An anthology of poems is usually a guaranteed pleasure. After all, a judicious editor is spreading out his or her favorites, which is bound to yield the reader a handful of authentic finds. The judicious editor in this case is Peggy Rosenthal, teacher and author of The Poet’s Jesus (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), a wide-ranging study of how Jesus appears in world poetry.
Some of these poems display the bruises we have inflicted on one another in this traumatic era. “All of a Sudden,” by the Chilean poet Teresa de Jesus, evokes “the urbane streets” of her home country when a dictatorship turned them into “people swallowing streets.” “Villanelle for the Morning Sky,” by Karen Choate, pictures the aftermath of the bombing of Baghdad against the impassiveness of the two great rivers of Iraq. “Six columns of smoke against the morning sky;/ The Tigris and Euphrates flow slowly by.” Daniel Berrigan, S.J., translates Psalm 10, a prayer aiming to stir up a God apparently inactive before evil:
Lord, why stand on the sidelines
Silent as the mouth of the dead, the maw of the grave
O living One, why?
Lord, they call you blind man. Call their bluff.
“The Olive Wood Fire,” by Galway Kinnell, is more meditative. The poet sits many a night with his infant son, Fergus, before a wood fire. Sometimes, mysteriously, “even after his bottle the big tears/ would keep on rolling down his cheeks.” Once the poet dozes and has a nightmare of napalm falling, then starts up alert. “In my arms lay Fergus,/ fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God.”
Jimmy Santiago Baca, who spent harrowing years in a Mexico state penitentiary, lists the survival moves and outlines the way to freedom in “Who Understands Me but Me.” A Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, does the same via his exuberant imagination in “The Prison Cell.” “It is possible especially now/ to ride a horse/ inside a prison cell/ and run away.” His hard-bitten jailer is not easy to convince.
The subtitle of this book is “Poetry for Peacemakers.” Its explicit purpose is to be of service to members of Pax Christi, the international peace and justice movement, and even to provide readings for prayer vigils and rallies. The outside reader will understandably be wary of double-underlined messages in such a book, but the poems mostly avoid them. Denise Levertov, passionate protester as she was, skates closest to this thin ice.
The editor herself, in her brief introductions to each poem, cannot always resist the temptation of interpreting a poem for us before we read it. Her comments are conveyed in the form of handwriting and extend out to the margins, tending to crowd the poems. Rosenthal offers a two-page introduction to each of her eight sections as well. These are full of apposite and welcome reflections on poetry and its reading public.
The spirit of Pax Christi is by definition hopeful. The vision of what is possible, a better or even ideal state of things, governs the best of these poems. Yehuda Amichai yearns for what he calls “Wildpeace,” a field with flowers that affords “a little rest for the wounds—who speaks of healing?” Joy Harjo suggests that the likeliest place for our joint human satisfaction will be at the family table. “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” In “Prayer in My Boot,” Naomi Shihab Nye singles out for concern the things and people poised between failure and recovery. She concludes praying “for every hopeful morning given and given/ and every future rough edge/ and every afternoon/ turning over in its sleep.”
The warmest of all these poems is a kind of litany entitled “Peace,” by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. It enumerates the little corners of peace we have all about us. “Peace is a glass of warm milk and a book before the awakening child.” It is “when wheatstalks lean toward one another saying, the light, the light.” This anthology itself is, in fact, an offering that bears this very quality of light.
Editor’s Note: This book is available through Pax Christi USA (www.paxchristiusa.org) or 532 West 8th Street, Erie, PA 16502.