St. Peter’s B-list: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints
Ed. Mary Ann B. Miller.
Ave Maria Press, 2014
288 pp., $13.85
I ncluded in St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints is Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Away from Dogma,” a poetic imagining of three of philosopher Simone Weil’s notable encounters with God. The poem’s speaker describes how, during the second of these episodes, upon Weil’s visit to the Basilica of Saint Maria degli Angeli in Assisi (where that town’s Saint Francis once prayed), Weil
. . . was there a short time when something absolute
and omnivorous, something she neither believed
nor disbelieved, something she understood—
but what was it?—forced her to her knees.
It strikes me that these verses resonate within the whole of this excellent anthology: the description of God as “neither believed/ nor disbelieved,” yet somehow demanding active engagement, seems representative of the experiences and struggles of so many of the contemporary voices speaking through these poems.
Despite the diversity of the speakers (cheeky or sorrowful, believer or non-), there is a cohesiveness to the collection that rivals that of a project by a single poet. Editor Mary Ann B. Miller has chosen almost exclusively narrative and lyric poems, conversational in their tone, and contemporary in their imagery and circumstances, which are united first and foremost in the speakers’ imaginative—and often incidental—engagement with Catholic saints.
Miller is upfront about these editorial criteria in her introduction: “I have chosen poems that are not historical poems,” she writes, adding, “These speakers do not address the saint directly, as if in prayer. They remember the saint in the midst of daily activity while demonstrating varying degrees of belief in or practice of the Catholic faith.” The poets are not necessarily Catholic, but “the content of these poems contains a basic underlying assumption that is essentially Catholic: the voices in these poems reflect belief in and hope for, often in spite of themselves, eventual union with God.”
The result is a rich and frequently challenging portrait of contemporary men and women wrestling, in and through their reflections on the lives of the saints, with questions of beauty, suffering, justice, and the divine—and a remarkably successful portrait, at that.
It’s a treat when the richness of an anthology makes it difficult to choose just a few representative excerpts. In “The Priesthood,” by Mary Jane Nealon (who contributes a number of very good poems to the anthology), we encounter a woman reflecting on her girlhood longing to become a priest (“person in charge of ceremony,/ magician of body and blood,/ absolver of thieves like me”), as well as her relationship, as a Native American, with Saint Kateri Tekakwitha—and then on the evolution of this relationship, along with that of her understanding of the priesthood, colonial history, and God, as she matured. It’s a frank yet empathetic portrait, neither vindictive nor pious, with sharp imagery conveyed through clear language.
In Eliot Khalil Wilson’s “Elegy for the Patron Saint of Letting Small Fish Go” (one of my personal favourites from the anthology), a hospital patient contemplates, with deep compassion, the young burn victim who shares his ward, and asks why this child had to suffer and die. His questioning is manifest (in beauty and heartbreak) in a litany of made-up childhood patronages:
The saints of tree forts, pocketknives, and stadium food.
The saints of waffles and eyebrows and box turtles.
The saint of jam.
The saint of his own bed.
Where were you saints of wheelies and rodeo clowns and rockets?
It’s a deceptively light-hearted poem that left me with a lingering sense of sadness, and impression of vibrant color.
There is, too, the delightful musicality and wit of Martín Espada’s “The Saint Vincent de Paul Food Pantry Stomp,” in which a patron of the titular food pantry, after stomping on someone’s dropped dollar bill, reflects that this occurred
all beneath the plaster statue wingspan
of Saint Vinnie,
who was unaware
of the dance
named in his honor
by the maraca shaker
in the salsa band
of the unemployed.
Equally, as befits the diversity of the speakers, some poems present examples of profound faith. Brian Doyle’s “Santa Caterina,” for example, includes a father’s argument for the
authenticity of Saint Catherine of Sienna’s mystic conversations with God:
Here’s why I believe that indeed yes, a young woman in Italy once
Conversed at length with the One Whom No Name Can Encompass
[. . .]
. . . Sometimes I pretend
Not to hear you, he said to her, but I do hear you. Boy, I know these
Words. Never lower your voice in crying out to me, he says—never
Stop knocking at the door. I know this guy. He’s a dad. His children
Drive him nuts and he would die for them without hesitation.
With few exceptions, the poems in this collection are first-rate. Some readers will no doubt decry the lack of formal diversity represented by these (almost exclusively lyric and narrative) poems; I would argue, however, that in this case the formal cohesiveness serves the project as a whole. Furthermore, Miller has achieved a satisfying degree of textural variation through the inclusion of a few formally experimental works like Mary Ann Samyn’s “Bernadette in Transit” (a tapestry of blank spaces and syntactic fragments), as well as more abstract poetic reflections like Maged Zaher’s “A trap for St. Augustine.”
Fr. James Martin, S.J., in his afterword to the anthology, makes a (fairly poetical) claim for why St. Peter’s B-List represents a welcome contribution to ongoing conversations around faith and literature: “The most important truths about God,” he argues, “are not reached with definitions and proofs but by poems
Given the quality of the poems in this collection, anyone invested in contemporary Catholic literature should find plenty of reason to celebrate.