Philip Kolin’s poems for the holy, violent earth

Yearning for the impossible, glimpsing the unimaginable

Philip C. Kolin is that rare thing: a formidable scholar of literature who is also a poet. His poetry reveals another trait that’s rare in contemporary literature: intense integration of his strong Catholic faith with a world that he not only gazes upon but seizes—as both a gift and a puzzle to be pondered. In this singular collection, Kolin reveals deep knowledge of scripture, profound involvement in the conundrums of faith, a brilliant eye for unusual images, and a rare ear for language that praises and questions.

In these poems, nature is both sacred and sacramental. In “Autumnals,” a poem that first appeared in the Century, Kolin notes the resonances between the season of dwindling light and human life while observing that fish in a pond “create expanding circles, / their fins sleeking like angel wings, / a world yet to be.” In other poems he calls the autumn trees “sacred forestry” and “holy souls,” still fecund “even in old age.”

In spite of this infusion of the spirit in nature, Kolin does not flinch from speaking of the earth gone dark. He uses as a plangent metaphor the “black blizzard” of a dust storm, “dust begetting dust,” “our memories of green / splintered into brittle amnesia.” Fleeing “the bleak, black sun,” a family heads west toward Los Alamos, where “the clouds billowed like white mushrooms, / ready for the picking.” Escape is never really escape in an environment in which human energy is focused on destruction.