The Common Good
July-August 2000

Got Poetry?

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 2000

It does a body good.

Did you know that a daily reading of Dylan Thomas' poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" can lower your blood pressure? Or that Pablo Neruda's poem "The Great Tablecloth" can help you lose weight?

Poetry is not just for aesthetes any more. Poetry "slams" are filling up American pubs and clubs. Robert Pinsky, the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, has launched the Favorite Poems Project (www.favoritepoem.org), in which thousands of Americans are recorded saying their favorite poems. Pinsky also completed 50 five-minute video documentaries capturing regular Americans reading and talking about poems. PBS' News Hour with Jim Lehrer will air them throughout the summer.

So let's see if we can cure what ails you with a little verse.

Need some personal space? Try reading Story Hunger by Jerah Chadwick. For 17 years Chadwick has been a resident of the Aleutian island of Unalaska, where he first moved to raise goats and write, living in an abandoned World War II military compound eight miles from the nearest town. Each poem resounds with the silence of the north. From "Winter Country": "We resist each other with words, or wordlessly/avert our eyes when tenderness/is too much to bear the wanting/heart to be only muscle. As if/this were a question of strength...." Or from "Absence Wild": "Sounding the stillness,/my words, some sense of a trail/in the/storm's stalled light./The vastness in me/returned by this place."

Dating again? Linda McCarriston's "Wrought Figure" in her new collection Little River gives some pointers on the locus of power in the dating game. "I'm hard on women, you said. It was/July and night, heavy and fragrant/all around the table set for the/short season out on the porch. Shells/ of lobsters, broken, were heaped on plates, each gruesome body part/a woman scorned...Ten days I took to trace the problem [saying]...and I love men, pretty and smart, as you are,/and am not rare in this but, as you/confessed, successful, meaning bested by/fewer than I best. Let us dance, then, on/the lawn of what's left of summer...."

For a lovely little collection to keep with your Bible, I recommend Jacqueline Dickey's When the Believer's Chin Points Toward the Moon. Dickey is an activist and artist who has been part of the Catholic Worker movement for more than 20 years. Her poems range from a soliloquy to Sister Dianna Ortiz ("I first found your face/in newsprint - /the complicated beauty/of a dark wood/ throwing shadows at sunset/eyes of an animal/in a hurricane/of human betrayal.") to an Easter celebration in "In Praise of Big-Boned Women." Priest and poet Daniel Berrigan says Dickey's poetry "startles and invigorates. It is like a rush of cold baptismal water."

Tired of taking ginko to improve your memory? Try a dose of A Curb In Eden, by Joseph Enzweiler. He remembers for all of us our first kiss under school bleachers, strange reunions, how the stars felt as a child, unhooking tubes from dying parents, lives not lived, the cold wet ground of Advent. "Memory is a corner where you drink," says Enzweiler. "I know this place./I come here to be free."

WHAT Enzweiler captures in personal memory, Renny Golden's The Hour of the Furnaces captures in political memory. Golden is known primarily as the founder of the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America and for her book Disposable Children: America's Child Welfare System. In this, her first collection of poems, Golden remembers the martyrs of the Central American wars. "Too often in revolutionary wars," she says, "it is the selfless - those who defend the powerless, who risk their lives for others...who are the first to die. Unfortunately, those who are the first to die are often the first to be forgotten." Her collection is an act of faith on behalf of us all - never letting God or the world forget the catechists, the artists, the grandmothers, the radio announcers, the journalists, the cotton pickers of Chinandega, Nicaragua, or the Congregation of Mothers in Morazan, El Salvador.

If the thought of reading poems makes your head hurt, try reading Fathering Words: The Making of An African American Writer by E. Ethelbert Miller. In this autobiography Miller explores what he learned - as a man, as an African American, as a poet, as a son, and as a father - from his own father's simple acts of love and responsibility. He says it is the "story of my own spiritual journey towards becoming a writer."

Or check out the new two-CD release by Rhino records titled Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like The Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work. Public Enemy, Gil Scott-Heron, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, and many others chronicle the black voices of an American century from 1919 to 1999 with living, breathing, influential, and soul-filled life. Poetry is a vocal art, an art meant to be read aloud. "Reading a poem silently instead of saying it out loud," says poet laureate Pinsky, "is like the difference between staring at sheet music and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument.

ROSE MARIE BERGER is poet laureate (and assistant editor) of

Sojourners.

Little River. McCarriston, Linda. Salmon Publishing, Ltd., 01/01/00.

Fathering Words. Miller, E. Ethelbert. St. Martin's Press, 01/01/00.

A Curb In Eden. Enzweiler, Joseph. Salmon Publishing Ltd, 01/01/99.

Story Hunger. Chadwick, Jerah. Salmon Publishing Ltd, 01/01/99.

When the Believer's Ci=hin Points Toward the Moon. Dickey, Jacqueline. Rose Hill Books, 01/01/99.

The Hour of the Furnaces. Golden, Renny. Mid-List Press, 01/01/00.

Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work. . Rhino Records Spoken Word, 01/01/00.

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