By Philip C. Kolin
Negative Capability Press
Reviewed by Cathleen Chittenden Bascom
Peopled places are carefully wrought in the poems of Departures by Philip C. Kolin, Distinguished Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. So often poems of place depict natural landscapes spared from, or void of, over-population. But in this volume, Kolin creates sacramental spaces where people are central. Kolin does paint for us un-peopled places: he lauds “Brave October on the Beach” where only gulls gather, and the soft midnight where the empress moon lingers in “Lunar equations.”
The soft midnight velvet folds
Into a cushion for the empress moon to linger
In dalliance this first night of the solstice
Winnowing away her more faltering duties
Of lighting the feeble and sallow-souled earth
Whose breath barely sustains a season.
But the best poems in Departures carefully craft the bodies and souls of human beings in their contexts. A sacramental vision discovers spiritual reality in material form. This kind of sensibility stretches across these poems. They are not all about Southern places and peoples; we receive Chicago and Auschwitz too through the poet’s gaze. But the sacramental South is a focused subject. There are the sculpted couplets of “A Delta Christmas”; the tragic corruption of “The Slaver Superdome”; and the almost-Beat tourists’ prose poem “New Orleans, New Orleans”:
They could not afford a trip to Europe. Instead, they settled
on New Orleans. It had the graves, the monuments, the
cuisine, the demi-denizens, the aroma of battlefields and
bordellos, cobblestone poetry, the humidity of Africa…
Kolin portrays with concrete detail and spiritual alacrity slices of the southern United States.
There is nothing saccharine-sweet in this body-soul quest. It seeks that which is transcendent in grit and grime, flesh and human frailty, and even taverns advertised by signs that blink “Yousay Beer.”
Kolin’s people – often old, feeble and dying – nonetheless last. They endure. Through a fleeting glimpse of his piano teacher perched on a stool in a tavern:
…one afternoon just to see
How much evil lurked there.
All I found was Miss Regina
my piano teacher who visited
our apartment every Wednesday
evening at seven for my private
lesson and stuck a silver star
on my purple Scwann book.
She sat on a high barstool, tall
Pilsner stein before her
And a wingless angel
Pinned to her frayed cloth coat.
He captures as well the unutterable spirit that animates “The Prayer Lady,” “The Secretary,” and even the twelve tribes of Israel who face “Passover in the Camps.”
Well-versed and well-published on the plays of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Adrienne Kennedy, Kolin understands how a character is brought to life. Many of them wait in the wings for readers to encounter in the new collection Departures.