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.
. . . 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
Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.
Jessica Yuan's poem "Fluorescent" appears in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
It took years to arrive and your eyes
became accustomed to light at all hours,