Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Interview: Mississippi poet Philip C. Kolin, a man of faith and maker of beauty reflecting faith and God in words--everything you ever needed to know

Philip Kolin has once again heard the whisper of God’s word with the ear of his heart and given poetic expression to the timeless value of that word.

Many of the poems achieve their effect through the use of synesthesia (“a man tastes names,” “Genesis”). Many are also written as lists that build to a resonating moment. Take “On His Comfort.” Musing on God’s concern for mankind, the poem is awash in alliteration (a Hopkins trademark) as it enumerates the ways God has aided his people. The poem’s final stanza is powerfully evocative: “To Lazarus he says take up your corpse/ And taste the light. His tears fill twelve/ stone water jars. He raises a daughter/ Coiled in death. Talithacumi, he whispers./ Little one, rise.” The metaphor, “coiled in death,” seems especially apt.

by Peter Menkin
For some time I have thought about and even meditated on the work of poetry recent to the body of this interview series, as created by the excellent Roman Catholic Christian poet Philip Kolin, of Mississippi, USA. His recent collection is titled Reading God’s Handwriting: Poems as published by Kaufmann Publishing. That pretty little small house owned by the lovely and charming woman Leslie Kaufmann is located in St. Simons Island, Georgia. A short interview with her is included in the Addendum to this interview with the poet Philip Kolin.  Note the work is appealing to Roman Catholics, but as well to others of the Christian faith, including Protestants and what I am going to call evangelicals and those in their independent suite where they are non-affiliated with a denomination. This is referred to as,  “Called.”  I mention this non-affiliated group of Christians because it seems by observation through the seat of this Religion Writer’s pants that they’re a larger and more growing group than thought previously here in the United States. No hard data to support this anecdotal measurement, but I think it lets the reader know that Philip C. Kolin, though markedly Roman Catholic with an intelligent and perceived educated view of faith in Christ, appeals to a wide swath. So be it. For is that not one criterion for meeting this collection of ongoing interviews with American Christian poets? Hence his appearance in this group that is now more than four years of interviews in the making. A book as a collection of the interviews is scheduled for 2013 with the working title, Interviews with American Christian Poets by Peter Menkin.
This interview was begun by phone in February, 2013 and through a series of mishaps and mostly miseries delayed in its posting, despite the fact that poet Kolin, an esteemed professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in this writer’s estimation, was available. Philip Kolin bore these events in a spirit of full cooperation.
His official title is University Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters, The University of Southern Mississippi. The University of Southern Mississippi is not to be confused with Ole Miss, please.
Poet Kolin wrote out responses to the questions in a timely manner. Public apology is due for the
Philip C. Kolin, poet
unforeseen delay in finishing this work, and thanks for a job particularly done with care in his usual meticulous and intellectual manner.  Philip Kolin’s answers, so I have learned about the poet and his habits, in fact his way of working, have a studied way in discipline and refinement. This is a noteworthy trait of years of work in the area of scholarship and editing as well as of poetry. Keep in mind that the poet is well known, even famous, for scholarly writings. But as you’ll see, poet he most certainly is—thanks be to God.
The following comments about Reading God's Handwriting come from Abbot Cletus of St. Bernard Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. It was sent to this Religion Writer by Kaufmann Publishing and is a complete statement, though also appears on the back cover of the book in truncated version—a work of poetry published 2012:

In his new volume Reading God s Handwriting Philip Kolin has once again heard the whisper of God’s word with the ear of his heart and given poetic expression to the timeless value of that word. His writing reflects a sense of reverence that seeks to distill the Divine Word of God and assimilate it into his very being. In the monastic tradition this process is called lectio divina. Such words take up their dwelling and have meaning only in the repetitive process of a hearing that leads to a listening, a pondering, and then, after assimilation, is given expression in the life and activity of the individual. As if praying, Philip has taken it one step farther and given expression in poetic words of profound insight and readability. One who has familiarity with the Bible, the Word of God, will read his poems with delight and will relish the sense of oneness between the writer and the word he has written. His poems offer a treasure of insight and could easily be used as a resource for personal prayer and lectio.--Abbot Cletus of St. Bernard Monastery in Cullman, Alabama

In that initial background conversation by phone with the poet Philip Kolin who was at his home in Mississippi, from the Religion writer Peter Menkin’s home office in Mill Valley, California (north of San Francisco). He said about his background that he took his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, writing on Shakespeare and Elizabethan doctors. He has taught courses in Shakespeare, American drama, and African American theatre. He has spent his life writing…20th century drama person and Shakespearean. Tennessee Williams. Christian symbolism on Williams and Shakespearean. Christian symbolism. Literature and poetry. His work as a poet was pursued in this manner, self-described as…Vocation of poetry …30 years of writing poetry. I taught in the English department for 38 years. Philip Kolin is a Professor of English and also the Editor of The Southern Quarterly at the University of Southern Mississippi. He started his editing career at Northwestern University as the assistant editor of Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama.

Poet Kolin has been editing since the 70s. … And lives in Mississippi…I am a Mississippi writer, a Mississippi poet. Mississippi can easily be conceived as the literary capital of America, the home of Faulkner, Welty, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright. Putting my geography in perspective, readers can see references to the South in Reading God's Handwriting--St. Louis Cathedral, the Mississippi River, the blues which originated in the Delta.

Philip Kolin writes by email regarding his book. He talks about this is one focus of this piece about his work as a poet: Reading God's Handwriting is my most recent book, coming out in August of 2012. Of the poems I have written, the works in God's Handwriting and Deep Wonder: Poems (Grey Owl, 2000) are the most important for me. Each of my books reflects different books of the Bible. The Psalms are behind Deep Wonder while the prophetic books inspired my collection Wailing Walls: Poems. In one sense, Reading God's Handwriting can be seen as a group of parables, heavily indebted to St. Matthew and St. John as well as Revelation.

More from this writer’s notes of a conversation in background with the Poet:
Poets of faith today reflect their own heritage and background. I came to Mississippi when I was 27 years old. Orthodox Roman Catholic background: Jesuits and think tank in Chicago. Emerges from a very conservative Catholic viewpoint.
Orientation is towards Holy Mother Church. I’ve never lost touch with my deeply Catholic heritage.

One hallmark of what I do.
Lectio divina is the driving force--the spirit--behind Reading God's Handwriting. Retrospectively, my earlier books, Wailing Walls and Deep Wonder, are layered in terms of how one's knowledge of Scripture. The more the reader brings Holy Writ to the poem, the more fruitful the reading experience can be. At least, that is my hope. 

For me poetry is insistently visual, architectural. I am concerned about the way a poem looks and how that affects the way readers receive a poem. I want them to pay attention to line and stanza breaks, line length and indentations, enjambment and elision.

And even more from that same set of background conversation by phone to Mississippi from San Francisco area by Peter Menkin, Religion Writer:
A lot of my poems are on the Blessed Mother. My Catholicism is not just reserved for church issues. It

is infused in all my poetry. It is not just a part of my aesthetics or poetry, it is what I do. The covers of my books profoundly connect to my theology.

The review of Reading God’s Handwriting: Poems by poetry editor of the Christian Century is quoted in part by permission of the publisher:

Poetry chronicle
Jan 02, 2013 reviewed by Jill Peláez Baumgaertner
Reading God’s Handwriting: Poems, by Philip C. Kolin
A prolific literary critic, editor of the Southern Quarterly, and University Distinguished Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, Philip C. Kolin is
Jill Baumgaertner
one of the growing tribe of very fine Christian poets whose work has often been
sequestered in the limited venues of independent publishers. His newest collection is a beautifully printed, small hardcover volume that fits comfortably in the palm of the hand.
But these are not small or comfortable poems. Kolin takes on the most expansive of subjects: God’s handwriting (or as he puts it in his preface, “God’s hand writing”) in scripture, history and nature. He draws fresh pictures of biblical figures such as Joseph (“His staff grew lilies to woo her”); St. Anne (“She sat on my lap, / My Mater Dei, flesh / Of my flesh”); and Lazarus (“the third day is déjà vu for him”).
In a series of Advent poems Kolin identifies the waiting, the watching, the impatience and the need to stay awake during very sleepy times to attend to a king whose throne is a womb. In “Holy Communion” he describes the “pilgrimage of naked faces” and the way “an oratory of mouths waits for / The breath of infinity to fill them / With a new genealogy / As God places a pearl on each tongue.” He is able in “Genesis” to summarize the entire first book of the Bible in 15 lines with a catalog of images that captures its poetry, its main actors, its violence and its promise.

This religion writer wants to note a lovely poem.
Mary's Aviary
By Philip Kolin

Mary surely kept birds
Her life is chronicled
In their singing--
Doves wooing at the beginning
Sparrows tearing afterwards.

Gabriel brought her more
Than smooth words soft as dawn
On his shoulders sat
The glory of the sky:
An indigo bunting
Wailing blues to the Queen.

In Baroque frescoes
Birds fan mother and child,
As escadrille of feathers and breezes

Giving the air color and the earth air.

Throughout Nazareth flocks
Of lauding hummingbirds
And vespering nightingales
Navigated the prophecies of her life.

