Book Review: In the Custody of Words: Poems

Billy Middleton

In the Custody of Words: Poems
by Philip C. Kolin
Franciscan University Press, 2013.

Philip C. Kolin’s new chapbook In the Custody of Words begins with a Latin epigraph of the opening lines from the Last Gospel: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The importance of words and language as a fundamental element of creation informs this collection. God, as creator, is the divine wielder of words. But throughout, Kolin conveys the sense that words are a source of great power not just for God, but also for those who seek to spread His knowledge, and perhaps most importantly, for the poets—such as Kolin—who aim to capture the essence of creation. To be held in the “custody of words” is to exist in a world that can only be understood and comprehended through language.

It is no surprise, then, that Kolin opens with a poem entitled “God’s Word,” in which he lists “a benefice of gifts / in earthly shadows” delivered to us by the very voice of God, “older than water.” Notably, God’s benefice of gifts upon men includes both objects of art—horns, chalices, lamps—as well as implements of war—two-edged swords, bucklers, bows, “a reign of syllables for sojourners / accustomed to centuries / of seeking a deaf old father.” This opening poem of Custody highlights the words of God as the language of creation: God merely need speak the syllables and this benefice of gifts is created. Kolin wisely avoids trying to provide an easy answer to the question of why both sets of gifts are necessary in a world created by an ostensibly benevolent creator, but by ending the poem with the dying words of Christ: “consummatum est”—“it is finished,” he suggests the worldly, temporary nature of suffering.

In “Creation,” one of my favorite poems from this collection, God is not merely the benevolent creator of all things, but also the creator of nature’s own self-creativity:

He peoples the darkness with stars:
Eyes in all that vastness.
He stores sunlight in his tabernacle
Doling out each day enough to gladden
The trees and moons with their changing
Colors. Vestments over land and sea.

Space is a trellis in his garden
He scatters organelles, pods, bulbs,
Protozoa, spermatazoa, ovaries
All bursting into blossom. Every womb
Awaits the coronation of its birth.
Stone fruits and star apples.

He breathes obbligatos,
By turns symphonic, volcanic.
The seasons speak through him.
In the fullness of time, bread’s bounty
The sacrifice of grapes becoming wine.

The God of this poem is one who is gifted with the foresight not merely to create, but also to provide mechanisms by which all of His creations can propagate. This is a God not only of faith, but also of science, one who identifies problems and wills into existence solutions. This capacity for problem solving is another trait, like language itself, that mankind has inherited from Him.

In “Obsequies for Thomas à Kempis,” Kolin provides an example of one of these earthbound acolytes in whom book-learning and religious wisdom intersect. Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471) is one of the most revered Christian writers, and his devotional book Imitation of Christ is possibly the most widely read and circulated Christian text aside from the Bible itself. Kolin points out the formative role his teachings had on a number of Christian authors: Ignatius, Merton, Bonhoeffer, John Paul I, and though he doesn’t explicitly say so, on Kolin himself. He draws attention to Kempis’s ascetic modesty via the scrolls “papering your cell / with words that denied / the very fame they brought you,” and he places Kempis’s “threadbare sentences” in contrast to the “brave and arrogant phrases of redactors.” Here again, Kolin illustrates for us the power of words, but he draws a notable distinction between the simple “threadbare” words used by Kempis and the “brave and arrogant phrases” of those who would try to overly beautify God’s word for their own glory. An economy of language, both Kempis and Kolin suggest, is all that is needed to capture the glory of God’s word. Despite the many poetic and beautiful turns of phrase, the value of economical language is revisited again and again in the poems within this collection. Grieving Procura, Pilate’s wife, is haunted by fever dreams of a thorn-crowned Christ who “seems to speak in monosyllables”; the “Holy Men and Women of God” are set apart by a lexicon that “swells / with indivisible syllables.” These passages and others suggest that, for Kolin, clarity of an idea or image is best achieved through straightforward language: the threadbare language of the scholar, not the arrogant phrases of the glory seeker.

Many of Kolin’s poems use words to grant profundity to seemingly mundane subjects. In the poem “Fish,” for instance, this simple animal is linguistically transformed into “ichthus gloriosus / the motto of Christ,” which “hosannas across oceans and rivers.” Their mouths breathe “the mystery of air,” hinting at the presence of the breath of creation in all things. And just as Kolin identifies the divine in the smallest of creatures, he also identifies it in the people we might overlook. In “The Secretary,” Kolin describes a woman unversed in the deepest secrets of theology, aside from what she could find in the words of her Baltimore Catechism. She is a woman who is “martyred / by pinstriped despots who stood over her.” But even her limited knowledge of the word of God grants her power. She replies with “smiles and ‘Hail Marys’” and spreads “the kingdom at the Merchandise Mart / where she knew why God made her.” Kolin identifies the breath of divinity in the smallest of animals and those people who others, such as the “pinstriped despots,” might disregard as meek and powerless. He highlights their capacity, through language, to be transformed into something greater.

The power of words is of course not the only theme binding together the poems. Many of the poems, including “The Secretary,” aim to bridge the gap between the ancient days of Christian mythos and more contemporary times, suggesting perhaps the timelessness of God’s word. But because the focus on language as a tool both of creation and the comprehension of creation is such a precisely and deftly explored theme throughout most of the collection, some of the poems in which this theme is less intricately examined feel slightly out of place. The poem “Precious Blood,” for instance, aims to meld the contemporary with the classical, likening twentieth century martyrs Oscar Romero and Emmett Till, as well as Capuchin priest Padre Pio, with the sacrificial oxen of Christian antiquity. This conceit isn’t entirely successful, and “Precious Blood” is, remarkably, one of the few entries in Custody that feels somewhat heavy-handed, which is certainly a risk inherent in the writing of religious poetry, and one that Kolin deftly avoids in most instances by focusing instead on the intricate, multifaceted ways that words can function as tools of power, tools of analysis, and tools of creation, a notion that can be appreciated by the believer and the doubter alike.

To be held in the custody of words, Kolin’s collection suggests, is to recognize that words are our sole means of describing creation, and are part of creation themselves. It is with words that we name all the things of heaven and earth. It is with words that we describe and analyze these things in the hopes of understanding them better. And it is with words that we write poems to honor them.

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