The following are excerpts from book reviews submitted by undergraduate students in the Journal Editing class that was offered by the Department of English at Caldwell University in the Fall 2016 semester in conjunction with the submission period for Presence 2017. Their work helped the journal be able to support some additional authors and earlier books for which we did not have space in the print edition of Presence 2017. Poets reviewed here are: Charlotte Barr, Kevin Brown, Scott Cairns, Ann Cefola, David Craig, Brian Doyle, Maria Fama, Gerry LaFemina, Janet McCann, Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, and Susanna Rich.
Steven Hinkle on Charlotte Barr's Looking Up (Parson's Porch Books, 2015)
The titular poem in Charlotte Barr's fourth full-length collection, Looking Up, uses both natural and manmade tall objects, such as giraffes, mountains, trees, and skyscrapers to remind readers to connect the act of looking up to their sense of God's closeness to human life: "O Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Alpine highs / When I beheld you, Heaven was nigh." . . . Later in the poem, Barr compares the Chrysler Building in Manhattan to Chartres Cathedral in France:
Of buildings made by hands, I honor
Chartres, sacred and solitary in
Rural France, but no less if no more
Shining amid New York's busy din,
The Chrysler Building, my silver one.
While the cathedral is a holy and sacred place, Barr places equal value upon the Chrysler Building, showing that God can reach us through both sacred and secular means. Ordinary people can achieve God's grace and salvation as easily as people who have devoted their entire lives to God by starting at the human base and looking up.
Sarah Morse on Kevin Brown's Liturgical Calendar (Wipf & Stock, 2014)
Kevin Brown's Liturgical Calendar is a collection that is explicitly Catholic in that it guides us chronologically through the days in the Church's liturgical calendar. However, with the exception of the titles, Brown's approach is largely implicit, inviting readers to consider mundane human experiences in sacred terms. Anyone with or without knowledge of the specific saints and feast days can enjoy this book because it invites reflection upon loss of love, childhood experiences, and the grief of adulthood.
My favorite poem is quite representative of the book as a whole. "Easter Saturday: The Week After Easter" begins with a colloquialism that leads to meditation upon it: "We do not know how to do / after;" Then Brown's speaker continues by giving a number of observations from everyday life, which I find myself appreciating largely for their sound: "something new for supper, a soufflé, or / sockeye salmon." Then, as he does so frequently in this collection, Brown utilizes the last few stanzas to surprise the reader by elevating these everyday observations to a place of spiritual reflection. We desire a perfect ending to our day, such as a delightful supper.
But we find
people with holes in their hands and feet
who want us to put our finger in their sides,
to touch them
He compares the apostles' encounter with the post-resurrected Christ to the difficulty we have in believing in other people in our modern relationships.
In the final poem of the collection, "Saturday of the Thirty-Fourth Week of Ordinary Time: Dream Deferred," Brown's love for poetry meets the pressures of the working world and the prevailing attitude about the insignificance of poetry and, essentially, of the soul in the modern world, in his discourse with a more practical friend:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . When I put a poem
to paper, took the time to create
rhyme and meter, you warned me that words
are worthless in today's world, that people want
to see ideas on a screen, with special
effects, so I stored it in the back
of a drawer, . . .
The world's preoccupation with efficiency and its lack of interest in feeding the soul is aligned with the rejection of self, of poetry and, by extension, of all things divine.
Gabriella Farina on Scott Cairns' Idiot Psalms (Paraclete Press, 2014)
Scott Cairns' collection, Idiot Psalms, focuses on the richness and refinement of words. An Orthodox Christian, Cairns crafts his poems with precise language. His poems seamlessly weave together his love of language with his love of Christ to create a collection that is best read aloud in order to hear the musicality of the words. While the collection is structured around fourteen different Psalms, poems found in between these make explicit his struggle with trying to put audible words to inaudible feelings, but ironically these poems manage to do just that. Cairns artfully confronts the challenge of putting into words, those speechless moments.
The prayer poem, "A Word," takes the struggle of finding words with which to talk to God and strengthens it in the context of a deep, spiritual loss of communication between God and us.
She said to God. He seems to be there
when I call on Him but calling
has been difficult too. Painful.
And as she quieted to find
another word, I was delivered
once more to my own long grappling
While the speaker in "A Word" and the woman named in the epigraph, Aliki Barnstone, both grapple with finding the right words to use in prayer to God, in a later poem, "Articulation," there is a sense of acceptance of the limitations of the human word.