The hour she ascended
Into a scrim of gentle clouds
The birds of this world flew into the east
Until they became like angels
Whose wings feast on fire.

Philip Kolin at the University of Southern Mississippi

1.     There is much to be said for the devotional and especially the merit of being a man or woman of faith in the expressions of religious poetry. Is there anything you’ve noted as a poet in the development of your own poetry in this area? Is there anything you want to tell readers about in the metamorphosis of your faith poetry, in its direction or content that you’ve noticed recently? This especially when it comes to the work in your new book, Reading God’s Handwriting: Poems.
Over the last 20 years or so, I have published five books of poetry plus a good number of poems in Christian magazines and journals, including America, Anglican Theological Review, Christianity and Literature, Christian Century, the Penwood Review, Theology Today, Spiritus, Windhover, etc. In many ways, my poetry marks my own spiritual autobiography, my encounters with God on the peaks, the plateaus, and the deep valleys. Years ago, the Christian writer and scholar Ann Astell said my poems were "prayers that can be prayed--as meditations . . . sighs of longing, cries of penitence, hymns of praise, prophetic outcries against evil, and contemplations of God's beauty." She was right on target.

But my poems did not start out so profoundly. My first book of poems--Roses for Sharron (1993) --were for the most part secular daydreams, save for a few on my old parish on the south side of Chicago. The turning point in my poetry came with Deep Wonder (2000) which together with Wailing Walls (2006) and Reading God's Handwriting (2012) forms a trilogy of sorts on how my beliefs shaped my poetry. Each of these books springs from my being baptized through different books of Scripture. The poems in Deep Wonder owe much in spirit and language to the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Wailing Walls vibrate with the cries found in the prophetic books- -
Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Amos, Micah, etc.; and Reading God's Handwriting emerged from both the Hebrew Bible and the parables and Revelation in the New Testament through deep contemplation of God's Word.

Guided by the wisdom of and sustained by the promise of the Psalms, the poems in Deep Wonder came at a time when I lost a fiancee whom I thought I loved and later learned that the real lover of my soul was none other than Yahweh. The agonies I heard in the Psalms for God's intervention, His deliverance, became the poems included in the first two sections of Deep Wonder--"The Desert" and "Jesus Ministers." The poems in the later sections of the book recorded the hope and the spiritual ecstasy it brought- -"The Banquet of Christ" and "Bravissimo, Abba." A poem entitled "
Christ, My Courtier" expresses the exuberance of a lover for the beloved: "He is a suave courtier/ My Christ, my lover/ He wears a cape of seasons/ And spreads it out/ In the sky/ Midnight blue/ His ring is a solitaire--/ The moon in silver brilliance."

The poems in Wailing Walls document an entirely different type of encounter I had with God. They are poems decrying the injustices of our world--abortion, adultery, poverty, nursing home abuses, deadbeat dads, HIV, domestic abuse, threats to our environment--and searching for redemption. The title, of course, refers to the famous penitential place in Jerusalem where cries for forgiveness and petitions for help were left inside the wall itself. In my poems the walls become the individual speakers who beg for help in their suffering. The opening poem--"Wailing Walls"--describes the walls and those who come to them for mercy-- "They are made of pain/ Paper and prayers/ Loamed in lamentation/ Crying stones/ Set on memories/ Trowled from broken/ Pieces of dreams/ Sharp betrayals/ Frightened futures/ The whirling voices/ In this place/ Are fugitives from kindness." My poem "Christmas at St. Simon's Mission, " inspired by an actual Anglican Church, asks readers to see and help "The men on homeless row" against the backdrop of God’s love likened to the waves of the sea; the men "roll in/waves of smoke, laughing,/Coughing, chewing tobacco/ Hiding their half pints/ In torn overcoats, chipped/ Teeth showing/ They wear smiles in their lapels/ And shift from one foot/ To another,/ And back again."

My most recent book, and what I regard as my best one,
Reading God's Handwriting: Poems, came from reading God's two books--Scripture and nature. Every poem in the collection is firmly anchored in Biblical topoi--whether it be allusion, character, parable, instruction, or place. The idea for this book predates its publication by at least a decade when in 2001 I saw Giambattisa Tieplo's magnificent painting on St. Peter of Alcantara, St. Teresa of Avilia's spiritual director, when it was on tour in Jackson, Mississippi. Tieplo catches St. Peter writing about Christ's Passion, quill in hand and ear attentive as the Paraclete (as the dove) whispers words into his ear, giving St. Peter the inspiration--the very words--he needs to write his commentary. Folded away in my memory, this painting came together with my reading about Lectio Divina (the sacred ritual of reading, meditating, applying, and acting on Scripture). It seemed as if every time I picked up my Bible, God sent me to a passage that then inspired a poem.
The poems in Reading God's Handwriting are a diverse group--on the cardinal virtues, saints, the Blessed Mother, even poems on individual books of the Bible, e.g., "Genesis," Habakkuk’s
soliloquy." Possibly the most important poem I have ever done is "Holiness Is," and certainly the most challenging, but I hope rewarding.

2.     What was it that brought you to the “need” to write poetry about God and religion, especially in your own denomination as a Roman Catholic? Do you think that your mother, who was a devoted and practicing Roman Catholic, contributed to your own Catholicism? And in so doing, what areas of that faith and yours have melded in both worship practice and your poetic work?

            My faith and my poetics meld. My belief as a Roman Catholic has shaped every religious poem I have written. A cradle Catholic, I came from a family of very staunch believers. My grandparents were named Mary and Joseph, which, I suspect, symbolically set the stage for my family and faith values. I was raised by my mother and aunt who were devout Catholics; in fact my Aunt Loretta was the most influential person of my life. She was a Dominican Tertiary, lay persons who serve the Church and others by following the Dominican take on theology and community.
            I attended a Catholic grammar school, St. Pius V, and St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. My Catholicism created who I am. Regarded as one of the most intellectually demanding high schools in Chicago, St. Ignatius had a rigorous curriculum (with an emphasis on languages, including four years of Latin), and was founded, of course, on Jesuit spirituality. Every paper submitted, whether a research paper or a quiz, carried the Jesuit motto, AMDG, which stands for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, all for the honor and glory of God. AMDG was indelibly imprinted on my soul and my writing. God was creating a bond between writing and service to Him.
I grew up in a neighborhood where the church was a central part of our life. We lived on the same block as St. Pius, and all activities were Church-directed—whether attending Mass, Novenas, holy hours, devotions to saints, bazaars, even bingos. My poems are filled with references to Catholic rituals, e.g. thurifers used to incense the altar.

Catholicism continued to be a strong influence when I came to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, which, unlike Chicago, was a missionary diocese because of the small number of Roman Catholics. We have been blessed to have spirited Irish priests like Fr. Tommy Conway and a deacon like Ralph Torrelli. I joined a charismatic prayer group where I met a woman, Margie Parish, a former Benedictine nun, who has been my spiritual director for 35 years.

[In the Preface to Deep Wonder, he writes:  When I desperately needed love, God filled my emptiness with His very self. God sent Himself to help me keep a promise that He Himself fulfilled… Each night I prayed with trust and with hope. The more I prayed, the more God asked me to write about love, but love for Him. He told me that He was the desire of my heart…] [My spiritual mother, Margie Parish, a woman of powerful faith and enormous love for me, led me to Scripture and deepened my prayer life in innumerable ways. Knowing that I had written poetry before, Margie told me that if I only obeyed and listened to God, He would whisper love poems to me…]

But, as I look back, I have been priested by women throughout my lifetime—my mother and aunt, Margie, Mary Torrelli, Sister Carmelita Stinn, SFCC, Sister Annette Seymour, RSM. Very symbolic for me was seeing the three cardinal virtues (faith, hope, and charity) represented by the statues of three women atop the high altar at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. The one of charity informs my poem about this virtue in Reading God's Handwriting.
            Although I have been nurtured by Holy Mother Church, I have also been enlightened and inspired by the ecumenical spirit of Hattiesburg. At one point in my life, I even wrote a few calls to
worship and lyrics for a large Methodist church. Seeing my words on the church's two large screens was one of the most humbling events of my life. For years one of my closest friends was a retired Episcopal priest, Rev. G. Edward Lundin, and another dear friend and attorney, Nancy Steen, a fervent Methodist, has also played a major role in my faith life.

3.     There are a number of your poems included in the Addendum to this interview, and I am sure as a religion writer I know your own religious experience prompted and guided these poems. Tell us something about why certain poems may be your favorites and how they capture what you believe are true poetic moments. Will you quote some lines from those poems? Tell us something of these favorites from your recent and even previous published works. Will you quote some words from those poems you have in mind?

