Weekly Standard / September 11, 2017 /43
Poetry and Prayer
Two new collections that grapple with grief, hope, and faith.
by James Matthew Wilson
The Frangible Hour
by Catherine Chandler
University of Evansville, 81 pp., $15
by Timothy Murphy
North Dakota State, 158 pp., $24.95
To read the second and final stanza of Catherine Chandler’s “Chasubles”—“Summer’s a smiling charlatan / camouflaged in green / where violet truths lie mantled in / the seen and the unseen”—one might think American religious poetry is now much as it was in Emily Dickinson’s day. The reclusive maid of Amherst wrote hundreds of strange poems in variations of the ballad measure, many of them exploring the feeling one has of God lurking somewhere in nature, always a mystery, never allowing himself to be seen straight, but only “slant.” Chandler’s stanza engages in just Dickinson’s sort of play; nature is a “charlatan,” because her “green” is less lasting than it appears to be on a summer afternoon, and yet nature is also more than it appears, a “mantle” hiding, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “the seen and the unseen.”
Chandler, like Dickinson, is a poet of divine mystery, but the similarity ends there. Whereas Dickinson’s poetry remains a frontier eccentricity in our tradition precisely because of its odd cramming of intellectual profundity into the quaint form and cute imagery of the folk ballad, Chandler is a demonstrated master of poetic technique who, in The Frangible Hour, attempts some fantastic feats of ingenuity to make stanzaic forms adequate to her meaning, especially in her variations on the conventional sonnet.
The tension between form and feeling in Dickinson seems in retrospect essential to her New England Protestantism, for which nature was at once a sign of God’s determinations and a wild emblem of the devil’s temptations. Chandler’s poems, in contrast, suggest the complementarity of nature and grace, of faith and reason, proper to Catholicism. In one poem, for instance, a swing out in the family’s backyard becomes simultaneously an example of the laws of physics governing nature, an expression of God’s providential order amid apparent chaos, and an instrument of childhood magic that charms her father home from work.
Her poems begin in the particulars of her mature life in Montreal and her Catholic childhood in rural Pennsylvania, digging into them to discover the significance they conceal. A combination of technical power and intellectual depth shows in her poems named after Pennsylvania wildflowers, in which Chandler’s wit draws the botanical and the biographical together in surprising ways. Even more impressive are the three groups of poems that conclude the collection, consisting of elegies for her mother and father, and “Almost,” which records the almost insufferable vigil at her daughter Caitlin’s bedside, after she has suffered a cerebral aneurysm. In each instance, present grief is reckoned with and overcome by remembrance of the past and a sense that suffering belongs to the divine mystery. In one elegy for her mother, she writes,
Gone is the golden mountain of our youth;
gone is its rarefied reality.
Still, there lies an element of truth
amid this crushing verticality.
Down. Down in history we go:
past anthracite, the color of all woe.
Every journey to the underworld is followed by a return to this world with new knowledge. So the poems for her mother conclude with one in which she finds, in the now-empty house, “a faded ribbon-festooned box”:
Inside, my fairy-stolen baby teeth
and first-shorn locks
acknowledge, in an elegant goodbye,
that I was once the apple of your eye.
The most appealing poems in Chandler’s volume are the sketches of midcentury America found in the sonnet sequence “One-way Street.” They remind me of E. A. Robinson’s affectionate but unsparing and precisely imagined poems of rural Maine. In her sustained attention to the regional, in her mastery of form, and also in her Catholic faith, Chandler has much in common with the North Dakota poet Timothy Murphy. Murphy has published three previous books of poetry and a memoir treating of farm and hunting life in his home terrain, all of which have received critical praise for their taut, restrained metrical forms and their honest treatment of daily life on the Dakota prairie. Much of his work proceeds like a kind of log book, recounting in rhyme battles with alcoholism and sin, the incidentals of a life passed between duck hunts and daily Mass at the local parish. The results have been massive in quantity though uneven in quality, for the same attentiveness to the particular that makes Murphy’s best poems so memorable is sometimes left to carry on about the inconsequential.
Murphy returned to the Catholic faith nearly a dozen years ago and Devotions is his first attempt to gather his poems about the hard pilgrimage toward holiness, undertaken late in life even as one’s dearest friends and family have begun to die. Appropriately, many of the poems are prayers or about prayer, and the way Murphy captures the spiritual life’s immersion in the everyday can be fascinating. “Hunting on Thanksgiving” is dedicated to the friend described in these opening lines of prayer:
Thanks for my tall, Norwegian hunting buddy.
I love him best when his right hand is bloody
from gutting birds.
It ends with thanks for two other “friends” on whom Murphy has depended, his hunting dog and Christ himself:
Thanks for the bird I missed, for Feeney’s flush,
the faint thunder of wings breaking the hush
of mass conducted in the open air.
Thanks for pulling me back from the despair
that might have lost me eighteen hundred days
I have devoted to my Maker’s praise.
Elsewhere, he remarks, “The prairie is a poem rarely read,” and once more prays, “grant me more time to understand, / more years to walk and memorize this land.”
In his youth, Murphy studied at Yale with Robert Penn Warren, “lost in a whiskey haze / with Milton on my mind.” In 1972, he returned home to farm and work as a private investor but continued to struggle with drink. In his waywardness and late devotion we rightly detect an echo of St. Augustine, and so it is unsurprising that the best single poem in this new volume is a translation of a psalm from the saint’s Confessions:
I thirsted, hungered, yearned.
You touched me, and I burned.
How late I came to you,
Beauty ever ancient, ever new.
How late I came to you. ♦
James Matthew Wilson teaches humanities at Villanova. His most recent book is The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition.