Reaching Forever: Poems by Philip C. Kolin
Cascade Books, 2019; 128 pp., $17.00
Review by David Armand
Philip C. Kolin’s latest collection of poetry, Reaching Forever, takes the reader on a meditative, almost monastic, journey through a Dante-like spiral of earthly and heavenly places—a beach on the Gulf of Mexico during an unseasonable ice storm, an orphanage in 1950s Chicago, a homeless man’s “cardboard manger” in New York, a church in the country, a garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro, where catadores search as “Buried relics molt and twist / into rosaries of green rind; thorny / knots and strangling vines wrap / around lampposts doused with darkness.” Yet it is so often, as Kolin reminds us, that it is in these places where one can “hear God’s breathing.”
However, Kolin’s spiritually searching eye consistently goes beyond the obvious imagery and sense of moral didacticism that most readers might associate with this type of poetry. Instead, the poet takes his reader to darker settings, a contemporary Virgil guiding Dante through the circles of Hell and to places that likely would never appear in any watered-down biblical tract. For example, in “A Prisoner of Christ,” the poet takes the reader to a prison in Mississippi, where a monk
[…] was called to be a prisoner of Christ
in a different kind of hermitage
salving souls in cells at Parchman Penitentiary
teaching unschooled monks in striped habits
to sigh the name of Jesus.
And it is this sort of seemingly paradoxical imagery (the idea that Kolin calls the “luminescent dark”) that is threaded throughout the entire collection, suggesting the necessary doubt one must confront before having a true communion with God and the divine. Or as Kolin later puts it, in “Autumnals,” “But uncertainty is also a catechism—”. And like the most sincere seekers, Kolin knows that “Only muddy water can scrub a soul clean.”
To further layer this idea with the type of complexity that a true communion with God requires, Kolin later questions, in “Magdalen Redux,” “But who keeps a garden in a tomb?”
seeming to ask if the earthly work we do, e.g., making poems, creating art, is ever worth the effort in a fallen world. Interestingly, he seems to answer this question in the affirmative, earlier on in the collection, in a poem called “Trees in Late Autumn” when he writes, “But whether they / blossom and bloom, / or stand mute in the cadaver cold, // […]. It’s all sacred forestry.” These poems are sacred, we’re sacred, the world is sacred. Kolin seems to know this, to understand that God knows this, and that it is “through the long night, / God reveals his handwriting.” And if Kolin was ever uncertain of his own faith, these poems seem to suggest he has arrived at a place now—both as a poet and as one of God’s sacred creations—in which “reaching forever” is possible, that there is a place that exists where “you realize you do not / have to wear / your body anymore.” And it is through poetry, making beautiful things, i.e., “reaching,” that one might just be able to achieve this state.
The poems in Reaching Forever are further organized into sections which seem to track the movement of one’s potential ascent into Heaven (or “forever”), thus into knowing, awareness. It opens with a baptism (“Where Water Flows”); then slowly and meditatively descends (“Seasonals”), taking the reader through the darker realms (“Wolves”), only to be purified (“Sheep”), where one must “move uphill / toward the calling wind”; which then takes the reader to the penultimate section, “God’s Voices” and ultimately “Toward Forever,” wherein Kolin closes the collection with a poem that seems to allude to Frost’s “Directive”:
Let your eyes write
new tears for a pilgrimage
to a place you cannot see.
for the thick darkness.
That is when he will call
for you. Till then
quiver your soul.
Don’t think about
being made in his image.
You will only be looking
into a dark mirror.
In addition to this satisfying structural movement of the collection, allowing it to read like a sort of faith journey, the poems in Reaching Forever are rife with evocative imagery that “makes a joyful noise, rising above / the morning of the dark river”, images that allow the poet (and the reader) to get at what Ezra Pound called the “luminous details” of life, or perhaps even more apropos here, what Hopkins referred to as “dappled things,” “[a]ll things counter, original, spare, strange;” here the reader encounters, for example, “louvered sunlight,” “hair like carpenter’s / shavings,” “wounded / pomegranates,” “rocks / coffined in sludge”, “an apertif of summer’s banquet, / stars and moon lilting across / fields, lawns, hillocks, knolls.” Indeed, Kolin’s is a world where “The moon grows / into a large crystal dial / telling sacred time,” a world where everything is most certainly sacred, but one “whose canvas / must be submerged / to be seen.” This again goes back to the idea of the necessity of descending before one can truly transcend, ascend, or “reach forever,” as the case may be. And Kolin submerges his reader as well, in a baptism of language, breaths of words and images, languorously inhaled and exhaled as one might breathe upon waking from a long, deep sleep. Kolin’s is a layered, nuanced voice, one crying in the wilderness to hopefully save us all, one lost lamb at a time “before the sheep gate / closes.”
David Armand is Writer-in-Residence at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife, and has since published two more novels, two poetry chapbooks, and a memoir. David has recently finished his fourth novel, The Lord’s Acre, and is currently working on a collection of essays. He has published reviews in New York Journal of Books, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Lit Pub.