For me the copy text, the spirit, if you will, of my poetry comes from the opening to St. John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” And later we hear “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). The kenosis becomes verbal. The polarities of the verbal eternal and temporal are the polarities of my faith that help me to write poems where I see God as the one Word who makes words. I found that the Poet God is the Word made words, the author of all creation. That to me opens doors into my beliefs and why so many of my poems visually and verbally allude to the kenosis. Here are some lines from a poem, “Mary Covenant,” I wrote more than a decade ago that illustrate the way in which the Word becomes (poetic) words/flesh:
See now
Today Christ
Descending into
Similarly, in a much more recent poem, “Holiness Is” from Reading God's Handwriting, I picture God (“the bread of angels”) descending into a pyx, the small case carried by priests and Eucharistic ministers when they make sick calls. Here are the last four lines:
panis anglorum multiplied like those loaves and fish,
multiplying still inside spired tabernacles
lux mundi
the light of the world in this small pyx.
            The sacred ritual of lectio divina, which provides the spiritual energy behind Reading God’s Handwriting also celebrates the Word through the creation/signage of words. (So many of the poems in this book reference texts—everything from the Torah to church bulletins—and the instruments used to write, be they quills, scrolls, or vellum.) In the poem entitled “Lectio Divina” monks, gathered with their cowls up, look for God in the shape, form, the architecture of words. The truth of God becomes manifested through worldly discourse on language.
They read about Him
In the tiny curved places
Where God’s ear is closest
His voice clearest
In the serifs, parentheses
Apostrophes, the calligraphy
Of creation
The Word enters in silence
They have become adjectives
Seeking the only noun that counts.
Praying the holy office, the monks have become “adjectives,” or worshipers, reverencing God, the only noun who can count through eternity. Punning on “count,” the line alludes to God who never runs out of numbers, nor does He need to. I want my readers to be in several places at once—to be aware of the quotidian, but also to be enveloped by religious rituals, or how the Word invites us to go through and beyond the words to reach God. In a sense, the poem takes readers on a pilgrimage of words.
            So my poetics run from AMDG to the various words/voices in which my poems become a ritual honoring God. Because they represent a multiplicity of meanings, words reflect our postlapsarian condition. But the Word is immutable. Aptly enough, I'm working on a book titled In the Custody of Words for an important series edited by David Craig at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

4.     This Religion Writer would be remiss to refuse your comment to me regarding your scholarly work, for as you say in that email about the questions: “We can talk about my role as editor and more than 30 books on Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, contemporary African American drama, and a widely used business writing text Successful Writing at Work. Right now I am working on a book of poems on Emmett Till.” As interviewer, I am not sure where to begin with this subject, it is so large in your life and probably looms large in its influence on your poetry. What about the interplay of your scholarly work on Williams/Shakespeare and how that has influenced your sense of voice, dramatic situation, etc.

I received my Ph.D. from Northwestern University writing a dissertation on Shakespeare and Elizabethan doctors and medicine. And for over 35 years I have taught and published on dramatic literature, including 8 books on Tennessee Williams, 5 on Shakespeare, and a few on African American playwrights Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks. My work on drama and theatre certainly has conditioned the way I write poems. I try to be attuned to the voices, the conflicts, and the denouements within the poems. Reviewers have often pointed to the strong sense of dramatic setting and tensions in the poems. A Parable of Women: Poems, which was published in 2009, contains 23 poems on both Biblical and secular women—from the Blessed Mother to a homeless post-Katrina widow. There are also poems “delivered” by Hagar, Herodotus, and two nuns, one just entering the convent and the other praying during Adoration. Of all my poems, I suspect those in Parable most obviously reflect my teaching and research in drama. I tried to capture different female voices just as one would characters in a play. The poems in the collection could be described as a theatre of voices. But all my scholarly work has been a preamble of sorts, along with my Catholic upbringing, for the types of poetry I write. Of course, the most important book from which I have learned about voices and drama is the Bible.
You asked about my editing. Over the years I’ve edited 5 scholarly journals, and have served as the General Editor for the Routledge Shakespeare Criticism series for years. I have also published 10 editions of a business writing book titled  Successful Writing at Work (Cengage/Wadsworth),  and I always give God the praise for this work.
Right now I am the editor of the Southern Quarterly and Vineyards: A Journal of Christian Poetry. I founded Vineyards to give Christian poets a much needed space where they could share the
fruits of their labors. Recall that at its most holy, the vineyard can be the sacred space inhabited by God (John 15:1). I love St. John. Later this year Vineyards will become an exclusively online journal allowing me to publish more poets who, like me, share a metaphysical vision of poetry. An editor’s job is to pay close attention to words, pruning, etc. No wonder I pay close attention to words. I once wrote a 25-page essay on the word paper in A Streetcar Named Desire, where there are so many verbal references to paper as image and prop. Paper was not only a means of expressing Blanche’s delusions and vulnerability, but also Stanley’s insistence and reliance on legal orders, the Napoleonic Code.
People are often surprised that Philip Kolin the Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare scholar or textbook author is also the poet. Over the years, I have received emails from individuals who have used my Successful Writing at Work in their courses asking if I also am the one who published a poetry book. Conversely, people I have worked with who write or edit Christian poetry are amazed to learn I’ve spent such a large part of my career as a Williams and Shakespeare scholar. Ironically, I have never taken or taught a poetry writing course. 

