Recently I reviewed Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully on my blog, In a Christian Writer’s Life as the book includes essays on three major poets and writers who wrote from a strong perspective of faith in Jesus Christ: George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C.S. Lewis. So, when I received a review copy of St. Peter’s B-List, I expected to review this highly recommended anthology on that blog too. However, these “Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints” fit better here as written by creative seekers whose views occasionally come across as bleak.
Besides making this collection a sign of our religious and literary times, the darker overtones contrast well with the approach taken in the previous review, showing poets and readers the wide range found in religious poetry. As stated in the Introduction, “For a work of art, be it a novel, drama, or poem, to be a ‘good’ work does not mean that the characters are drawn to be morally good but that their speech and actions follow the laws of probability in the human, or natural, world. Good works of literature have intrinsic artistic merit because they avoid sentimentality – the depiction of moral innocence at the expense of qualities of character that remind us of our need for redemption.”
While I see sentimental poems akin to greeting card verse at one extreme end of the spectrum, these poems approach the opposite end, which my poems sometimes do too. As the Introduction explains, such poems “remind us of our need for Christ, regardless of whether the poets themselves explicitly profess this concept in their poems.”
Edited by Mary Ann B. Miller and published by Ava Maria Press, each of the poems in St. Peter's B-List deals honestly with problems and concerns most of us can recognize in ourselves or relate to readily. From homemaking and mothering to showering or lying supine in prayer, the poems speak of a lifetime of topics with words that soothe, shock, amuse, or “put my foot on that first step” in “Desert Ascent.”
Equally commendable is the consistently high quality of the poems, whether written by people I’ve never heard of or by such acclaimed names as Pulitzer poet, Franz Wright, whose poem “Say My Name” ends with the uplifting word of the “Word that means you are loved.”
Ironically, the very quality of the poems keeps me from wanting to single out examples of the situations described, metaphors used, and fresh perspectives found. So, I’ll skip to the back where James Martin, S. J. , wrote an “Afterword,” I wish I’d read initially.
As he says, “The lives of the saints are poems./ In other words, one cannot fully understand a saint’s life from a purely rationalistic point of view. Strictly speaking, they do not make ‘sense’.” He goes on to explain how Mother Theresa, St. Damien, St. Francis, and others responded to God in mysterious ways that often seemed foolish. Or, as Rev. Martin puts it, “The saint’ lives shock….” He then ends with this challenge: “The most important truths about God are not reached with definitions and proofs but by poems and stories…. You are called to be a saint, too. What will your poem be?”
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books.
St. Peter’s B-list: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints, paperback