Big Country: In A Big Country

Sally Thomas: Brief Light

I could go on for a long time--I've already gone on for a couple of months--planning to write a substantial review of this splendid book of poems, with a lot of attention to its specific virtues. The result would be a pretty good appraisal and appreciation. But I have a lot to do, and am generally pretty distracted; it could be a long time. So I'm going to content myself with a brief notice.

I don't have much of an appetite for contemporary poetry. Few people do, of course, but I should, since I make the occasional attempt in that direction myself. Back in the 1970s I knew a lot of aspiring poets who were working on MFAs in creative writing, and they read their contemporaries in great volume, often to the neglect, I thought, of older and better work. Now and then I followed someone's recommendation and read a little in one of these poets, but very little of it made much of an impression on me.

Worse, it was frequently somewhat off-putting for reasons that I couldn't articulate. I think that had to do with the sensibility of the writers, and in that term I'm including not just personality but the effects of the poet's general view of things, including his or her theology, or rather lack of it in most cases. Frequently there was an obvious verbal gift, and an impressively close--often too close--attention to sensory, mainly visual, detail, which is a sort of convention in poetry since the early 20th century. But the poems just didn't seem to add up to much. Stylistically a very mannered school had arisen, as mannered in its way as the 18th century establishment against which the Romantics rebelled, and it was in general not a manner I liked greatly. And the sensibility tended strongly toward what I have elsewhere called the Stoic Resentful. For these reasons, and for some other, more fundamental lack of aesthetic response, I just didn't find much to like. I'm sure I've missed a lot of good work, but I didn't have the time to seek it out among the ordinary.

What that has to do with Brief Light is not that it stands in utter contrast to the prevailing mode, but that it is in fact to a great extent in that mode, yet with so much skill in execution, and with such a different sensibility, that it does seem a different and better thing. I will admit that my spirits tend to sink when I see a Catholic poet praised for being Catholic, especially if at the same time he or she is praised for rejecting the modernist method and writing in strict forms. The result is frequently not much more than adequate, but one hesitates to criticize it because its intentions are so good. It's like much, if not most, Christian rock or "CCM"--Contemporary Christian Music: maybe pretty good, but never quite as good as the secular stuff. There's usually something constrained about it, a sense that the artistic impulse is being forced into a container that doesn't really fit it. We want Catholic artists, yes. But we don't want to have to condescend to them, to make allowances for their defects, to hold them to a lower standard than we would others. 

We want Catholic art that fully and naturally embodies its own life, that goes where it goes not because some disconnected hand is pushing it but because that's where it naturally goes. And we want the same standard of craft that we would expect from any art. Aesthetically at least, we generally have the sensibility of our times--we can't help it--but we want it transformed by the leaven of Catholic faith: transformed, all the way through, not just painted.

We have what we're looking for in this book. Formally, it fits in perfectly well with most of contemporary poetry. It's subtitled "Sonnets and Other Small Poems," and I haven't counted, but I think half at least of the poems have fourteen lines and are in some variant of sonnet form, from fairly loose to fairly strict. This is not unusual nowadays; form has made something of a comeback. Its rhetoric is contemporary, and even, I think, shows the influence of the MFA school (for instance, in the one thing that I would criticize here and there: the creation of a verb from a noun, as in the snake "sluggarding in the woodpile"). But its sensibility is deeply Catholic although belief is hardly mentioned directly. I suppose I mean that it seems to see things in the way a Catholic ought to see them.

 All right, then. But can I be more specific about what makes these poems such a pleasure? I'm not very good at describing poetry, or much inclined to do so. It's no more useful than describing music: a few broad words to indicate the general impression, and then one must read or listen. These poems are intelligent, wise, distinctly feminine, sharply observant, occasionally witty, suffused with deep feeling and a consciousness of the enormous significance of our small lives and the small things that fill them...yeah, yeah, all true, but that doesn't mean much until you experience them. It seems inappropriate to reproduce an entire poem here, and after flipping through the book for ten minutes I find no passage I want to quote, because, fine as the lines might be in isolation, they are on their way to something more powerful than they alone can accomplish, and it seems a shame to interrupt their journey.

I am able resolve this dilemma by pointing you to a poem on Sally's blog: On New Year's Eve: Letting the Time Go Where Time Goes. It's not in the book, but it's representative. That thing she does with the last line is a good example.

Did you read it? See what I mean?  Go buy the book.


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Because I love Sally's poems, and because they are among my favorite poems, and because I absolutely do not have the ability, or the knowledge, or the right vocabulary to review a book of poetry, and because I knew you would do an excellent job of it, I have been waiting for this review. You are spot on, not only in what you say about Sally's book, but in that wonderful paragraph that begins "We want Catholic art...." That's exactly what we want, or should want.


I'm glad you think so. I'm not that pleased with it but I didn't want it to end up on the long list of Stuff I Never Got Around To. At least it gets the word out a bit.

Thank you, Maclin. I'm really overwhelmed, not least because you've articulated everything that I believe about what the words "Catholic" and "art" ought to mean when they stand next to each other.

You're most welcome. It's mighty fine work. As I said to my son Jesse about an album he made, even if you were never to write anything else you could always look at this and know you had done something you could be proud of. I liked it even more as I was reading here and there in it yesterday while writing the review.

You are spot on, not only in what you say about Sally's book, but in that wonderful paragraph that begins "We want Catholic art...." That's exactly what we want, or should want.

I agree. Years ago I asked a priest friend of mine if he knew of any good Catholic novels he could recommend. He asked what I meant by that, but I couldn't articulate it.

well that was very enjoyable.

Days flung themselves like burning moths

Against the windows, and the way you slurped

Your morning coffee made me want to shoot you.

I laughed out loud!

There's a marriage-related poem in the book that I like even better. It opens with the couple saying their vows "in front of everyone we know, and also God". Brilliant. It also deals with socks.:-)


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