Few people matter more to us than those who have guided us in– and through– our lives. In part, this is why the loss of one’s parents, lovers, close friends– are such strong losses. In his most recent book of poems, Benedict’s Daughter, Philip C. Kolin remembers Margie, his spiritual director of over thirty years. While her death has created a profound loss, he honors her beautifully in this very Benedictine book of poems. This book uses silence, stillness, work, the daily toils of family and obligations to give us poems that beat with a truly human heart. What a tribute this is. What a gift her life was– and still is.
Philip C. Kolin is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. He also edits Southern Quarterly. He has written and edited forty books, including seven books of poetry. His most recent poetry collection before Benedict’s Daughter, is Emmett Till in Different States: Poems. He is not only a poet whose work I love and admire, I am glad to call him my friend.
Benedict’s Daughter startles from the moment you look at its cover. You see something expected– a traditional image of St. Benedict of Nursia– the father of Western Monasticism, founder of the Benedictines. He stares straight ahead, wearing his black habit. He holds a staff as he was an abbot. Then comes the startling — you realize you gaze at his traditional image through the outline of a woman’s head. I had this exact surprise when I first looked at the cover. So did one of my colleagues when I showed it to her. She looked and several seconds later she almost gasped. We see Benedict through the life of this holy woman who guided the poet, Philip C. Kolin, over fifty years of his life. The image of Benedict is from Zvonimir Atletic. The cover design is masterfully done by Mike Surber. The book continues to work its magic from there.
The book has a monastic shape in itself. It begins with Part 1: Prologue: The Liturgy of the Hours. This section contains five poems. It continues with Part 2 The Journey. This section naturally contains the rest of the poems. Benedict would be pleased. The life is the journey. The book concludes with a beautiful poem titled “The Monks at St. Bernard’s Cemetery. We’ll all arrive there one day.
The book offers us several quotations before the poems begin. I love the words from St. Hildegard of Bingen. She writes:
Humanity, take a good look at yourself. To one side you’ve got heaven and earth, and all creation. You’re a world– everything is hidden in you.
She is right, of course.
The poems begin with a luminous poem titled “Lauds – Day Opens.” Here we see Philip C. Kolin’s beautiful use of verbs and surprising language. He writes:
The book of day opens with
the papery feel of dew on azure;
sun shafts sign the distant hilltops
overlooking the abbey
with heaven’s new covenant.
It’s time to shake off
the mortality of sleep;
the tomb of night is cracked, step out…
And indeed we will. The language of these poems is gentle and ordinary– in a good sense– until it is not– until it surprises us with its quiet beauty.
He continues in the same poem with these words:
The air is inscribed with Gospels
calling us to be a part of forever…
Very quietly, we get details of Margie’s life. We learn that she was rejected by the Benedictine nuns because of her poor health. In the poem, “The Gulls’ Oratory” we learn:
Your body is too frail;
more bones than flesh really.
We are not sure it is strong
enough to keep your soul alive
for a vocation.
The prioress’ words
ended her novitiate.
She had to take off
the white veil and Benedictine scapular
and leave the convent.
In later poems, we learn she became a teacher– a wise one too. In “She Taught Her Classes Proverbs” we learn
She taught her classes proverbs
helping students to grow holy
from the inside out–
first they had to befriend
the skeletons they wore
under their flesh.
God’s blueprint calls for
nature to cooperate with grace.
This poem sings to me. In such simple language, Kolin captures the most basic trauma of human life. We have to accept our mortality. The task of “befriend [ing] our skeletons” is the task of our lives. Such truth in a simple poem of couplets.
Kolin describes an important person in his spiritual guide’s life. In the poem, “The Spiritual Son,” we learn that a refugee from El Salvador showed up at her door and though she knew little at the time about El Salvador, her family took him in as another son.
He showed up, asking in broken
English for work so he could eat.
They gave him raven’s bread
and holy water blessed by the abbot
and claimed his as a son
spirited to them for the journey.
These were the 1970s and 1980s when the Reagan Administration supported the military of El Salvador after President Carter asked the U.S. to stop the military aid. These were the years that Archbishop Oscar Romero gave weekly information to the poor about bodies that had been found. These were the years in which Romero demanded that Salvadoran soldiers not kill their own people. They would, of course, in the end, kill him, also with American money and American-trained assassins.
Like most holy people, Margie kept a garden. There is something about having one’s hands in the earth that keeps one rooted to the true spiritual realities of human life. We learn about her garden in the poem, “The Garden,”
Her garden lay between Eden
and Dead Sea, the city’s drainage
ditch running alongside her house
and the chapel garden in the back
with its cascading St. Francis fountain–
water for thirsty, trilling birds.
She spent the summer trimming
and planting rows of daylilies
along the city’s clutter, beauty twinned with mortality.
We learn of her husband, and her abiding love for him in the stunning poem “In the Month of Blue Moons.” In this poem, Kolin writes:
She wore two wedding rings
on her one finger
one on top
of the other,
his orbiting hers,
a buckler to fend off
In the nursing home
in the hidden half
of his room
so far away.
His memory eclipsed
to the dark side
of the moon.
And a penumbra encircled
the place where
his wedding ring
Wearing it, though,
she could still feel
the pull of his pulse
in this month of blue moons.
To me, this poem is beautiful beyond belief. My parents always spoke of taking the other’s wedding ring when/if one had to enter the hospital. Imagine this scene where the husband is lost to dementia so she wears his ring atop her own. This is lifelong love. This is the real.
We learn of Margie’s death in the poem, “A Hospice Crucifixion.” Kolin beautifully intertwines details from the crucifixion of Jesus with the details of this woman’s death.
A dirge of cool air flies across
the room as her bed lowers
into an open tomb. Lazarus
sits in a chair nearby
waiting for sundown.
It is the ninth hour.
Later as her suffering increases he writes:
She wears a purple cloak.
A nurse records her vanishing
vitals. All the sentinels have left.
Who will count her bones?
The poem closes with these three lines:
The ancient gates open
and martyrs receive her rejoicing,
leading her to the Holy City.
One of the book’s most powerful poems is “A Nurse Called Joseph.” In this poem, we learn of a gentle nurse who helps the suffering as their lives close.
He became a nurse, too,
in places where death spends the night–
nursing homes, hospices, prison cells…
He goes on to write:
In his arms they died, their limp limbs
draped over his muscle-chiseled chest
and rock-hewn shoulders, his words
wrapping them softly in sleep.
If this book of poems does anything, it offers us a life before a life. For believers, which I am not sure includes me, there is a consolation of sorts in the idea the we will be raised again, we will live in a new way after our mortal death. The book ends with “The Monks at St. Bernard’s Cemetery,” a poem about the monks who continue to work and pray, Benedict’s “Ora et Labora,” on both sides of the grave.
About the monks who have died, Kolin writes—
From their earthen chapels
they delight in pruning and planting–
blessing oaks, maples, and willows as they reach
for the sun while other monks
the ones who are living–
tend to the holiness of stones
prayed over in the Ave Maria Grotto
with its cleansing waters
washing away soiled time.
Their voices can be heard
on both sides of the cross,
the two worlds of every prayer.
This book is a gift. Anyone who appreciates powerful and heartbreaking poetry can love these poems. Anyone who has known someone who lived their faith, anyone who has been guided by the love of another can love these poems. Philip C. Kolin lets Margie continue to guide him. She guides us too– through the poetic encounter he has written for her– and for us.