Review of In the Custody of Words: Poems, by Philip C. Kolin (Franciscan University, 2013) Reviewed by Janet McCann
Kolin’s new short collection of poems, In the Custody of Words, has an inspiring cover image—Sandro Botticelli’s The Madonna of the Book. The baby Jesus’ hand grazes Mary’s as she looks down—at Jesus and at the book—while he looks up at her. The image is an apt representation of the contents. These are uncompromising Catholic poems, with a rich texture and startling beauty that will inspire any reader who has even a whisper of faith.
Some of Kolin’s poems are rooted directly in Scripture, and the stories they tell give a snapshot of the real scenes described by the Bible. “Holy Ground” gives a vivid sense of the sacred place described in Exodus and Joshua. “The Generosity of Ananias” tells the rather frightening story from Acts in which a man and his wife, squirreling away money for themselves while claiming to give all to the disciples, are punished for their deceit by death. “Procula’s Tears” provides sounds, smells, and textures of the verse from Matthew in which Pilate’s wife, on the basis of a dream, tries to prevent Pilate from condemning Jesus; Pilate lets her scroll drop.
What he has written he has written. A cross
Casts its shadow across her warning. Is this the Christ?
Or just one more raw-boned prisoner
Sentenced to die on Mars’ day.
Other poems are about the church—the physical church, its places, nave, chancel, sacristy—and the people who honor it and populate it. “Precious Blood” begins with the ladies of the altar guild who iron the linens, but who
. . . never see the blood
of slaughtered oxen seeping
down the sides of the altar. . . .
Blood seeps into blood; martyrs’ blood (Oscar Romero, Emmett Till) and saints’ blood (Padre Pio) is there too:
How could he lose
so much blood, yet never
stain his starched alb or
His votive candle
outlived its wax.
These poems give a living surface to church and Bible, examine the thoughts of angels, look at traditional Christian symbols (such as the fish) as actual and metaphorical at once. Even minnows are carriers of transcendence:
No matter how many
Fowlers drop their nets
Into the middle of summer
They still sail through fleshy
Toes, fingers, tourists’ blue-veined legs.
Like sojourners caravanning
Across the Sinai, the minnows
Watch the sand below them
Shift from rippled desert rows
Into exploding mountain
Tops in ecstasy.
Of course the saints are present too—we visit with St. Joseph as he dies, and get glimpses of the lives of other holy people, recognized and not recognized. These free-verse poems often pile detail on detail in a run-on of items from Catholic lore. The poems tend to build toward a climax in which the physical and metaphysical fuse in a transformative moment.
Dana Gioia in a recent article, “The Catholic Writer Today,” traces the rise and fall of Catholic literature in the twentieth century, commenting that “although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting.” He provides the many reasons for this decline of Catholic literature in particular from its honored position in the mid-twentieth century to its present near-invisibility. At the conclusion of his essay he discusses possible ways to revitalize the tradition, starting with the writers themselves: “The Catholic writer really needs only three things to succeed: faith, hope, and ingenuity.” His explanations include the comment, “The Catholic writer must have the passion, talent, and ingenuity to master the craft in strictly secular terms while never forgetting the spiritual possibilities and responsibilities of art.” His major assertion follows: “Art is a form of knowing—distinct and legitimate—rooted in feeling and delight—that discovers, in the words of Jacques Maritain, ‘the splendor of the secrets of being radiating into intelligence.’ That insight makes possible the great potential of Christian literature to depict the material world, the physical world of the senses, while also revealing behind it another invisible and eternal dimension.” Gioia’s definition applies well to Kolin’s work, which is memorable for its surface as well as the moments of transcendence in which it welds temporal and eternal.
If religious poetry is to live, it must be lived. We cannot produce lasting verse by using Christian symbolism as we now use the Greek gods, as metaphor for human needs and desires or parts of the human psyche. Moreover, unapologetic Christian poetry that does not preach but rather illustrates can revive and deepen faith, stimulate study, reinforce values. “God’s Word,” Kolin’s opening poem, represents the flash of enlightenment that the Word brings in a series of images. The poem begins with “A crystalline voice in the darkness / older than water” and concludes with
. . . a dove’s voice
thin ears, thorns, rocks
to Pharisees and Herodians,
two boats waiting on Gennesaret,
fishermen sent forth like sheep
to open blind eyes, glue
limbs and quicken dead
hearts, unworthy lips balmed
with sanctifying sight,
hungry crowds on hills
feasting on the kingdom,
angels spreading seeds, seeds
and more seeds, cleared paths,
mountains leveled, untethered
hosannas, trampled palms,
traitor breaking bread beside
Cedron brook, weeping stones
this day in paradise
We as poetry readers, as Christians or as spiritual seekers, need more untethered hosannas
Journals publishing Janet McCann’s
work include Kansas Quarterly, Parnassus, Nimrod, Sou'wester, Christian Century, Christianity and Literature, New York Quarterly, Tendril, and others. A 1989 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship winner, she taught at Texas A & M University from 1969 to 2015, is now Professor Emerita. She has co-edited three anthologies with David Craig, Odd Angles of Heaven (Shaw, 1994), Place of Passage (Story Line, 2000), and Poems of Francis and Clare (St. Anthony Messenger, 2004). Most recent poetry collection: The Crone at the Casino (Lamar University Press, 2014).
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