The Poetry of Communion: a ★★★★★ book review

I love a good poem. Poetry has the power to sacramentalize daily life. It lifts the mundane out of its ordinary frame and allows us to see reality with brand new eyes. Nature reveals the hand of God, human beings are transfigured before us. We are free to re-engage our reality with our sense of wonder restored.

communion-of-saintsThis is some of what I felt in reading Susan Miller’s collection of poems,  Communion of SaintsMiller teaches creative writing at Rutgers University, is a two-time winner of the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize for poetry, and her poetry has appeared in several journals (Image, Iowa review, Commonweal, Sewanee Theological review). The poems in this collection reflect on Saintsin the capital “S” Catholic sense, notable figures, friends, and her own daily life. These are brought into communion, Miller often depicting episodes of daily life (of herself or friends) and the deep resonance between them and the lives of the Saints. [I know that poetic voice and the poet are often different, but Miller’s own notes indicate that she and the poetic voice are one and the same].

Mark Doty’s forward describes this as a process of triangulation (xii). Behind Miller’s friend Angela, a consecrated virgin living in the world, we find the visage of St. Agnes—Patron Saint of Virgins (pp. 7, 113).  The Franciscan mystic, St. Bonaventure stands behind Gregory Orr (Miller’s teacher at the University of Virgina) in her poem A Portrait of Greg as St. Bonaventure (pp 64, 118). And there are many other examples of the communion of saints in these poems: Portrait of Chayo as St, Jude Thaddeus, Portrait of Charles as St. Francis, Portrait of Josh as St. Pascual Baylon, Portrait of Father Santo as St. Anthony of Padua, etc. 

Miller also has pilgrimage poems, poetry about her readings of  Gerard Manley Hopkins, Flannery O’Connor, Nina Simone, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and serious engagement with the Christian tradition. The title poem in this collection, the Communion of Saints, reflects while her purpose, “Communion of Saints refers to the concept of Communion of Saints— that all Catholics are called to be saints whether the church beatifies us or not. The communion of saints makes us all contemporaries, no matter what century was ours on earth” (120). The poem itself links the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (from the Lukan nativity narrative) with NICU ward at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.

I read these poems as a lowly protestant, but one who believes as strongly in the communion of Saints as Miller does. On a technical level, these poems are quite good. I found myself tracing meter and appreciating her evocative use of language. The poem that stands at the head of this collection is her Manual for the Would-Be Saint (previously published in Image Journal):

The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.
The fourth is the dark night; the fifth
a subtle scent of smoke and pine.
The sixth is awareness of our duties,
the burnt offering of our own pride.
Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.
Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.
The ninth takes time: it is to discover
what inside the seed makes the seed increase.
The tenth brings sorrow, the eleventh light.
The twelfth we reflect on the Apostles,
their flame-lit faces turned toward us or away.
The thirteenth, we practice forgiving Judas.
The fourteenth, we love Judas as ourselves.
The fifteenth is a day of feasting; the sixteenth
is a day of ash. Seventeenth, we watch and wait.
Eighteenth, we enter the stranger’s city
at the mercy of the stranger’s hand.
Nineteenth, love flees the body,
and the spirit leaves its husk. And suddenly
the numbers do not matter: nothing that is matter
matters anymore: all is burned, all is born,
all is carried away in the wind. (xvii)

I give this collection five stars and commend it for the way that Miller brings the Saints to lives in her (and our) daily experience. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

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