What I have come to say is never quite
sufficient; what I have come to say falls
ever short, if reliably--my one,
my only certainty. This fact, for now,
can prove both deep discouragement and deep,
elusive hope. I've come to trust our words'
most modest crap shoot; I have come, as well,
to see their limit as my proof. . . .
The limitations of the human tongue are proof of the higher being, higher power ofGod. Human words are only temporary, but the Word of God is everlasting and needs no speaking. The power of the Word of God is felt, not verbally spoken.
Susana Barbagallo on Ann Cefola's Face Painting in the Dark (Dos Madres, 2014)
Reading the poems in Ann Cefola's Face Painting in the Dark is equivalent to stepping into a realm of heightened senses. Each poem challenges us in situations such as marriage, death and encounters with nature, to name a few. Each poem engages the senses, inviting readers to feel the connection between divine and human reality.
In "Postcard," the speaker dares to connect two realms of being: heaven and earth.
The dead do not listen to entreaties; they watch.
Stirred by tears, love, work.
Moved like saints to lift a hand, May it be so. And it is:
That which they bind in heaven is bound on earth.
The idea of the dead as saints suggests to readers that once people die, they gain a sort of power that is all-knowing and all-seeing and their actions in heaven will affect our earthly life. The poem seems to go so far as to claim that the presence of the dead can be felt on earth through natural occurrences, such as the wind that blows while the speaker is walking her dog: "Their [the dead's] eyes stretch over an entire house, lips blow one leaf / behind my dog and me as we walk along, wondering, / Who cares for us?" This poem declares there is life after death, and we are given signs of this state of being in the natural world, which becomesa "postcard" on which the dead write to us.
Shyheima LeGrand on David Craig's Trouble in the Diocese (Wipf & Stock, 2014)
In David Craig's Trouble in the Diocese, truth is revealed in jest. His poetic style is light and conversational, and yet his poems offer profound implications of problems within the Church. Within the work, the character of the Apprentice is ambivalent toward the world around him and journeys the world to understand Christ. . . . In "The Apprentice Sings a Cappella," the Apprentice advises:
If you want the truth
you must look for it.
It's that simple.
If it's there, it will stick a foot out
as you try to pass in the diner.
He will hold his side
laughing as you fall,
like an insurance salesman
. . . This collection of poetry offers a detailed account of the complexity of our journey to faith, a journey in which humor is essential, salvific because it signals our understanding and acceptance of our need to change.
Annmarie May on Brian Doyle's A Shimmer of Something (Liturgical Press, 2014)
Brian Doyle's A Shimmer of Something is a book of narrative "proems" in which glimmers of faith shine through moments in everyday life. Doyle's pieces are easy to read and allow readers to draw their own conclusions about the significance of the stories for their own lives. By virtue of the quality of sincerity that can be sensed from the proems, readers feel compelled to share Doyle's proems with others. I kept bookmarking them and sharing them with different people because they opened my eyes to the meaning in personal encounters we have with others every day.
In "A Quiet Sergeant Tells a Story," a sergeant is catching people as they jump from the Pentagon after the plane crashes into it on 9/11. One woman was afraid to jump because of her weight, but the sergeant demands her to do so and braces for the impact, only to experience lasting damage to his back. The two are still friends today and laugh about the incident: "God bless me if she and I do / Not laugh and laugh when she says that, though / I have to tell you, it hurts like the devil to laugh." Doyle's use of common, contemporary expressions forces readers to find meaning in casual speech, and his blunt and honest humor allows the reader to embrace the faith found in the story.
I also really loved "Full in the Face," which is another short narrative poem about a man who revisits the restaurant where he had proposed to his girlfriend many years ago. Their waiter is still there and approaches him and asks about his family's happiness, and the man is impressed that the waiter remembers him. The bible tells us that God knows each of us individually, and Doyle's piece suggests that the speaker of the poem sees Jesus in the waiter, who remembers him and cares for him personally. This brief proem inspires readers to find Jesus in others, implementing their faith in their daily lives.
Since reading this book, I find myself being more curious about others and the stories from their daily life as well as analyzing the religious significance of events in my own life. This book continues to reveal God's presence on earth in other people as well as in their actions. Doyle eloquently shows his readers how close God is to us. I would recommend it to anyone interested in thinking more about how encounters with others in their daily life can have an impact on their faith.
