A Review of
Reaching Forever: Poems (Poiema Poetry Series)
Reviewed by Janet McCann
These powerful poems by Philip Kolin are highly satisfying in both literary and spiritual ways. They take the reader through a richly textured South as they meditate on the elements of faith, welding thought and image in a memorable package.
Kolin was born in Chicago and was Professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg for 41 years; he is now professor emeritus. He has published more than forty books, including eight collections of poetry. Though born in Chicago and educated there, most (though not all) of his work is about the South. His poems are rich with the life and lore of the Catholic South, especially Mississippi. They interpret events and issues of injustice in terms of their time and place and also from the perspective of the eternal.
The foreword by Paul Mariani is a welcome introduction to Kolin’s poetry. Mariani discusses the poet’s themes and preoccupations thoughtfully. The book itself is divided into sections, each of which each seems to have its own mood and tone as it reflects on elements of life. The sections are Where Water Flows, Seasonals, Wolves, Sheep, God’s Voices, and Towards Forever. The moods of Wolves and Sheep stand in sharp contrast to each other —the former poems are dark with malevolence, the latter bright hillsides in contrast. From “Plotting” in Wolves: “Irrepressible as maggots, /grudges feast on an old leprous log/limbed by their bite from a wounded/ fallen tree.” (42) From “Cana” in Sheep: “The presence of the distant Galilee flows/ through upland honeyed breezes//to this place of reeds and pomegranates/ where groom and bride sow vows…” (58)
Sheep follow the shepherd, of course, while wolves satisfy their appetites. The Kolin universe is a completely Catholic one, where guilt and sin play a part and not only evil. Evil is a given factor, of course. But the difference is significant for believers. Evil seems a malign force attributed to no one or to “them”—the bad ones. Sin suggests responsibility and choice and the possibility of atonement. The poems never forget that “we are all sinners,” and yet they do not preach. Therefore, they are sometimes oddly comforting because sin, after all, is part of the divine plan.
The poems hold the sacramental vision common to Catholic poetry, and there are formal and informal sacraments. Kolin has a way of keeping a firm grip on the actual, physical level and letting it bear the spiritual level without losing its own reality. The poems in Where Water Flows are particularly image-dense and evocative. “Let There Be Land” begins “The river gives and takes away,” following the changes in the riverbank as “swamps gurgle and sink/ into wetlands, then into currents” (8) and concludes:
A strange farm, this Mississippi, gathers
crops of untilled, unharvested coastlines,
fish, fowl, dreams, Huck Finn afternoons,
hot delta land and cool Cyprus brakes
erased like names on tombstones left unread
because no one can find them.
Saints, prophets, and Biblical figures mix with ordinary folk in this world. Many, varied people who make brief appearances seem almost like characters in a morality play. They may bring some human foible to the speaker’s mind, and thus to the reader’s. Their lives are sometimes apparently slight but since this is teleology, they aren’t. Like the natural scenes, the suffering and sinful as well as the saintly have their place in the frame. The Biblical figures have perceptive, original interpretations. Then of course there are the more layered, developed characters whom we may assume are figures from the poet’s life.
The yearning and the reaching for God are the recurrent theme. The theology is sometimes somewhere between Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor. And as exhibited by these writers, one hallmark of the Catholic who is comfortable within his or her faith is a sense of humor, which in Kolin’s case is dry and understated, often communicated just through how he describes. From “Publicans”:
They rendered unto themselves
what belonged to Caesar and to God;
they figured both already had too much wealth.
Their hands moved like unholy apostles,
six figures on each, grasping,
to tax what they were carrying… (40)
Extremely powerful are the poems of age. The quest for truth is a lifelong one, exhausting and rewarding. The title may have two meanings: that the soul is forever reaching, and that the soul is actually arriving at, reaching, becoming present in, forever.
My own favorite is one of the last ones, “The Canticles of the Dead.” It looks at the issue so many poets and artists wonder about—is there language in the next world? One wonders—is there any needs for words, for music? Is not everything simply known? The poem begins, “Does ownership of language expire/ with breath?” The answer is ambiguous, luminous:
A windblown newspaper snags
on a tombstone but the departed scoff
at the presumption of obituaries
assigning them to the closure of geography.
They bid us to listen
to their gentle canticles
in unison with meadows and clouds,
seeds and currents. (101)
Reading such poems I ask myself, is this poetry for non-Catholics as well? I would say yes. Certainly determined materialists won’t like it, but it has a lot to offer through its wit, imagery, and theology to people of faith. Its gentle, flowing free verse is easy to follow and carries the reader along. No specialized knowledge is required, though it is helpful to check some of the Biblical allusions, especially those in the Book of Samuel. These are poems for a wide audience: the world of spiritual yearning is shared by those who believe and those who would believe.
Janet McCann is a poet whose work has appeared in PARNASSUS, NIMROD, AMERICA, CHRISTIAN CENTURY, CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE, NEW YORK QUARTERLY, TENDRIL, among others. A 1989 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship winner, she taught at Texas A & M University from 1969 until 2015, and is now Professor Emerita. Her most recent poetry book is: THE CRONE AT THE CASINO (Lamar University Press, 2014).