I met James Torrens, S.J., for the first and only time sometime in the mid-1990’s, in August, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont. He was an editor then at America, living in mid-town Manhattan, in the years before I myself became the poetry editor there, and I was eager to meet him because my own son was then a Jesuit in formation in California, and Jesuits at Bread Loaf have always been a rare sighting. Father Torrens was there in pursuit of that elusive thing called poetry. There was something about him that struck me at once: an authenticity, the kind of presence that quietly but unmistakably speaks of a life given over to the service of God, which means being sent to faraway places most of us will never imagine, much less experience. A life also spent in intense study, for example, teaching in crowded classrooms at Tuskegee or Santa Clara or ministering to prisoners in maximum-security prisons in Mexico, or living in college dormitories here in the States or abroad in Uruguay, the Baja Peninsula or La Frontera. He studied theology at Louvain, Belgium, and spent five years during the turbulent 1960’s earning his doctorate in English at the University of Michigan after being ordained in 1961.
Among Jesuits whom he personally knew we might single out the late Father Ed Malatesta, with his vision of opening China to Christianity, before he suffered the embolism that took his life; or the Bolivian Jesuit, Father Gabriel Codina, who for 30 years has worked with the underprivileged of his homeland to see that they, like their more privileged brothers and sisters, got a chance at a decent education; or Father Chrysologue Mahame, the first Rwandan Jesuit to be ordained, who worked to heal the bitter fratricide between the Hutu and Tutsi, and who in 1994 gave his life for that cause. He also knew personally each of the Jesuit martyrs executed by the military in El Salvador some 20 years ago.
I mention all this by way of introducing Father Torrens’s poems, 58 of which are now published in a volume aptly titled Uphill Running: A Jesuit Life. Father Torrens has provided a kind of running commentary to his poems, which he has divided into five sections: The Growing Season, a kind of Bildungsroman; Earthquake Country, about his years growing up and teaching in California; The Children of Columbus, which relates some of his experiences in Latin AmericaBogotá, Montevideo, Mexico City, Baja and Peru; The Run of the City, about his eight years in New York City working at America; and a coda, which is appropriately entitled Evensong.
The poems assembled here are time-, place- and spirit-bound, filled with the particulars of the world, in a way that reminds one at times of William Carlos Williams, at other times of Gerard Manley Hopkins or Wallace Stevens or Denise Levertov; or George Herbert, as in these unobtrusively interlocked rhyming lines about Peruvian children shepherding llamas and sheep on the Altiplano:
So here the Lord tented, to show
no one ascends without first coming down,
entering our flesh as his, precious,
his the clear voice shepherding through the town
whose least word we flock to follow
wherever the grassy stream refreshes.
Father Torrens’s humor is gentle and subtle, like Herbert’s, his eye as mimetically sharp as Williams’s in evoking the everyday, the quotidian, as in this snapshot of Stevens composing lines in his head as he takes his daily stroll down to his insurance office in Hartford, Conn.:
He strides off like my father once to work
in any weather, one foot dictating
to the other, hatted, neatly white-haired
fine suit (no target in a safer time),
head full of a poem. Someone observes him
stop, step back recalculating, then
with a sure tread resume. A rush of images
slows into his march, inviting him,
bond expert, to reckon their maturing
and take measures for their redemption.
What lovely subtlety is there in the play on maturing, measure and redemption, in which the Jesuit’s economy of poetics is matched with the economy of salvation, of time redeemed by poetry. There are graces everywhere, hints of a life richly lived in service to others, not unlike what his Jesuit brothers Hopkins and Berrigan have given us. It seems a life of fits and starts, as all of us have lived, I suppose, parts of which we no doubt wish we could erase from the blackboard, or edit out, or somehow rewrite in memory. But then there’s the wisdom of the Spiritual Exercises here to consider, as Father Torrens has learned: the realization, as the closing lines of this book remind us, that
the itch of self-correction’s wrong,
presuming a perspective that I lack.
Better to leave the faults there, legible,
Since mercy keeps on smiling me along.
Editor’s Note: This book may be ordered directly from the author: Cardinal Manning House of Prayer, 3441 Waverly Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90027; (323) 662 7569.