In the preface to Reading God’s Handwriting, Philip C. Kolin draws our attention to the incident in John’s Gospel where Jesus writes in the dust. He uses this as an example of God’s hand writing. He also mentions God writing the Ten Commandments in stone, and I suppose could have also mentioned the hand writing on the wall during Belshazzar’s banquet. Besides these literal examples, all of scripture is the handwriting of God which we are called to meditate upon in the tradition of Lectio Divina. Kolin also reminds us of God’s other book—the Book of Nature. The poet’s stated purpose is for us to be “reading, contemplating, applying and reverencing the words and the wonder of what God has written in His two books.” A quick glimpse at titles in the contents will hint of the same thing. Many of Kolin’s poems are meditations on scripture, while others are reflections on nature and on human experience.
Philip C. Kolin is a long-time Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was honored as a University Distinguished Professor in 2009. He has published more than 40 books, including four previous poetry collections. He is the General Editor for the Routledge Shakespeare Criticism Series, and is known as a major authority on Tennessee Williams. It should not surprise anyone, then, to discover that Kolin has also written a play (which has been staged at the University of Georgia).
With this background, you may expect his poetry to have a narrative quality—especially his poems that interact with scriptural stories. Listen, however, to the opening of the poem “Joseph” about Christ’s earthly father: “His face was calm / Like a cloud sleeping / In the sky she saw it / Over the lintels / Of her door.” It’s almost as if Kolin has had to curb his lyric voice in some of his other writing, and has let himself loose here. You might also expect his voice of choice would be more like those of characters in a drama. There are a few fine examples—such as poems written from the perspective of Habakkuk, Job, and an observant worshipper at an early service on the first Sunday in Advent—but he more frequently writes lyrically from a thoughtful distance.
I find his portrayal of “Ezekiel’s Invitation” dwells powerfully in the space between mystery and knowledge:
Ride this wheel of eyes
These four faces with four wings for brows,
reaching for the infinite enthroned
there at the eastern gate.
His nature poems are places of meditation. Echoing the Sermon on the Mount, in “A Butterfly Sonata” Kolin sings, “They do not reap or sow / Yet they furrow the air with delight. . . .” Two stanzas later he concludes:
They know about resurrections
Rising from the humility
Of earth’s grubs to
Golden halos of prismatic light
Signed by the sun.
The penultimate section of the collection focuses on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. You’ll encounter many characters here—from an ancient eunuch to “An Army Nurse in Iraq,” from a homeless man to a nun at the end of her life. In “Visiting Hours,” we observe the deep love of a man, sixty years married, caring for his wife at her bedside. In these lives we sense God’s hand, if only we have eyes to see.
This collection is a reminder that we can meditate upon God’s handwriting in scripture, in nature, and in the lives of those around us. In Philip C. Kolin we find a poet who encourages us to think on these things.
D.S. Martin is a Canadian whose poetry has appeared in Anglican Theological Review, Canadian Literature, Christianity & Literature, and Ruminate's Issue 18: Sound & Silence. His poetry collections include: So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon) and Poiema (Wipf & Stock). View his blog about Christian poetry at: www.kingdompoets.blogspot.com.
Comments will be approved before showing up.