I decided to put my poem a day series on hiatus for Lent, but it seems I can’t escape poetry that easily. The poems came looking for me.
St. Peter’s B-list: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints edited by Mary Ann B. Miller
Dom brought this book home for me. (Have I mentioned that he now gets review copies because he’s producing a daily radio show for local Boston Catholic radio?) When he told me about this book of poems inspired by the saints I was intrigued, but wary. Religious poetry can be very good or it can be very bad. Reading the first three poems, though, I was swept off my feet.
The first poem, “Poor Banished Children of Eve” by Martha Silano covers territory that will be familiar to every mother, the stream of consciousness of the distracted mother who can’t keep her mind on her prayers, the thoughts that criss-cross the lines of the prayer even when you’re trying to stay focused, the daily intersections, the sanctification of the ordinary:
I believe in the dish in the sink
not bickering about the dish in the sink
though I believe the creator
of the mess in the living room
cleans up the mess in the living room
sucks up cracker pizza potpie peanut popcorn
and I believe in the earth which also ends up on the rug
which must also be vacuumed up as I acknowledge
our blessings running water not teeming with toxins . . .
It makes me chuckle in recognition. And then I realize the artfulness to the juxtapositions, the wry humor. Though it’s the tenderness, especially notable at the end but present throughout, that really moves me:
to thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve
poor ants at the mercy of unforeseen disaster
poor praying mantises stuck in our plastic cages
poor and thankless a valley of tears
though actually a giant crevasse
grant us eternal grant us merciful
o clement o loving o sweet
The second poem is “Miracle Blanket” by Erika Meitner, another scene that was all too familiar to this mother of five. We had one of these miracle blankets, I think with Sophie and Ben but then Anthony got too big too fast and I have no idea where it went after that.
Mo mother calls it
Do you still put
the baby to sleep
in that straightjacket?
[. . .]
and I have to admit she’s right,
that it looks like a straightjacket
for babies, especially
in the “natural” color
which resembles a tortilla
so when he’s wrapped
the baby seems like a
burrito with a head,
But the real moment of the poem is the play on the word “miracle” remembering an obscure 13th century Italian saint. And oh how it all comes together so neatly.
And then the third poem– and it’s funny because usually I don’t read poetry collections like this, beginning at the beginning. Usually I flip them open at random a few times– the third poem completed the trifecta. “In Praise of Single Mothers” by Kate Daniels, a poem about a mother who is trying to write poetry at night after the children are in bed. But, inevitably, is interrupted. And then after she’s resettled the one, just as she’s found that timeless space, the other one starts crying. Although I’m not usually trying to write poetry, the experience of being a writing mother, a writer interrupted– even now I’m listening to see if the baby is really waking up and needing me or if she was just crying in her sleep and will have resettled herself– yes, this terrain is perhaps the most familiar of all.
That my chores are done, my children sleeping, and I have just
begun to make relation with words again,
a sweet tinkly string of them tumbling lightly, back of my teeth,
about to erupt, when
The magesterial Peter Augustus, forty-five months on the planet
only recently weaned of his bedtime bottle,
the one with the black hair and big ears
whose eyes squint suspiciously at every encounter,
[. . .]
who pushes through the bifold doors of my makeshift study
and holds forth his sippy cup with furious civility.
That I love his fierce will, his inability to compromise,
his sweet, sleek ass, the thumb in his mouth, the pale skin
over the harp of his ribs.
Yes, I’m finding it hard to not quote the whole thing. Here’s a bit more from later on:
That I whisk my mind into a stiff froth of egg white-like consistency
lower myself into it as a mother and arise, rinsed into a poet,
back into words.
That something flows. The liquid of language, that liquor,
the familiar warmth, the watch melting off my arm, body
disappearing into timeless space: a sound, a rhythm, an urge
to follow. That I am flying here, and floating there, and rising
and writing . . .
Like a snake in unfamiliar territory, advancing warily, but slowly
gaining in confidence
and volume, a sound is born.
That she wails, she wails, she wails.
That I arise and go to her automatically.
That this one, at least, is quiet, can’t talk, and fits
into one arm’s crook, tightly bound inside a blanket,
I am thankful, and so race to retrieve her.
That I love her more,
much more, than poetry.
That the cursor blinks blankly
at the end of an empty line.
I read the first two to Dom and he laughed in recognition and wonderment at how well it fitted me and I didn’t read him the third because it was long and he was watching a show, but I summarized it for him, as much as one can summarize a poem. And then I found another, “Santa Caterina” by Brian Doyle, that I had to read to him because it was from a father’s point of view:
What I try to say to people when they say what’s with the whole guy
On the cross thing, man, that’s macabre, that’s sick, you people look
At a guy dying of torture every day, you hang Him in your churches
And houses and offices, you carry a dying guy in your pocket, that’s
Just weird, and I try to say he’s a dad. He volunteered. You’d do the
Same for your kids. Sure He grumbled about it, in the garden. I have
stomped down to the laundry room to snarl and throw shoes
Then there was “The Story I Like Best about St Teresa–” by Susan Blackwell Ramsey. Oh yes, that one really caught my eye:
. . . God as Lover
shocks Protestants, though it has a long tradition.
But this suggests God as Flirt, maybe even
God as Supreme Tease, pushing Teresa’s buttons
for the fun of watching her sputter, knowing exactly
where they are located, having installed them himself.
And no, not all the poems in this collection have connected with me. Some I’ve read and admired, but not felt that wonderment. Some have left me rather cold. That’s anthologies for you. But that the first few I sampled were so delightful makes me think I like this editor’s taste. I also like that her introduction begins by citing Flannery O’Connor’s incarnative view of art: “Christ’s humanity validates the natural world as wholly able to reveal to us the presence of the divinity within it. This divine presence in the human world makes itself known over and over again at any point in history, first through Christ, but later whenever God’s grace is manifest through human experience.
Furthermore, she explains her criteria:
To remind readers of the continually repeated presence of the divine in the human world, I have chosen poems that are not historical poems. That is, the speakers of these poems are not the saints themselves, speaking about incidents in their lives from distant time periods, but they are contemporary voices speaking from within some very contemporary dramatic situations.
The title, St Peter’s B-List, may have already given it away, but this is not a collection of frilly devotional poems. Though all of the poems are concerned in some way about grace in human experience, though they all at least glance at the saints, they are far from sentimental about them. I think this collection will be a pleasure to have in my pile of Lenten reading.