5.     One poet this Religion Writer interviewed told me writing poetry is an act of prayer. Is it so for you, and tell us something about what poetry is for you? Speak a little about how you got started, and importantly when you started editing a magazine of poetry containing the works of others. In it, what do you look for, and if readers want to see a copy, where do they get one? Is it a magazine of faith poetry? Talk to us about that magazine, and your work as an editor. In this long question, where we touch on editing, tell us something about your poetry style. As you yourself have framed it, tell us about, “…my techniques/style, my use of puns, slant lines, poetry as architecture.” Can you give us an example of one or two?

While God spoke the Word once and forever, we live in a world of words, some beautiful, some shattered. As I said earlier, we are in the custody of words. By our human nature we are bound to a plenitude of words. Hence my poems invite readers to worship the Word through the various meanings/levels words convey—see the various angles, the contexts where the Word enters our life. Many of my poems contain double entendres or even triple entendres to account for the way my readers, you or I go through the flux of time while, I hope, listening to God's Word calling us into ritual. While, I hope, listening to God’s Word calling us into ritual. A wholly outrageous example comes at the end of “The Martha Within” (from Reading God’s Handwriting) where
God told her
He loved all those wrinkled
And sin-stained banquets
Others gave Him, and told her
To get cooking on hers.
I’m particularly eager to have readers see theology through the double entendres as well as through the architectural shapes of the poem, line and stanza breaks, short and long lines. I use enjambment, for instance, to envision the earthly/the flux trying to reach out to the eternal.
 “Maranatha” from Deep Wonder includes the stanza:
I trust, Lord,
That you stroll
The more stormy seas
Of daily life
With their pitching cares
And doubts and cares
Keelhauling us
Until we
Squalling vessels
Are christened calm.
I hope readers can feel, metaphorically, the “pitching cares” rocking back and forth between the lines. And christened, of course, refers to being renamed in and by Christ who is above the storm. In another poem, “The River” from Reading God’s Handwriting, the last stanza reads:
A congregation of fireflies
Hang jasper lanterns
On the levees
For prayers to read.
Jasper can refer to the moonlight as well as the walls of heaven. The enjambment and length of the last two lines visually depicts how prayers reach into the dark night we all face at some time or another. The last poem in Reading God’s Handwriting is “Heaven” where
God greets you
He speaks only in vowels
He tells you about
Your new neighborhood
Having a one line, or even one-word, stanza at the end of the poem opens the words of the poem into the Word who lives in infinity. Thus the one-Word line here suggests the vastness of an unending life with God. The Parousia!
Of course I have been inspired by Biblical language and so many of the poems in Reading God’s Handwriting pick up directly words whose sacred references energize the poems. I think the two best examples are the poems “Holiness Is” and “The Catechumens Recite Their Scrutinies.” Sacramental words like ephods, ouches, daysman, rare and wonderful, I hope send readers back to the Word whose revealed truth is Scripture (the act of writing) and whose gift is Pentecost.

Figure 4 Philip Kolin at the University of Southern Mississippi

Christmas at St. Simon’s Mission
By Philip Kolin

God’s love is
Like the waves of the Gulf,
Waves followed by waves,
Until our eyes are washed to see
Them as endless gifts

Unwrapped in their scurrying
Explosions of ribbons and
Crumpled, frosty papers, bows
And every name tag ripped off,
No matter, just the spirit
Celebrates the day.

The men on homeless row
Roll in,
Waves of smoke, laughing,
Coughing, chewing tobacco,
Hiding their half pints
calling us into ritual.

In torn overcoats, chipped
Teeth showing.

They wear smiles in their lapels
And shift from one foot
To another,
And back again,
Rushing through a sea of syllables
Before the feast.

Mary's Aviary
By Philip Kolin

Mary surely kept birds
Her life is chronicled
In their singing--
Doves wooing at the beginning
Sparrows tearing afterwards.

Gabriel brought her more
Than smooth words soft as dawn
On his shoulders sat
The glory of the sky:
An indigo bunting
Wailing blues to the Queen.

In Baroque frescoes
Birds fan mother and child,
As escadrille of feathers and breezes

Giving the air color and the earth air.

Throughout Nazareth flocks
Of lauding hummingbirds
And vespering nightingales
Navigated the prophecies of her life.

The hour she ascended
Into a scrim of gentle clouds
The birds of this world flew into the east
Until they became like angels
Whose wings feast on fire.

