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and Monastic Tradition
A Review of
Benedict’s Daughter: Poems
Philip C. Kolin
Paperback: Resource Publications, 2017.
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Reviewed by Frederick W. Bassett
Benedict’s Daughter is Philip C. Kolin’s eighth and most recent book of poems. The mere titles of these earlier books, such as The Wailing Wall, Deep Wonder, Emmett Till in Different States, demonstrate his deep and wide-ranging poetic efforts. In a special way, this latest collection expands his poetic interests in Benedictine spirituality by shining light on the journey of his long-time spiritual director, a Benedictine Oblate named Midge in the poems.
In the midst of a gifted academic career (more than 40 books, over 200 scholarly articles, plus countless poems), Kolin wrote Benedict’s Daughter as a poetic tribute to Midge and those who live according to St. Benedict’s Holy Rule (“ora et labora,” prayer and work).
This collection takes readers on a rewarding journey in that tradition, as long as they allow themselves to become a literary pilgrim. I chose to do that, and although I come from a Protestant tradition without the influence of monastic orders, I have nothing but praise to Kolin for the journey.
In the next-to-last poem, “A Manual for Oblates,” we learn that Midge bequeathed to Kolin the manual given to her by a Benedictine monk, seventy years earlier. The impact that had on him is moving and likely influenced his decision to write this collection of poems:
Now I have been called to scatter
my prayers across its pages.
I have learned that prayers
are not meant to be read
as much as to be inhaled,
each opening, each page
a thurifer, like the cigarette incense
she used to reverence this Holy Rule.
Kolin divides the book into two parts: 1) Prologue: The Liturgy of the Hours and 2) The Journey. Even so, the journey, unbounded by space or time, started for me with the first poem.
In the Lauds poem “Day Opens,” the reader can almost see the “sun shafts [that] sign the distant hilltops / overlooking the abbey” and hear the morning call:
It’s time to shake off
the mortality of sleep;
the tomb of night is cracked; step out
and feel the infinity of light.
Three hours later at Terce, “St. Peter on the Eternity of Three” takes readers to Palestine where the apostle himself is discoursing on the theme of three, the number that both wounded and redeemed him:
Then came Gethsemane
and the blood tears he shed
turning stones opalescent red.
That night the high priest’s courtyard
felt as cold as my tongue; I denied him
the three times the cock crowed.
For Vespers, “The Delta Between Sunset and Dark” takes us into the Mississippi flatland where “A young girls tells her cousin / about the infinite joy / she carries in her rounding womb.” But Kolin also pays heed to sorrow in the Delta:
At nightfall the soft
side of sorrow seeps in—
a mother stands alone
beside the body of her lynched son
keening, the melody of grief
picked up by the moanful refrain
of the blues from the clapboard church
across the road.
Together the five poems that mark the Liturgy of the Hours prepare us for The Journey that focuses on Midge, the Oblate, who longed to serve God within holy places.
In the opening poem, “In This Place of Stability,” one listens to the Benedictine call, spoken with such authority that I could imagine St. Benedict himself was calling Midge:
Vow to be part of this holy place
so it can become a part of you.
Settle like a tree rooted in a flowering stream
so the years will not wither you.
Be like a harvest of grains and grapes
transformed into Christ’s body and blood.
Clearly, it was such a call that led Midge to hide the photograph of her earthly beauty that resembled Veronica Lake. Her son would find it seven decades later, buried in her closet along with any dreams of fame or vanity. In the poem “The Photograph,” we discover that beauty never left her:
Dazzling as the Galilee at dawn, her eyes
immersed the souls she prayed over
in twin pools of Bethesda hope and healing,
comfort for those who lived in moans.
But that was her life after the words of the prioress ended her novitiate because of ill health. In “The Gull’s Oratory,” we hear those discouraging words and then follows Midge home to Mobile:
So many gulls ribboned
Mobile Bay the day she came home,
more than 150 swooping
in their dirty white and molting grey coats.
It was hard to hear God’s voice
with all their squawking.
As she transitions into becoming a Benedictine Oblate, we meet one of her spiritual advisors in “Father Luke, O.S.B.” who teaches her:
… to open God’s outdoor lectionary
and read the messages written there—
to see the sky as his canvas,
each rainbow a stroke of quiet color;
to look for the faces of Apostles
in the autumn clouds….
Journeying forth, we meet Al, the man she chose to marry. Kolin’s poems on him are a valuable reflection on how earthly love melds into heavenly love. In “She Taught Her Classes Proverbs,” we hear about her wisdom:
Smoke can shelter mysteries
as well as fire.
Both are necessary to see
the burning bush God lights for you.
In poem after poem, readers will travel across the years until her death, learning about her garden, her dogs, and her being in a hospice. In “The House on 33rd Street, we learn:
Her children sold her house
as is. Gone are the angels threading
their beads in the corners
of her prayer room, and the candles
smoking now that once flared light,
eternity’s perfume trailing behind.
It’s a wonderful thing when someone helps lead you out of the dark night of the soul, and it’s good to tell the story in a way that honors that person, whether in prose or poetry. Philip C. Kolin chose poetry rooted in Scripture and monastic tradition, and I highly recommend Benedict’s Daughter.