When I write a review / reflection on a book of poems, I usually read through it many times and fold down the page corner on a poem I want to quote. With Philip C. Kolin’s Reaching Forever, after the first few reads, I’d turned the corner down on nearly every poem. This book teems with delicate poems, linking everyday human life with deeper spiritual realities. These poems preach — in the best sense of that word. They show us a way of looking at the world, especially its sufferings, that can still feel like light. Philip Kolin’s poems draw on images from Christian and Hebrew scriptures, the saints and good people who walked– and still walk– this earth. The sections in this book begin in water with baptisms and rivers. He moves us through seasons to the wolves and sheep of the human race. It reaches a peak in a section called “God’s Voices” and closes with mortality, some of the most beautiful poems, in a section called “Toward Forever.”
A bit of a disclaimer is necessary. I’m grateful to call Philip C. Kolin my friend. He has published my work in a few journals where he has edited special editions. He also coordinated a lengthy interview with me about my most recent book, ACHE. Philip is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is also the editor emeritus of Southern Quarterly. He has written over forty books. Two of his most recent poetry collections are Emmett Till in Different States and Benedict’s Daughter. To put it simply, Philip’s kindness is as much a gift as his poems are.
In “The Mississippi River Talks about the Book of Genesis,” the river takes on a parental voice. Speaking to us as children, the poem speaks:
I am wiser than the callow land that seeps through me in its race to the
Gulf of Tears where the souls of sinners go.
I paint rippling murals on shorelines, swamps and lowlands…
We continue to enter the water world in “The Fugitive River.” Here Kolin impresses with the saving power of the water:
It goes where it has to. No shores
Its flow is salvation. Come spring, boughs
hang down to caress it…
The biblical images take over quickly in “Let There be Land.”
The river gives and takes away —
And then in “The River Burial,” we see the first images of the South– which also enliven this book.
It’s Ghenna-hot late August in St. John the Baptist Parish,
the air still as a corpse.
One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Breaking Bread with the Gulls.” Kolin describes a Maundy Thursday sharing loaves of bread with gulls and little girls. By the way, I am writing this on Maundy Thursday, the day Christians remember the Last Supper.
On this Maundy Thursday bread is theology
I carry two loaves of Bunny Bread
88 cents a loaf, about 2 cents a slice.
A multitude of homeless gulls
reclines on the sand, waiting to be fed–
congregation of mendicants…
Kolin blesses us with his use of language. He takes us on a quick journey in simple language and then opens us up with utterly surprising language. The opening stanza of “Azaleas” reads:
Azaleas profess their own theology
teaching how to pronounce
the name of God — gashed wounds
opening into radiance.
These poems keep doing this. They keep showing us light from within very human and natural places.
Another of my favorite poems here is “A Prisoner of Christ.” In this poem, Kolin writes of Fr. Donald Francis Derivaux, originally a Trappist monk, living a life of solitude, who took on another solitude in counseling the prisoners at Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi.
He longed for the life away
anchored in the most quiet dwelling — himself–
moment by moment seeking eternity;
he lived alone with the Alone.
One element some Christians miss is the truth that you can’t be Christian without a deep love for the poor. This theme runs all through Kolin’s writing as he dignifies people who suffer in the various poverties of America. In “The Woman on Short Columbia Street” he shows us a beauty in people many of us would ignore.
I saw her in the month of mumps
puffed up in poverty’s robes,
a woman of fragments,
a shuffling quilt with running threads–
more holes, really, than skein.
You could read history in the headlines
she wore, partial untruths, incomplete
fictions. All of her lovers
failed to match the shoes she put on.
Continuing this theme, he very gently shows us another poverty in “Catadores (the Diggers.)” This poem takes us into one of the largest garbage dumps in the world. Kolin imagines faith, even in a place like this.
The catadores battle vultures and foot-long rats
for property rights; earth and sky
become one, then seep into Rio bay
below telling its own story of tears.
Deep inside this gorge of garbage
the catadores hear God’s breathing
as if he is about to mine more sulphur
or announce salvation.
In the book’s final section, “Toward Forever,” there are poems that take us into voices and places we might never imagine. In “Eve the Day After,” we hear Eve after being expelled from Eden. She worries in the poem’s last two stanzas:
Generations will blame me for breeding
sinners out of this land of ashen lilacs
Adam worries he will fall
We hear a poem in the voice of Job, a man who certainly knew suffering. One of my favorites here, a poem about the death of Joseph, husband of Mary. “Joseph’s Transitus” takes us to Joseph’s deathbed. His ancestors calling him from beyond, his wife beside him, his memories of raising Jesus. He remembers that
he made so many voyages
with the swollen feet of a martyr
fleeing Herod’s wrath
with Mary and the child
to and from Egypt.
He even imagines his wife and son kissing him as he dies:
Now caressing his grainy brow
the wife of his spirit
and then the son he taught to
sing the Psalms.
This book is full of beautiful poems. The images from scripture, the poor, the South, all of these are rich and resonant. Their sounds are wonderful in the mouth and the ear. I did one reading of these all the way through– out loud– the poems were even better that way.
The final poem, I have to confess, took my breath away. As one whose body is aging, this poem spoke to me like a friend. This poem, “When God Arrives,” jolted me into a new way of thinking. I, who have more questions than answers, when it comes to faith, found something rich in this poem. He begins:
Let your eyes write
new tears for the pilgrimage
to a place you cannot see.
for the thick darkness.
That is when he will call
He goes on to write:
He lives in infinity, and his voice is
an octave higher than silence.
He closes with these words:
As his train goes by,
you realize you do not
have to wear
your body anymore.
The poems in Reaching Forever surprise and comfort. They unsettle and they move. I am grateful to be in the world when Philip C. Kolin is writing poems.