By Philip Kolin
a word, sanctified darkness hears, the light
shadows awake into gardens, ripe, fruit
ready, a man tastes names, wildflowers hum
nature, a lonely keeper, sleep fulfills
dreams, a woman’s lips, smiles, questions,
apple trees everywhere, full of forever, sometimes
a sudden, raspy breeze, a voice outside a promise
woeful mouths, naked knowledge, poverty, gates
idols laugh, generations wander, folly fed with eyes
an old man’s worried knife, a young boy’s shining neck
covenants honored, rams, tomorrow’s seeds, and stars,
always stars

Holiness Is
By Philip Kolin

dwelling with God in large places
being small
going darkly behind the curtain into
the Holy of Holies
ephods of light
anointed air
the sweet cinnamon and myrrh of God’s perfume
ouches of gold and purple linen amidst voices of dust
incense of fatfleshed heifers & rams
wheat, the first fruits
men who gave birth through their knees
ascents to flaming mountains erupting
eternity aglow inside a furnace where three men sing
slaving under a pyramid
fleeing Egypt, always fleeing, idols and seraph serpents
the bloody lintels of firstborn shaped into
poles carrying a carnelian ark embedded with twelve stars,
twelve tribes
centuries of wandering, centuries of waiting
Under the terebinths, welcoming an angel’s call,
a baby leaping toward the infinite,
a virgin’s womb fulfilling the ancient prophecies,
pain and glory
the radiance of camel-hair shirts in the desert
& wild-honey prayers
the Word transfigured in a temple
teaching on parapets, on Sinai, on the brow of a hill
where God wept night at noon
feeding the hungry on unleavened hoarfrost,
on locusts, on quail, on bread broken in an upstairs room,
panis angelorum multiplied like those loves and fish,
multiplying still inside spired tabernacles
lux mundi
the light of the world in this small pyx.

Lectio Divina
By Philip Kolin

In sapphire light they gather
And are gathered by God
An assembly of cowls

Men hidden inside their souls
So the world cannot peer in
Eyes bright as pearls

They read about Him
In the tiny, curved places
Where God’s ear is closest

His voice clearest
In the serifs, parentheses,
Apostrophes, the calligraphy

Of creation and apocalypse both,
Light and wounds
The one in the other when

The Word enters in silence.
They have become adjectives
Seeking the only noun that counts.

The Catechumens Recite Their Scrutinies-Poem
By Philip Kolin

We are parched, Lord,
To this world of soiled rain
Our tears turn to dust.
Who will see them before
They blow away?
Our tongues are rudderless
Without a stream of living words
We are voiceless voices.
Briars, nettles, and proud thorns sprout
In the wilderness of our mouths.
We have eaten ashes like bread.
Our brows are barren.
We write our sins on sandpaper
To smooth out the dry, rough edges
Of our conscience.

We are lost in the dense darkness of self
Confusing the space of a coffin with
The size of a galaxy.
Whoever owns a candle, owns our world
For a small hour.
But ours is not a holy darkness.
The curtained shelter of a cowl or closet.
When will the stone be rolled
Away from our eyes? Stripped of light
We perform a pantomime of perfection.
We long to wear the livery of your sight.

Be our daysman.
Fix the time our exile ends.
Call us from high gallery or side door,
Or fom the darkness without.
Let us stand stripped in bare sackcloth
On sheepskin in the nave.
Extending our hands like sore-swept beggars to you
The hirelings, the prosecutors of mercy.
With chrism sanctify us between
Our shoulder blades and on our heads pour
Pure snow water, the color of grace.
Then invest us in linen, with dangling red sashes,
So you can catch us, quick or dead,
Lest we fall again.

Mary's Covenant
By Philip Kolin

In Nazareth a young
Milkmaid so graced
With a fruitful heart
Said Yes in a
World accustomed to no

But did not
While she did.

Her knowledge placed
The world at the end
Of God’s love
The farthest reach
Of his hand made
Into earth.

Her Yes was heard
Across the centuries
And the galaxies
It was the sign above
The cross of love.

O Mary conceived
In the heart of the Father
And espoused by the Spirit
Cradle your Son tonight
In a world aborting life
In the middle of love.

Before time started
Its pace through
The vale of tears
Mary’s Yes echoed
The plans of Architect God’s
Creation. She is

The mater for His troweling
Sky, moon, and sun

The Father’s favorite Daughter on earth
Carried a basket
Of crosses
Laced with honey
Perfume and pain.

The fruit from Mary’s
Garden filled a universe
With stars, for Christ, twinkling
The paths for
Wisemen and willing virgins
Husbands who sleep with
Their wives in Christ
Sarah, Ruth, Gomer, Elizabeth,
All wait for—
The Messiah
She conceived
In her basket
Decorated with
Royal arcs,
Ribbons blue.

