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Otto Selles

Faith in Poetry

Religious language, believing and non-.

Contemporary poetry usually doesn't make me think of catechism class. But upon receiving five books to review for this article, I was brought back to Tuesday nights, the church basement, and questions and answers on human misery, deliverance, and gratitude. For when poets give their books such loaded titles as The Fall, Signs and Abominations, Atonement, or Waiting for the Paraclete, it is fair to ask if the intent is in any way theological. In other words, do these collections indicate a desire to tackle spiritual questions through verse? Or are these titles the sign of ambiguous appropriation, seizing upon the richness of religious imagery without embracing its sense? The answer is somewhere in a poetically religious middle, as talented writers put the faith they have—or had—into poetry.

David Citino's collection The Invention of Secrecy takes perhaps the most conventional route by presenting faith as something that has lapsed into an element of poetical reflection. The initial poem begins with memories of delivering the newspaper before the morning Mass. Returning to the present, Citino sights the comet Hale-Bopp:

have I seen my own going so radiant,
the sky lightening, the beauty of my death

twisting slowly its long, glittering trail.

In the title poem, he remembers "Saying the Latin answers at the Mass" and hearing "a new music." This public connection contrasts with the privacy of reading silently, of "deceiving ourselves into believing / that, alone, we could be complete, / silent, we would not grow too full." In another poem, "The Harrowing of Hell," Citino argues that if hell were to exist, its horror would be "the thoughts of one mind, lukewarm, / too intent, too alone."

Amid such secrecy, hope still springs like faith, eternally misguided, according to Citino. As a youth, he could believe that angels floated above Cleveland. Now he realizes "we're suckers for cartoon promises." But Citino still wonders "what happens / when the poem ends?" In the book's final ...

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