In the “Desert of the Ordinary”

by Guest Blogger April 03, 2017

Review of Pilgrim's Gait, by David Craig (Wipf and Stock, 2015) reviewed by Eric Potter 

In Pilgrim's Gait, his twenty-first book, David Craig brings to bear his considerable craft and accumulated wisdom to explore the way of the pilgrim, both in the sense of where the pilgrim walks and in the sense of how (with what “gait” or footsteps) the pilgrim walks. Individual poems offer a wealth of detail and a delightful energy of phrase and movement. Taken together they offer a richness of interconnection and insight whose recurring images and motifs reward repeated readings as you gradually sound the volume’s depths.

The first of the book’s four sections, “Pilgrim Places,” is comprised of four poems. Each is a free-verse treatment of Craig’s experience at a holy site. Each is personal in voice and subject, its narrative-descriptive skeleton fleshed with the thoughts, insights, and leaps of association of the speaker’s mind and memory. Each combines the seemingly sacred with the apparently ordinary. And each presents an experience of unmet expectations. At Lourdes, for example, “the water in the holy baths froze” and “we both caught colds.” At Garabandal, the hoped-for change does not occur. “It was all anti-climax,” the poet admits but then explains, “which was only right— / because our lives are precisely that.” The motif of anti-climax continues in “Fake Apparition,” set in Carrolton, Ohio. In it the poet recalls visiting a theologian who had built a monastery believing “a change / is coming.” At the time of the visit, though, the monastery remains “mostly empty.” While the poet teases the theologian, he also praises the “gesture.” “It was rich,” he says, “like our lives, what we hope to fill— / Francis’s fools!” And then he exclaims, “Do it again! Do it again! // Let our hearts be the flagstone / everyone walks on!” There is part of the wisdom of the pilgrim way: to be exposed and vulnerable in serving Christ, to be holy fools.

The second part of the volume, entitled “Oil for the Turn,” is comprised of a substantial prose narrative, “The Madonna’s House,” in which the narrator, James, tells the story of his younger self. He does so with a good deal of honesty, the wisdom of greater spiritual insight, and a leavening of wry humor. It is the story of the young James’s experiences at The Madonna’s House, a Catholic community located in what he considers the wastes of Canada. It is the story of a young man on a religious quest, though he doesn’t really know what or who he’s looking for. It is a story whose narrative arc is truly one of redemption. The first-person narrative allows us access to James’s fears and judgments, his desires and doubts. In particular, we see how divided he is. Though he admits to knowing very little about the Catholics that he meets or about their Catholicism, he is “in earnest about their religion” and yet, at the same time, he recognizes he is a “complete phony.” This inner division continues for some time; he often desires to run while at the same time he is looking for reasons to stay.

As he stays, he continues to encounter holiness, especially in Catherine, the foundress. In her he finds “a bright presence, an aura of real power, spiritual power.” Later he concludes that “she was a saint. You could just look at her, that tough old illumined face, and tell that her will was not her own.” Though his mix of doubt and desire persists, the longer he stays the more he realizes that he “would rather be like them than like me.” And gradually he begins to change, beginning that process of “conversion,” which, a priest explains, is “a turning,” and he goes on to say, “that’s what it is all your life. You turn until you become who you are, and then you are in the arms of God.”

Eventually James seeks and receives Baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is not an end, of course, but only the beginning. And not long afterward his restlessness reasserts itself; in part because he recognizes that Madonna’s House is a place you move through, and in part because he is ready to begin his life of serving Christ, though he does not know what that life will look like. He has been told (in a prophetic way) that “his words” will be a “light for many.” When he first hears that claim, he admits that “being the potentially humble servant” that he is, his mind runs “to Shakespearean power, the lavish gifts, houses in the South of France, tall, thin women, Lamborghinis.” But, as he is repeatedly reminded, such worldly visions of success are not the way of the cross, which is the way of suffering. “Embrace it and you’re free,” a staff member reminds him. “Avoid it and you die anyway. Either way it’s death or death. One brings God glory the other brings nothing.” And a wise co-worker tells him, “There’s no glamour in the Gospel.” As James is beginning to learn, the pilgrim way is not one of glamour, the extraordinary, or even the self-improving, it is a journey in the “desert of the ordinary.” And however slow or halting one’s gait, it is the way to walk. As James the narrator says, “In the end, if we are faithful, I think we will all be like chastened Peters, years after (most of the) crowing roosters, staffs in hand, all of us, humbled, up the hill. Each at his own pace, each more or less alike.”

