In poetry, I want startling new visions and a new way to look at the world aslant. I want a spark or surge of emotion that sneaks up on me and catches me, in the surprising turn of a final couplet or an intimate insight that disturbs…
Last summer in Tuscany, after a pause of ten years, I suddenly began writing poetry again. I commented on the publishing of poetry here, and the essay brought a little harvest of poetry books. They sat on my desk eager for attention, waiting patiently to be appreciated like labradors who sit and beg. So in the midst of a busy life, I picked up the poetry.
Reading poetry requires a changing of gears. My mental routine is usually more practical. Prayer, the parish, the numerous essays for websites and magazines, and the demands of family life occupy my mind. Poetry, like contemplation, seems the occupation of the leisured classes—poor religious or billionaires—both of whom do not need to earn a living. Nevertheless, the downshifting from practicality to poetry is a healthy thing. It slows you down. You take turns more safely and perhaps have a moment to see the trees, the birds, the children, and the sky.
Out of the blue came two books and a letter asking if I might review the work of Marcy Heidish. This is a person who seems to be outside my Catholic ghetto, so I was eager to sample some foreign food. Ms. Heidish has written sixteen books of fiction and non-fiction, taught English at Fordham, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities, and lives in Colorado. Where Do Things Go? and A Misplaced Woman were two more books of poems that eagerly awaited me.
A Misplaced Woman bears the intriguing subtitle, A Novel of Courage in Verse. I’ve dipped into it. It’s about a homeless woman. What to do about it? I’m busy reading umpteen other things. It goes on the pile with the Dorothy Day biography and a book of reflections from Day’s diary. I’ll review them all together. It will make a nice bundle.
They sent me Ms. Heidish’s other book of poems: Where Do Things Go? The banal title reflects, I’m afraid, the tone of too many of the poems. There is a triteness or banality to many of the images. Hackneyed comparisons intrude and insights that are meant to be profound too often seem merely sentimental. Sometimes the rhythms clunk and the metaphors jar and the free verse seems like prose set out in ordered lines. The poems are about Ms. Heidish’s daily life, her traumas, and her cares, but I don’t care that much. It seems girly, and I don’t connect.
Nevertheless, I push on, and digging into poetry, like digging in a mine, brings its reward. There is a vein of treasure here. The prodigal son story is given a nice new twist, and a poem, “Finding the Core,” touches and rings true. Ms. Heidish observes the world sharply and often articulates her findings with precision and fresh connections. There is plenty of feeling in her poetry, but too often I felt she was telling me what those feelings were rather than crafting a poem that sparked the emotion in my own heart and mind. Her collection of poems is too sprawling. It would have been better had a good editor helped the poet to select only the best of the poems, rather than spill them all. The formal poems actually stand out and stand up to a second reading, confirming my suspicion that the discipline of rhythm and rhyme help to refine the poet’s vision, give it focus and therefore not only depth, but a requisite objectivity.
In poetry, I want startling new visions and a new way to look at the world aslant. I want a spark or surge of emotion that sneaks up on me and catches me, in the surprising turn of a final couplet or an intimate insight that disturbs. Despite my critique, there was enough of this in Ms. Heidish’s collection for me to keep the book on the reading pile in order to discover further doubloons.
John Riess at Angelico Press has published the poetry of Mark Amorose in a volume titled City Under Siege. While Ms. Heidish’s poetry harbors hints of a Catholic faith, Mr. Amorose’s poems are openly and triumphantly Catholic. There is a militant vein to his poems from the title through to the final offering, “To Our Lady of Victory.” The sabre-rattling Catholicism of the poems is both the collection’s weakness and its strength. The poems are intellectual, masculine, and unsentimental, but the overt religiosity sometimes allows them to verge into devotional verse. I like Hillaire Belloc brandishing his rosary, but I want it in a rousing speech to voters, not in a poem. In poetry, the religious should be embedded deeply—like salt in the dish and light in the world. A poem is not a hymn or a sermon.
Nevertheless, there is strong emotion and the excitement of the exotic in “The Recusants,” “Eusebio Francisco Kino,” and “Return to Cactus Rock.” The openly religious verse which sometimes fails to appeal is balanced by the wit of “A Just So Story.” The simply and beautifully observed “Spring,” and the electrifying “Angels Wings” are simple, edgy and bright. Mr. Amorose’s poems are virile and shrewd. At their best, they capture and convey a purity and power in the world that is the poet’s best gift to the reader.
Michael Martin is a poet, professor, and musician and lives on a small organic farm with his wife and nine children. His collection, also published by Angelico Press, has the unfortunate title Meditations in Times of Wonder. I remember a publisher once saying to me that he never considered a book proposal that had the words “Meditations” or “Reflections” in the title. “It smelled too much,” he said, “of worthy collections of the ruminations of a suburban ladies’ Bible study.” Neither was the cover illustration of a bare tree on a stark landscape encouraging.
Mr. Martin’s poems, however, were my favorite of the pick. At first glance, I was biased against the free verse and what seemed to be prose poems. I respect Robert Frost’s observation that free verse is like playing tennis without a net. I pushed on and was rewarded with poems of great grace, fragile insight, and a tough beauty. Mr. Martin observes the tender ruggedness of his rural life with a that kind of squinty-eyed sagacity you see in the best of the cowboy heroes. “Self Portrait with A Graveyard,” “Pilcrow,” and “Garden of the Philosopher” stand out for their quotidian clarity and the astringent spirituality embedded in daily life.
If the register of emotion is the mark of successful poetry, then of the three, Mr. Martin’s poems were most successful. I was transported into his life without forced meaning, strained sentimentality, or faux emotion. In “Ode to George Herbert,” Mr. Martin sums up the difficulty of writing religious poetry: “What is more emblematic of hubris than writing a religious poem?” Indeed. That Mr. Martin sees that stumbling block and allows self-doubt makes his religious poetry all the stronger. There is a humility beneath the hubris that is not only winning, but which also won my mind and heart.
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