A Parable of Women: Poems
It is my pleasure to post a book review by Janet McCann for A Parable of Women: Poems written by my good friend, Philip C. Kolin. (The review originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue.)
—reviewed by Janet McCann
A Parable of Women is an appealing chapbook on several levels. Between its covers pass an array of women, biblical and contemporary, holy and unholy, healthy and damaged, relatives and saints, at odd points in their lives. Just the gallery of them in their variety is enticing–Magdalen is placed next to Edith, a lonely visionary spinster; a mystery woman with a sibylline invitation is followed by Hagar. The poems are short and direct, but layered too–and the arrangement of these famous and unknown women adds another layer of meaning, allowing the poems to comment on one another and on the notion of womanhood in the Bible and in ordinary life.
The author, Philip Kolin, is Professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi, and this is his fourth poetry book; his previous collection is Deep Wonder (Grey Owl Press, 2000) . He also publishes books of scholarship on Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and other literary figures, and he has also edited poetry anthologies and scholarly journals.
The cover of A Parable of Women is an appropriate and teasing painting –Peter Paul Rubens’ The Holy Women at the Sepulchre (painted about 1614). It is an intriguing choice because while the scene is traditional, Rubens’ women are each very distinctive–especially the lady in bright red at the observer’s left, who is probably Mary Magdalen. Even angels on the right who confront the women have visible personalities. Kolin’s women are all deftly sketched individuals too, and each has her place in his overall picture.
These poems have a strong defined voice to them. Free verse poems, they narrate incidents or histories in the very different lives, often with the effect of a snapshot. Some of them are indeed involved with photographs in one way or another. A friendly and memorable poem, for instance, is “Her Last Photo,” narrating a father’s taking of a final picture of his daughter entering the convent. Like the picture, the poem too captures the promise of her new alliance:
Her eyes wrote sweet notes
To those who read only sad
Stories all around them.
Her hands were
White and spotless
Ready for grace
To be emptied into them.
She would leave
The busy garden background–
This world of noisy seasons
For choired silence and
The spare lines and falling rhythms help support an image that is both joyful and sad.
This collection makes for a telling visit into a world of women and spirituality; the male speaker treads gently through it, and provides sudden glimpses that provoke smiles or sadness. The poems provide original twists and turns, of both language and event. Often they sketch a personality and a separate sentience with just a few brief lines. From “Hagar’s Lament”:
He heard Sarah
As if God spoke
Violets and jasmine on her lips–
An old garden for his treasure.
The other one looked to me
Pale as bread
And I in my prime
Took the salty wilderness
As my consort–a covenant of arrows
Flailed my heart
I hid my pride…
The Biblical women are powerfully real, and seem finally not much different from the women of today. Stylistically this book is a treat, too. There are clever and memorable metaphors and image sequences here, and the whole collection has a thoughtful religious romanticism to it–sometimes balanced by irony, but irony too, of course, is a major element of the romantic in literature. This gentle and compassionate parade of women has much to offer to offer readers of all faiths and even those of none; its submerged definition of the feminine rings true, and its linguistic felicities make it a delight.
Janet McCann’s work has appeared in the KANSAS QUARTERLY, PARNASSUS, NIMROD, SOU’WESTER, CHRISTIAN CENTURY, CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE, NEW YORK QUARTERLY, and others. She has won three chapbook contests, sponsored by Pudding Publications, Chimera Connections, and Franciscan University Press. A 1989 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship winner, she has taught at Texas A & M University since 1969, is currently Professor of English. She has co-edited three anthologies with David Craig, ODD ANGLES OF HEAVEN (Shaw, 1994), PLACE OF PASSAGE (Story Line, 2000), and POEMS OF FRANCIS AND CLARE (St. Anthony Messenger, 2004). Most recent poetry book: EMILY’S DRESS (Pecan Grove Press, 2004).