Brief Reviews

Paul J. Willis – Somewhere to Follow [Review]

Somewhere to FollowKnowing God Through Well-Crafted Words

A Review of

Somewhere to Follow: Poems
Paul J. Willis

Paperback: Slant, 2021
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by T. M. Moore

Paul Willis has assembled a delightful collection of Christian poems in Somewhere to Follow. I say Christian poems, though hardly Gospel poems. Willis does not preach; nor does he seek to evangelize. He is content to point to the beauty, wonder, and creation, as well as to the folly, fickleness, fun, and frustration of being human. This allows the God who made us and sustains us to do what only he can do in drawing us to himself.

In these poems Willis has us continually on the move, making progress through time and distance, along hiking trails, up mountain paths, to favorite getaways, and into deeper ponderings of creation, vocation, and the soul. Along the way we are reminded of previous sojourners, references to whose works stretch our adventure back into time and outward into art. Adventurers such as Heraclitus, John Muir, Jack London, and Philip Sidney join us in our journey through time and space, as well as such great poets of humanity, creation, and the spiritual life as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Herbert.

The 74 poems in this volume are divided into four sections. Part I, “Then”, focuses on episodes from the poet’s past, combining happy experiences with looming tragedy (“Campfire Program”), betrayal (“Crime and Punishment”), misguided good intentions (“In Fear of Art”), the sad surprise of sinfulness (“Ziad”), and early spiritual memories and experiences (“By Grace Are Ye Saved”, “Catching a Ride, 1975”). These poems will resonate with any reader who looks back to former days with glad memories, mixed feelings, and near-misses with transcendence. This section fittingly ends with Willis recalling a time he hitchhiked with an ex-military man to his Christian college. The final stanza expresses his appreciation for the “Thens” of his life:

Colonel. I salute you now, steering against those memories
with a boy so full of his own adventures
he hardly had an ear for yours. But violence
makes us generous to our former selves,
I know that now, and in the shadows of gas stations,
of classrooms, I am the one still looking for the ones we were.

Part II of Somewhere to Follow is entitled “Now” and allows us to look in on the poet’s life and career, from his early idealism (“Professional Development”) through professional disappointments (“This Time, This Place”) and deeply meaningful intersections with creation (“An Elegant Light”), to the weariness of work (“What Remains”) and a variety of personal and quotidian observations (“Subject to Dust”, “No Competition”, “At the Beautiful Gate”). He brings in Hemingway – slant, of course – and contemplates a work of art by Titian; and he discovers unlikely poetic gestures and tropes at a baseball diamond and during a football game. Work, loss, reflection, and making the most of every day and everything – such is life, summed up in “What Remains” as his wife, in a dining car on a train,
…raises the cut globe of her glass
and gently swirls what remains,
only a single drop of wine
marring the linen of her sleeve.

Part III is entitled “Near” and, as the title suggests, leads us through paths of the poet’s familiar surroundings as he describes experiences, creatures, fauna, and historical backgrounds that have been important in his own journey. This section includes a brilliant and funny bit of verse entitled “Pribet”:

The nursery at the foot of the hill
does not sell privet – it sells pribet.
As if the hedge were a croaking frog

in a bend of the ribber. Eberything
I know suggests they hab got it wrong,
but I pay cash for my fibe-gallon bucket

of pribet, dribe home, dig a bery deep
dibbot in the earth, plant it firmly,
and lib happily eber after. The end.

This poem is as close to a lyric as any in the book. Willis’s poems are not formal in the strict sense of adhering to meters, rhymes, or set forms. But the poems are not as all over the place as free form can be. Nor are they inscrutable, like too much contemporary verse. Rather, Willis writes in complete sentences with clear images and unclouded insights. He uses stanzas, albeit irregularly, and his music throughout is lyrical though not rhythmic. Reading him is like reading lyric verse, as long as you don’t start scanning for meters and rhymes.

This third section contains some truly delightful metaphors. Here’s one sample;

Wallflower, if I knew how,
I’d ask you to dance.
But here comes the breeze,
and you do, all on your own,
orange and trembling” (“Western Wallflower”).

Section IV, “Far”, strikes me as the poet expressing his great longings for the remaining days of his life, the things and experiences he most hopes will be repeated and continued in the future. He writes,
… outside with the stars”:
It is strangely beautiful out here,
no instructions needed
for the light to travel all this way. (“Technical Condo”)

More progress. More wonder. More appreciation of everything and every experience. This is what has made up Willis’s journey, and this is what he longs to continue.

One thing Willis can plainly do without is the kind of kitschy pop culture so many people find essential to everyday life. The noise of construction, microwave ovens, popcorn, jet skis, and more are blots on Willis’ survey of the beauty around him. He seems to lament that he can’t even meditate on the Colorado River and long for its return to robustness without being confronted with the transplanted London Bridge. But he hopes – for all creation, not just the Colorado –

I have the feeling you’ll be back,
following your natural course,
your true career, after we have followed
ours to its mechanical conclusion. (“You, Colorado”)

The collection ends, appropriately, with a poem entitled “Almost There”. The poet holds his new grandson as he dreams of another ramble, this one easy and enjoyable for all:
I was walking,
walking in the light, the world falling away
before me, just where I wanted it to be.

This provides an inclusio with the opening and title poem of the collection, where Willis writes,
And yet the path
appears at your feet, disappears
between two trees, an invisible door.
Once you set out this slender way,
do not look back, for the trail
will have vanished behind you.
No one else can come this far:
this path is a lamp for your feet only. (“Somewhere to Follow”)

These poems look at the world as creation, not nature – a place and things fraught with wonder, beauty, mystery, and transcendence. Human life in this creation is a journey – hard, funny, fruitful, strange, fearful, and full of wonder and appreciation of all kinds. What makes these poems Christian is their vantage point, tone, clarity, depth of meaning, detailed and appreciative descriptions, and care in composition. Reading these poems, one might well experience, as I do, Paul’s testimony that the things of God can be known through things that have been made. And this is particularly true when those things are presented to us by the pen of a master craftsman and composer like Paul J. Willis.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is Principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition, and writer and producer of The InVerse Theology Project. He and his wife Susie make their home in West Grove, Pennsylvania and co-write a daily worship devotional entitled Scriptorium. T. M.'s poetry has been published in a variety of journals, and he is the author of more than 40 books. He and Susie lately published Ruth: Redeeming Grace, which is available at The Ailbe Bookstore.

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