The power and beauty of religiously sensible poetry

By  Michael Higgins
  • May 14, 2009
{mosimage}This past April has surely not been our cruellest month this year. At least in literary terms. 

The publication of Listening: Last Poems of Margaret Avison and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco’s Names of Blessing serves as a perfect reminder of the power and beauty of supremely well crafted poetry by poets of sublime religious sensibility.

Listening is a posthumous collection, as Avison died in 2007. In “Slow Breathing” the poet speaks of the limits and constrictions of aging conmingled with the abiding hope of new life:

Old age too is an
unfestive interlude,
lamplit, yes,
but out of touch with all but
a few, if any,
kinfolk or old friends.

But the poet reminds us to “take heart!,” to remember that even, or especially, the losses

shatter the heart, ripen a
person’s experience before
the last-of-light is, once-
for-all, the new

No despair here.  Avison is an Easter poet, transfixed by the power of renewal, transported by the mystical impulse, yet permanently grounded in the “now,” the vigourous reality of nature’s resplendence. She knows that “beyond the thunderous silence of the universe” is the “all-embracing orb: foreverness” (“Pilgrim”).

Steeped in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures ­— her rich biblical allusions betray the sapiential and deeply loving familiarity she has with these sacred texts — she is also a poet of the mundane, the political, the commonplace and the nightmarish.

In the longest poem of the collection, “Our Kind,” she provides a sustained reflection on the mad cruelty of the tyrant, the demagogue who enslaves his people, the master murderer who presides over dissolution and chaos. The poem is framed by judgment, the human court of reckoning, the international tribunal trying to inject justice into the crazed whirligig of ethno-religious nationalism:

The most lethal
bloodiest killer–in cold
blood–was glint-eyed,
even when un-threatened. 
A murderous tyrant
brought to book,he shouted
down his accus

Although one could identify the anonymous tyrant — and he remains anonymous throughout — as any number of homicidal rulers that have scarred our century, the madmen of Rwanda, Liberia, Cambodia, Myanmar, etc., the evil is most clearly embodied in the Balkan troika of Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic. And the arch monster, Slobodan himself, contemptuous of justice, Nietzschean in his loathing for the conventions of ordinary morality, dismissive of contrition and remorse, festooned in the deadly messianism of the Leader, this very Slobodan Milosevic and his ilk “rally susceptibles who must serve as their implements.”

Avison skillfully portrays the vainglorious architect of Yugoslavia’s dismemberment by showcasing his vanity, his predatory appeal, his risible posturing. She also captures the danger inherent in any political figure who has foresworn the rule of conscience:

No gnawings from
conscience? But perhaps a conscience can
be long toothless, a jaw
hardened by chomping until
it’s insensib

Avison’s final volume reminds us that her verse has the touch of immortality about it.

Names of Blessing by the Poet Laureate of the City of Toronto and The Catholic Register’s resident versifier is an invitation to intellectual and spiritual revelry.

Di Cicco’s poems in this volume are love songs: they speak to the heart and from the heart; they soar and they lilt; they are epiphanies of affection and conduits of grace; they disclose the innermost feelings of the lover; they are unabashed celebrations of the Divine Lover.

In “Parish” the poet provides us with something of a glance into the entrails of love, the messy and visceral business of loving, the simple costs of love, the holy finality of love generously lived:

the kid that shows up to serve the week
after his mother dies, the boy with the heart
stitched shut for the seventh time — Joe,
with Parkinson’s who takes
. . . . . .
they are with me, until
my eyes have ceased their stutter
and this heart stops beating
to anything but love

Names of Blessing is replete with epigrammatic wisdom and Zen-like inspiration, a point of entry, an aperture, that allows the reader to glimpse something of the Catholic spirituality and catholic imagination of a cosmopolitan and fiercely independent poet.  A wonder!

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