The book’s third section also focuses on the pilgrim’s way as a continual turning until you become who you are, as the title, “Forming St. Anthony,” makes clear. Each of the fifteen poems presents an experience in the life of St. Anthony. The sequence is primarily chronological, its details drawn from The Assidua of St. Anthony. Where the prose narrative provided a thoroughly developed context, these poems drop readers into each situation, either relying on our knowledge of Anthony’s life to orient us or trusting our ability to find our bearings.

As we follow this process of formation, we see Anthony recognize “the passing fable that is this world” and that “vanity, emptiness ruled everywhere like kings,” so he decides to “put / the flesh’s parade behind him” and joins a religious order in his hometown. Soon he discovers that his friends and family name can be a distraction, so he must leave and find a place where he can be a nobody: “He had to serve the Lord where he didn’t matter, / exist any more.” In fact, since even the desire to serve could become a form of self-righteousness, he learns he must be “ready to do absolutely nothing for the Lord.”

We see his desire for martyrdom in northern Africa, which is prevented by sickness. Rather than the quick death of the martyr he discovers that “Death would be a longer battle than the one he had imagined.” Back in Europe, he resumes a monastic life of near anonymity, living in a small cell and striving for a “life small enough / to take him, make him other.” We see him “Discovered—and interrupted” in this life by his superiors when they learn of his intellectual gifts, his learning, his power as a preacher and enlist his services. As extraordinarily gifted as he is, he willingly embraces the ordinary and exercises his gifts with an indifference to society’s scales of value. The tenth poem, “Concerning his Fame and the Efficacy of his Preaching,” provides a good example of Anthony’s spirit. Early in the poem we learn of the mesmerizing power of his preaching: “Anthony could stop time: leaves / would cease their sway, the Curia become still life, / pure potential; a basket of flowers / became a basket of flowers.” His abilities amaze both the rich, who “marveled that a country vegetable / could so adapt to spiritual things,” and the poor, who “were stunned.” But Anthony remains indifferent to such “social pork.” Since it “did not matter to Jesus” it “didn’t matter to him.” Earthly praise and reward mean nothing: “He never paused for inducements, because / they belonged to someone else; he lived in footprints.” The footprints he lives in, one learns by the end of the poem, are those of Jesus. And that is how Anthony determined his pilgrim’s gait, trying to place his feet in the footprints of Jesus.

The final section of the book, entitled “The Beat Catholic Line,” is dedicated to writers and singers such as Kerouac and Merton, Springsteen and Mary Karr. Many of these artists have working class roots, all have been beaten down by suffering, and all hunger for the beatific. In the autobiographical poems of this section, Craig often addresses someone from his past, recalling experiences of their youth and recounting ways they changed in the intervening years.

“Prothalamion” is addressed to Craig’s brother soon to be married. The poem has three parts. In the first, Craig recalls his pre-conversion days as a young man experiencing life on the streets with its compound of criminality, violence, and drugs, a life that is nevertheless bisected by a longing for something more. The second section, addressing the early days after his conversion, show his ongoing struggles to put that life behind him. In the third, he thinks of his brother’s imminent wedding, recognizing it as another “turning,” and he prays that it will bring his brother “peace” and a “realization that we are not here / for ourselves, but for the stubborn laying down, hands to wood, / feet to wood.”

In “Last Acid,” Craig addresses a friend from his youth, recalling their desire to avoid being trapped by convention and how even their drug use was part of their effort to encounter the divine, the “Starry Name.” Shifting to the present, he confesses that there are times he is tempted to throw away his current life with its comforts and benefits to get back to something like the risk and reality of that early life, but he never succumbs to that temptation. Instead he re-affirms his life in the desert of the ordinary, a life where he is consumed by serving his students and his children: “Here, in this closet of an office, I burn myself away, one student / at a time, in real life: ordinary service, every bit of youth gone / in a (sometimes) quiet conflagration. // My children, too, wax as I wane; my life, sticks to their fires.”

Over and over the poems in this volume catechize us in the way of the pilgrim. Where does the pilgrim walk? Through the deserts of the ordinary. With what gait does the pilgrim walk? The footsteps of Christ. Where do those footsteps lead? Up the cross. Where does it end? In the arms of God.

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Eric Potter is the author of Things Not Seen (Wipf and Stock), a collection of poems, as well as two chapbooks, Heart Murmur and Still Life.  He is a professor of English at Grove City College (PA) where he teaches courses in modern poetry, American literature, and creative writing. 

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