Jamie Weglarz on Maria Fama's Mystics in the Family (Bordighera Press, 2013)
Maria Fama's Mystics in the Family is a collection of poems that show us the crazy spiritual experiences of her Sicilian family. From the laughs to the struggles, we experience her life. In the first and title poem in this collection, "Mystics in the Family," she defines what mysticism means in her family: "It means that one learns / that life is open / that life is more." Her belief in the possibility of a living soul's union with God is inherited from her family. Her poems reflect her own experience as a woman and as an Italian American. Her family opens her eyes to engage in faith and love.
Fama's family's faith in prayer permeates the volume. Her personal attachment to saints, particularly Lucy and Rita, Gennaro and Anthony, can be seen in a number of poems, many of which bear a title with the saint's name explicitly present. Her faith in prayer springs from her mother's actions when Fama was growing up. Her mother taught her how to pray for people in need in their community. In the often repeated refrain of "My Mother's Prayer List," the speaker explains that members of their community "asked her / Pray for me / pray for us / pray for me / and she did." Then, in numerous instances of incremental repetition, she further explains, "My mother kept a list / a long list a long handwritten list / she kept a long handwritten list / of all those who asked her to pray." Her mother had such a big heart that many people would ask her to pray for them.
Through her mother's acts of love for others, Fama came to understand how the Church could be called "The Mother Church." In "Mass at La Matrice," she carries on her mother's tradition of prayer while visiting her aunt in Sicily: "I didn't know the words / to the songs she sang / / I prayed in English in my head." No matter the language used, the Church's members were united by sharing the same mother, the Church.
Celeste Post on Gerry LaFemina's Little Heretic (Stephen F. Austin State UP, 2014)
The poems in Gerry LaFemina's Little Heretic speak to the soul and all of its infinite questions about love, God, religion, faith, sex, falling from grace and getting up again. . . . His poems display unique forms and styles that differ from one poem to the next, but contain a coherent voice. The first poem of the collection, "New Year's Day," sets the tone for the book and abolishes any preconceptions that this is going to be just another book of stuffy religious poems:
A moment ago church bells from Seventh Street
silenced the few whistling song birds up this early.
So much of the city awhisper
like shy Catholic students
who are mortified by just thoughts of last night.
Already the sanitation crews have performed
their thankless tasks, sweeping up the confetti of resolutions
& consigning the revelries to memory
This poem resonates directly with readers because everyone has made mistakes and harbors regrets, yet each day we move on, wishing to cleanse ourselves of this guilt.
Another poem, "Dim Sum," captures perfectly the feeling of unworthiness that accompanies this feeling of guilt. While eating dim sum in a "faux pagoda" in Chinatown, the speaker watches a number of people dance or talk or kiss, "as if happiness had been gift-wrapped / solely for them." Grateful for this "opportunity" to witness happiness, the speaker "place[s] a ten dollar bill in the mission box / a homeless friar holds out," receiving his "blessing." Grateful further for this blessing, the speaker tells readers: "so I give him another ten bucks, unworthy. / This is the cost to walk with one's sins / even among the city's blessed anonymity." In the Catholic faith, everyone walks with sin, but if one believes in God and has faith that their sins are forgiven, their sins become, in a sense, anonymous. By weaving religious language among the everyday goings on of city life, LaFemina gives readers a sense of belonging and inclusion as they too struggle with balancing sin, love, and God.
The poems in Little Heretic allow us to find the faith in what might be considered heresy. Punk rock, sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, hungover late-night rides on the B-train, the ravaged alleyways of Manhattan--all of these places are turned into places of religious questioning and discovery. In this bustling reality where life and faith collide, Gerry LaFemina's Little Heretic provides shelter from the storm.
Catherine Stansfield on Janet McCann's The Crone at the Casino (Lamar UP, 2013)
Janet McCann's 2013 collection, The Crone at the Casino, confronts the challenges of the forward moving passage of time in stanzas filled with mattress shopping, a night at the casino, a visit with an elderly Cinderella, and many, many cats. While McCann is eccentric both in subject matter and form, she is effective in evoking the internal fear of running out of time, while never relinquishing her ability to celebrate the small joys of life. Her lines are as self-depreciating as they are self-respecting; her poems, as humorous as they are sorrowful. She explores the mysteries of God with the familiarity of feline companions, putting the "cat" in "Catholic." Her words are open and honest, and yet so well-crafted that reading her poems does not feel invasive.
While McCann's work edges closely to the end of life, it avoids reaching the threshold, the after, that would be too explicitly religious to show the comfort that faith provides. In the ekphrastic poem, "The Home of the Radioactive Cats," based on a surrealistic sculptural/photography piece aptly titled Radioactive Cats by artist Sandy Skoglund, she gives a casual voice to people within a sci-fiesque scene filled with glowing green clowder, "the cats, they're killing me anyway, / might as well smoke." This indifference toward death combined with the mystification of radioactive cats offers a reassurance to dying that is equally effective in comfort than mere promises of the afterlife.