See now
Today Christ
Descending into

Seeking the Sacred
Diane Scharper | DECEMBER 17, 2012
Reading God's Handwriting: Poems
Philip C. Kolin.   Kaufmann. 122p, $16.95

       Philip C. Kolin, author of Reading God’s Handwriting, and Paul Mariani, of Epitaphs for the Journey, are Roman Catholic poets who allow their beliefs to infuse their poetry. They are also intellectuals who avoid the cloying quality found in some religious verse. Their best poems have a mystical—almost sacramental—quality and seem reminiscent of works by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.
      In Reading…, Philip Kolin examines those moments when the divine becomes apparent—to paraphrase the introduction. Getting inside his subjects, Kolin speaks for them almost as a medium. He writes in free verse, loading his lines with arresting metaphors, as in “God’s syllables so sacred/ Greek and Latin need a shawl/ Just to hold them, vowels,/ subduing the clamor of consonants.” (“Holy Communion”). Although there are a few poems about contemporary life, most of the book has a religious context.
      Many of the poems achieve their effect through the use of synesthesia (“a man tastes names,” “Genesis”). Many are also written as lists that build to a resonating moment. Take “On His Comfort.” Musing on God’s concern for mankind, the poem is awash in alliteration (a Hopkins trademark) as it enumerates the ways God has aided his people. The poem’s final stanza is powerfully evocative: “To Lazarus he says take up your corpse/ And taste the light. His tears fill twelve/ stone water jars. He raises a daughter/ Coiled in death. Talithacumi, he whispers./ Little one, rise.” The metaphor, “coiled in death,” seems especially apt.
    Editor of Vineyards: A Journal of Christian Poetry, Kolin asks poets to submit “carefully crafted poetry that is grounded in Christian belief and that …rises above the expected or clichéd….” He seeks authentic poetry “that displays the technical mastery and creative fervor” found in highly regarded secular journals…

Diane Scharper, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, reviews poetry for Library Journal and other publications. She is the author of several books including Radiant: Prayer/Poems (Cathedral Foundation Press).

This excerpt is reprinted by permission of the author. The full review originally appearsAmerica Magazine.

In a brief phone conversation with the publisher of the work  Reading God’s Handwriting: Poems, Leslie Kaufmann said regarding the poet: He was recommended by author Joseph Pearce,
Leslie at her desk
(Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, New Hampshire) biographer of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He sent me a glowing letter and a sample of Philip’s work. I found I could not agree with Joseph more. It was extraordinary.
It is understood that the house of Kaufmann Publishing is not well-known. The publisher says of this matter: Most people don’t know about the publishing house. I find hard to mix promotion and distribution, my weak areas, with producing books.  But I’m working on it.
She offers regarding her own sense of publishing that hers is a…Roman Catholic list with four priests three Catholic and one
House of Kaufmann publishing
Episcopalian, several teachers/professors. There are ten poetry books and a few of prose. I started out publishing books in 2005 with a background in print/design. I’ve had to depend on God for things I’ve needed. That’s the truth of it.
Her own religious life in worship is lived out at St. William Catholic Church in Savannah Diocese. End of notes of a phone conversation with small publisher.

Initial set of questions asked of the publisher Leslie Kauffman:

1.     Given the opportunity to talk with you regarding your publishing house and your work as a publisher, especially in light of your publishing Philip C. Kolin’s work, Reading God’s Handwriting: Poems,  I want to know something about the making of the decision and reasons for taking on that work. Also, do you find that Kaufmann Publishing has other similar works, even of a religious kind, that you want to talk a little bit about?

2.     What led you to go into the publishing business? It is something of a mystery to readers to unveil some of the reasons someone cares enough about poetry and writing, as you must for your house publishes poetry only, to offer books to readers? Is the fact you are a woman influential in your choices, if you think so or not? Tell readers something of your own work as a publisher, that is what you do, and how you generally came to start your house? What keeps you going?

3.     What of your own background in the literary world. We all believe that publishers are engaged in a world of ideas, to a greater extent than not. What are some of the ideas in the books you’ve published and in your own life that move you most, and keep you going? What do you admire in another house? If someone were to say, not just in a sound bite, but in more words and ways than that, this is what Kaufmann Publishing and its list is about, what couple of things might they say or have observed?

4.     Can you take a few minutes to speak of anything I may have missed in this area, or what you want to say in this interview that has been missed? That includes telling us some about a new work you will offer, or something about publicity or other tour making the rounds of any work on your list. Even tell us some more about one or two other of your writers, or of any writer?

This interview appeared originally Church of England Newspaper, London by Peter Menkin. Contact Peter Menkin, .

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