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Summer Books

Poems explore powerful meditations on Catholic life

By David Craig, Janet McCann, editors
Story Line Press, 302 pages, $18.95


Place of Passage: Contemporary Catholic Poetry succeeds in conveying a vision of a world that is predominantly Catholic. The editors, Janet McCann and David Craig, have selected from among some of the most well-known, often illuminating contemporary Catholic poets, from Annie Dillard to Thomas Merton, Karol Wojtyla, Dana Gioia and more than 50 others. Poem after poem, the spiritual and emotional lives of the poets in their most revealing moments are brought into sharp focus.

A distinction the anthology unfortunately shares with some aspects of Catholicism is its bias in favor of the writing of white males. The female poets included do speak clearly, but the female voice is outnumbered three to one, and with only few exceptions (such as the powerful voice of Nobel Prize-winner Gabriela Mistral) the poets write from a First World perspective. The collection’s sub-title, Contemporary Catholic Poetry, needlessly marginalizes many in this regard. Though the anthology will be meaningful to all Catholics, the book is far from representative of all the voices in the Catholic world.

In other respects, this is a fine collection -- the poems explore powerful experiences insightfully. Some are meditations on faith, on how the sacraments guide our lives; some explore personal experience, the unexpected moment when a relationship or act causes us to reflect on Christ and his power, for good or ill, to change us; some appear to be no more than a devout prayer, but one that is meaningful to many.

McCann writes in her introduction that the collection is “arranged to follow the rhythm of the liturgical year.” Thus the book is divided into 32 sections derived from the liturgical calendar. This arrangement guides the reader to find some perspective for each poem within the grounds of our sometimes triumphant, sometimes discouraging lives as Catholics.

These are poems about a myriad of experiences people in touch with their spiritual lives share in common, value and reflect on, as in Thomas Merton’s “Evening: Zero Degree Weather” in which he finds in landscape the majesty of creation:

Now the lone world is streaky as a wall of marble
With veins of clear and frozen snow.
There is no bird-song there, no hare’s track
No badger working in the russet grass;
All the bare fields are silent as eternity.

Or a moment of near despair overcome by faith, as in “Prelude to Holy Week” by Fr. David May:

Poetry is a failure. I am no true father
But only a poor coward, lamely smiling.
Another day or so, we’ll sing, “Hosanna”
To the Failure-King riding his donkey of peace.
And I want to say, choking back sobs,
“Hosanna. I still want to try. Blessed be He who comes.”
I have no other hope, yet I seek still
False hopes, and I am afraid, afraid
Of committing some definitive sickly betrayal.
The last gut of courage has drained away,
And only you can be resurrection in it all.
Hosanna. Make a kingdom of this dust.

Or as in “Vocation” by Carolyn Alessio, one of the few poems to explore the pain of injustice, a woman listens to a sermon aimed at recruiting young males:

Until you enter the seminary, the priest said,

nobody can truly understand brotherhood.
Mid-sermon, I remembered what I told a friend last week,
who asked me why a woman -- any self-respecting woman --
Could remain a Catholic.
Embarrassed, I muttered: Ritual.

Or as in Les Murray’s poem, “Poetry and Religion,” which meditates on the power of poetry to be transcendent:

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

The poems in this collection succeed, time and again, in sparking a moment of excitement and recognition in the reader. Though the book can’t be as representative as its subtitle suggests, it does bring together some of the best Catholic poetry I’ve read in the last 10 years. It will be remembered.

Gill Donovan is NCR’s poetry editor and proofreader.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000