Wherever They Are
Jake Oresick begins the poem that gives Mary Ann B. Miller’s collection, St. Peter’s B-List, its title with a vision of a dingy, back-alley bar in heaven:
I sometimes think
About the nightlife in heaven,
And I wonder if there isn’t
A dark spot on the East Side
Where on weekends Eva Cassidy sings
To dimly-lit tables in the clouds.
This perhaps somewhat precious image (one thinks of early scenes from Mad Men or most of Inside Llewyn Davis, nostalgic images about which we hardly care if they ever actually existed or not) sets up a poem that draws together Winston Churchill, King David, and Michaelangelo, among others,as members of a rag-tag band of strivers who have done some good despitebeing broken people—the B-list, the ones you call when your headliners drop out.If this one poem (or at least its title) can serve as a metaphor for the whole collection, it is not because the A-listers didn’t show up.To the contrary, of the just over one hundred poems in the collection,over forty reference a saint in their titles, and at least another twenty refer to a saint or sainthood or saintliness with some form of the word “saint” within the poem itself. This shouldn’t be too surprising for a book whose subtitle is “Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints,” but what makes this a book about the B-list is the way the big guns show up, or the way the rest of the poems imply the saintliness of the non-canonical person (or even action). These poems aren’t hagiography; they aren’t idealizations like Macy’s Christmas windows. They are more like by passers’ meditations on those windows, seeing the impossible world within with our cold, gray world superimposed over it on the glass, wondering how to bridge the distance between the two.
As a Protestant unfamiliar with Catholic doctrines of sainthood beyond the Catholic Encyclopedia, I do not consider myself the primary audience for this book. However, approaching it with an open mind, a love of poetry, and an interest in learning more about how Catholic poets imagine their relationships to the saints, I found nothing in this book to exclude me or keep me at a distance. In fact, there is a helpful appendix at the back that provides brief sketches of all the saints mentioned in the poems. (One wonders how many Catholics will themselves be thankful for this supplement; have you ever heard of the bearded princess, St. Wilgefortis? For that matter, why haven’t we all heard of her? It’s a tripped-out story.)
More importantly, much of the tone and subject matter of these poems will be quite familiar to any religious believer in the modern age (I’m thinking in particular of the work we print in Relief, but it could go for Image, Ruminate, and The Cresset, too, I expect). Perhaps it should not surprise us that Protestant and Catholic writers alike share spiritual experiences such as the struggle between belief and doubt, the attempt to reconcile sacred and profane, and the confrontation between holiness and one’s own guilt. However, if we follow the late Richard John Neuhaus in believing that Protestants and Catholics simply mean something different when they use the word church, or if we consider the simplistic distinction sometimes made between Catholics who emphasize God’s presence in the world and Protestants who emphasize God’s absence, then we might well expect different forms of poetry. But beyond the interest in saints, the striking similarities between the two traditions stood out to me as much as any differences. It could be the case that we are truly seeing not only more ecumenism but a dialectic pull of each tradition toward one another in some particulars. Or it could be that secularity—in Charles Taylor’s sense of a condition of holding all beliefs contingently—puts the kind of pressures on both camps that draw out a certain kind of poetry in response. In the remainder of this review, I want to consider this phenomenon at least in terms of what this single volume taught me about what editor Miller identifies as an “essentially Catholic” attitude: a “belief in and hope for... eventual union with God” (xix)—an attitude Protestants may agree to call “small-c catholic.”
First, the “Catholic” poets in this volume have similar struggles as I do with living out their faith: Jim Daniels rues an act of cruelty that wounded the spirit of a coworker; C. Dale Young tries to sort out the degree of sin for youthful theatricals imitating the real thing; Kelli Russell Agodon looks for a saint for her anxiety; Susanna Rich visits a church on the anniversary of her father’s death and wonders, “How can I find my father’s Jesus in me?” Rich’s sense that a previous generation’s faith was somehow easier is very familiar to me. If Taylor is right, then belief may have been easier in the recent past, at least a little bit, as we have travelled a path of increasing fragility of faith. We feel nowadays like Lorraine Healy, who heaves an ambivalent sigh at her mother’s “docile certainty.”
Faith matters for these poets, but in an interesting way it seems to rarely be a problem in the way I think of it being in more typically “Protestant” poems, and here I do think the different emphases on presence and absence start to figure. Very few of these poems wonder, like Rich’s, where God or his saints are. Rather, they often quite confidently invoke a saint’s aid, or narrate her story, or transpose him to a contemporary setting where he can get up to his old tricks; saints and the presence of God are almost literally everywhere in these poems.
I certainly felt like I began to appreciate better the role of the saints in the Catholic imagination. Saints serve in these poems like weird uncles or pious older sisters, people who show you the way and whom you think about with joy in good times and for strength in bad, but whom you don’t necessarily want to imitate in all respects (Srta. Wilgefortis’s beard comes to mind). They are the ones who have gone before us and suffered injustice, oppression, or insignificance, but made the hard choices for faith rather than comfort. Even Healy, who wants to be dismissive of her mother’s faith, invokes St. Rita via her mother in an ironic joke at her own expense. The saints carry power despite oneself.
Should you read this book? If you are looking for poetry that is pleasant to the eye and ear and that puts many aspects of faith before you in serious and thoughtful ways, then yes. With just a few caveats. First, so many poems on saints do start to wear on one. I did feel like there were relatively few basic moves: transpose the saint to the present to “make it strange,” reflect on a saint’s story as it may relate to one’s present, confess one’s sins in a way that invokes the saint and sometimes makes the sin seem venial, and maybe a few more. Those are great moves, but with the exception of a few poets like Paul Mariani, Kathleen Rooney, or Laurie Byro, I didn’t feel like many people found ways of making their own voices distinct within those moves. Many of them competently and even beautifully adopt the familiar lyric voice, either elevating the mundane to its divine significance or bringing the comfortable reader coldly down to reality. Mariani does both at the same time. Rooney can put a smirk on your face just before she slaps it off. Byro can hold two truths together in a way that makes you squirm. For these voices alone the collection has real value, but do not expect to see a great diversity of poetic form or much experimentation.
For some readers, this book will serve like a devotional. You could easily pray your way through it for half a year, looking to these poems to guide you toward the holy. For others, it will serve as a document of what it feels like to seek the face of God through the stories of his faithful followers in the early twenty-first century. Either way, it is a helpful volume for surveying, evaluating, and experiencing faith in poetry.
Brad Fruhauff is Editor in Chief of Relief and Assistant Professor of English at Trinity International University.