem continues:
the famous star is all
but out of sight by now; yet, even so,
it aims a single ray
directing our slow pilgrims to the core
where all the journeys meet,
appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,
where crouched among these other
lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers
receive that creatured air, and pray.”
Slow Pilgrim, quality paperback
In the book, Heaven, written by award-winning poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, who kindly sent me a copy for review, the poems in this particular “heaven” lean not toward the baptismal but the mythological. So, if you’re expecting a biblical view of heaven, as I was, you might miss the search, as I first did, into heavenly realms that began with light, music, and flights of literary allusions.
While these poems do not land in a particular place or spiritual environment, they explore a variety of routes people have taken to get there. For example, the opening poem, “The Mind After Everything Has Happened” begins with “Perpetual peace. Perpetual light./ From a distance it all seems graffiti” then ends:
“If Hell is a crater to a crater
To a crater to a crater, what then
Is Heaven, aside from its opposite,
Which was glorious, known, and obvious?”
But then there’s the question of whether that last line depicts Heaven or Hell.
The poem “Boys” seems more obvious as the guys cut class to hang out “to play/ Just about all the music we knew,” caught up in the heavenly tunes of their own making. Interestingly, that all-day endeavor ends in suffering:
“When the dark would come, we’d show each other
Our blisters, the painful white whorls peeling,
Our read palms upwards, outstretched and unread.”
After reading the search in those palms, we read “The Starry Night,” where “Night frees its collar from around its neck/ And walks slowly past the two bathing bears/ Wading in the black stellate subheaven.”
From celestial places and beautiful myths to the beauty in nature and love, the poet briefly descends into “News From the Muse Of Not Guilty” with these sensory and highly visual lines:
“He sits in a Hawaiian shirt over a bulletproof vest,
Slumped in a beach chair, its back to the ocean.
Even his red wine spritzer tastes like Skittles now.”
“An Excuse For Mayhem” starts with “The Kingdom of Heaven” as perceived through the Christian faith then ends with this word or, is it a warning?
“…the sublime blue hour
Of the voice, the mute light, mute church, mute choice.”
The final lines of the book, however, find rest in an earthy heaven and this confession:
“…all I want to do is lay my head/
Down, lay my head down on the naked slope
Of your chest and listen there for my heart.”
©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print, the first of which, Living in the Nature Poem, was published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press with an e-book version in 2014. That same year, Kelsay Books published Mary’s book of nature poems for children and her book of Bible-based poems, Outside Eden.
Heaven: poems, hardback