The Crone at the Casino is not simply the work of an animal lover or a zealous Catholic, but the result ofhomage to art and the imagination and a welcome addition to the creative world.
Megan Ilievski on Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's Lovers' Almanac (Wipf & Stock, 2015)
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's collection, Lovers' Almanac, explores the paradox between the limited capacity of humans to love perfectly or unconditionally and the notion of eternal love that is the foundation for marriage. Beginning with a sonnet sequence that narrates the eternal love between a man and woman who have been married for many years, the collection also includes numerous poems that focus on female figures from Greek mythology, Italian Renaissance art, as well as modern American art and poetry, including Eurydice, Botticelli's Virgin Mary, Edward Hopper's A Woman in the Sun, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O'Connor, and Sylvia Plath. Love may be endless love, yet lovers struggle with superiority, challenges, and unfairness. The figure of the woman lover in this collection embodies this paradox when she is defined by an inferior role in society and yet is capable of superior love for others.
While the variety of lovers in this collection all face obstacles to perfect love, a sense of their being able to overcome the darkness permeates the collection as a whole. The concluding two lines of the penultimate poem in the collection, "On Leaving the Inferno," suggests this faith and hope in love with a reference to the end of Dante's Inferno: "They bore the dark inside of them / back to the world of light again." After their journey through Hell, Dante allows himself and Virgil to walk out upon the earth and see the light, whose source is understood as divine.
The source of human love is divine, and so the paradox of the strength and limitation of human love is reconciled in Christ's love, which is explicitly stated as the source of love in a marriage. The sonnet, "A Cana Blessing," which concludes the central section of the collection, reminds us of the Bible story in which Jesus performs the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding celebration of a young couple:
And so Christ comes to touch these lovers here,
to change young love into love full and fine,
love that pours out plenty from year to year.
love in such excess it is theirs and yours and mine.
Love is for everyone. With Christ's love entering into the marriage, the love between husband and wife will increase, rather than diminish, over the years as well as cause love to spread among those who attended the wedding, to future children, and so on providing a sign of Christ's eternal love for us.
Cassandra Winnie on Susanna Rich's Surfing for Jesus (Blast! Press, 2017)
Susanna Rich's Surfing for Jesus is divided into six sections with epigraphs that are quotations from important historical figures whose viewpoints on religion permeate the poems in that section. This structure allows both Rich and her readers to "surf" through six waves of questions that arise about religion, giving her book an authenticity that supports finding one's own spiritual identity in the process.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than SINCERE IGNORANCE AND CONSCIENTIOUS STUPIDITY" opens the third section, which portrays disgust with people of different religions commenting, degrading, and criticizing other people of religions that differ from their own. "Passover: to My Husband" contains the prejudiced views of the speaker's Catholic father toward her Jewish husband: "My father wouldn't lead me down the aisle: / you are a Jew, and hadn't asked him--cognac to cognac--for my hand." She proceeds with statements her father made to her like "[g]ood Catholic Hungarian girls marry / Royal Austro-Hungarian Empire types" and "have children." Her father "put a spell over her Holocaust books," telling her not to let Jewish people "lie" to her. Her father's prejudiced speech continues when he says, "Catholic priests, good people die...eh, Jews-- / Jewish bankers, Jewish doctors, / Jewish control the media . . . I asked him not to." Rich is embarrassed by her father's bigotry and asks him to stop speaking with such bias and vulgarity, but he will always wish that "no children will mix his blood with the Jews'." She uses her own father as an example of how cruel people can be in not accepting others just because of their religious views.
The final, and sixth, section of the collection is dominated by a question raised by Joan Osborne's pop lyrics, "What if God was one of us--just a stranger on a bus, trying to find His way back home?" Here Rich asks: do we blind ourselves to God? This question can be seen in Rich's "Twelve Days Before Christmas," which makes unique use of two traditional metaphors: "blindness" to God and God's light versus Satan's darkness:
St. Lucy plucked out her eyes
to be unlovely to all who could not see.
Lucifer was banished not for darkness,
but that to darkness he might bring
a too unrelenting light.
Here Rich conveys the danger of being blinded by what we think is a strong light of faith. Physical blindness becomes a metaphor for the power of possessing spiritual insight outside of traditional frameworks.