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COMMUNION OF SAINTS: POEMS
BY SUSAN L. MILLER
PARACLETE PRESS, 2017
BY ANN CEFOLA
UPPER HAND PRESS, 2017
BY CARLA DRYSDALE
FINISHING LINE PRESS, 2016
COMMUNION OF SAINTS
[This review is adapted, in part, from my introductory comments at Susan L. Miller’s reading at St. Francis College in November 2017. The reading was hosted by the Women’s Poetry Initiative, of which I am director.]
With a forward by Mark Doty and praise from poets such as Marie Ponsot, Paul Mariani, and Yehoshua November, Communion of Saints is a stunning, moving work. It is divided into four sections – Faith, Hope, Love, and Pax et Bonum – with the fourth section based on the life and legacy of St. Francis as well as Miller’s own pilgrimage to Assisi.
The living and the dead, the secular and the holy, populate the pages of this collection. Yes, here are Saint Agatha and Saint Elizabeth, Saint Jerome and Saint Bonaventure, yet they appear not purely as themselves but rather embodied in the words and deeds of people Miller knows and cares about. In “Portrait of Charles as St. Francis,” reprinted in this issue of Assisi with the kind permission of Paraclete Press, a dear family friend arrives on Christmas Eve bearing the gift of his own childhood crèche (St. Francis is credited with creating the first Nativity scene). More than just a gift, Charles’s crèche is a tangible connection between the child he was and the family he has come to love as an adult. “When I set // the tallest angel in the back corner, / Charles rejoiced: That’s just / where I used to put him, too!” By using “rejoiced,” Miller draws a direct connection between Charles’s joy at the home his crèche has found with the speaker’s family and the Christmas exhortation to “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanual / Shall come to thee O Israel.” The poem ends with the speaker, her husband, and Charles attending Christmas Eve mass “where families had brought their own / images of Christ” and agreeing that next year they will bring the baby Jesus from their crèche, and with the memory of how as a child Charles was chosen to hold the holy infant during mass, bringing the connection between past and present into clear and touching focus.
In her poems, each person, famous or not, literally sainted or not, is re-presented by Miller as she turns her sympathetic, understanding, and patient poet’s eye toward them. These people are not merely props for a poem; rather, they become living, breathing creatures of God, creatures who are fallible, who sometimes disappoint and sometimes delight, who surprise us (and perhaps the poet) with moments of quiet grace and compassion.
Grace and compassion are beautifully illustrated in the poem which is my personal favorite, “The Wolf of Gubbio.” This poem serves as the epilogue for the collection and begins by asking the reader to “Imagine yourself a lone wolf, lean / and ragged,” unloved and terribly hungry. “You terrify / each living thing you encounter” and “Your teeth ache // With the need for slaughter.” You are alone, not just unloved but unlovable, driving away — or worse, destroying — every creature you encounter. Until you meet a man who, rather than flee in terror, “lays his palm / on your head” and you surrender yourself to his loving ministrations. The man, St. Francis, walks you through the streets of Gubbio where “at every house” there is “an offering / to feed you.” Suddenly, you are a part of a community, embraced and cared for.
For the rest of your life, you never
hunger, fed at any door you pass through,
beloved and belonging. Would you
call it a miracle if you knew
that wherever you went,
someone provided for you?
Millers poems are poems of faith, but not a simple faith and often not an easy faith. There is struggle as well as triumph, and grace is a state we are more often moving toward rather than attaining. Yet, attain it we do, at least fleetingly. And when we do, we enter into the communion of saints.
I have long been an admirer of Ann Cefola’s poetry, and her newest collection Free Ferry is no exception. This is a rich, complex examination of a particular strain of American life seen through the eyes of a girl-child growing up in the suburbs alongside her brother. The poems span a time frame stretching from World War II through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1964 World’s Fair, but as the title of the collection’s first poem, “[orrery],” suggests, the speaker’s personal solar system revolves around her parents and their “small house, big yard.” This is a world of finished basements and “garden luncheons” where the girl can “sample honeyed leftovers in lipstick-stained tumblers” (“[transit of venus]”). There is still a milkman delivering “cold-sweating bottles” (“[moo]”) and you can get fried chicken delivered in “a sedan with funny fowl on top” (“[men in uniform]”). This is a world of radiators and a child’s portable TV that “must weigh / fifty pounds, leather handle on top” (“[agriculture],” where Orpheus takes his children sledding, but it is also where
Eurydice and Orpheus speak
from time to time about some man
exposing himself. They warn
against stopped cars and unsolicited rides. (“[exposure]”)
It is where schoolchildren practice how to “sit Indian style” in the hallway and “cover [their] heads” to protect themselves during an emergency; where there are storm cellars in case of twisters; where “an island aims missiles at our nation” (“[the doctor’s wife]”); and where American missiles are seen “all over,” so much so that, “Like television, car and phone / I don’t question: / They’re part of home” (“[missiles]”).
This atomic worry, this specter of nuclear annihilation, was of course a part of life for Americans after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it is this specter that Cefola uses brilliantly as a contrapuntal melody running, literally, underneath the poems, for she places at the bottom of each page a fractured, at times nearly impressionistic, narrative detailing the development of America’s atomic bomb during World War II. Thus, while the story of the speaker and her family unfolds above, the larger events associated with the evolution and deployment of the world’s first nuclear weapons are an ever-present background to the poems.
The intricacy of the interplay between the poems above and the story below is multi-layered and rewarding in Cefola’s work, as the life of a ‘typical’ American ‘nuclear family’ is both enhanced and complicated by the story of America’s first nuclear weapon.
Carla Drysdale’s first chapbook, Inheritance, is a searing, breathtaking examination of both childhood and motherhood, of the connections between the girl and the woman, and of how the cruelty and abandonment of the past can be — at least partially, and not without scars — healed.
There are heartbreaking memories of the speaker’s abusive stepfather and willfully ignorant mother,
She who ran cold vinegar baths for my sunburned skin.
Who covered me up in the sun, but neglected the darkness
I was in, in the garage
where her husband hussied me. Her voice made books
breathe while I held my tongue — Don’t tell —
my secret burning still, (“Labyrinth”)
even as she becomes a mother herself and fights against that secret and the pain of the past. Yet the “old sorrow remains / despite the distractions and good news / and good weather. / Even my children don’t erase it” (“All Born Perfect”).
Despite this old sorrow, the speaker — this woman abandoned by her own mother — discovers a fierce, protective mother-love within herself even as she acknowledges the occasional, inevitable (and natural) anger at, and resentment of, her two young sons. These are not emotions that will lead her to betray or desert her children the way she was betrayed and deserted; rather, they are part of the tapestry woven by a mother and her children, and acknowledging them allows the speaker to convert them into something both healing and redemptive:
This evening I linger in their room
longer than usual, resist my impulse to get out,
away from them, to peace and privacy.
Instead I yield to the buttery
nightlight shadows. (“Leap”)
This is not a story of forgiveness, for the cuts are too deep and the scars too prominent for the speaker to let go of what was done to her by the adults in her young life. This is not a story with a happy ending, with a letting go of anger and resentment and devastating trauma in order to allow love to bring a fractured family together again. Indeed, we are left at the end with a question asked of the speaker by her son “who carries the name / of the healing archangel”: “Do you still love them?” (“Rafael’s Question”), a question to which he receives no reply.