Gems From the Foley Poets

Gems, by definition, are rare—especially when it comes to the arts. In the case of poetry, there is much to execute and coordinate: insight, apt imagery, distinctive wording, well-formed lines, cohesive structure and a detectable music. Success depends on some bright impulse or strong line, to start off, and then good poetic resources to bring it to fruition. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of art as recta ratio factibilium, “the right conception of things to be made.” The Latin ratio is elusive, here denoting a conception to be realized.

What helped me through the chore of screening 850 poems for this year’s Foley poetry competition was real pleasure in the little gems, an occasional phrase or line or couplet that jumped out at me, like this from “Walking to Work,” by Kathleen Flanagan: “From an apartment above, a mother yells to her son/ ‘Go, you’ll be late. Go! You’re handsome enough.’” Rose Marie Quilter, R.S.C.J., writes: “When you pray/ Befriend silence/ The native tongue/ Of God.” Concerning trees Sarah Baglin says, “They watch and wonder/ They are sad for us.” Thomas Forsthoefel, in his list poem “Grace That Suffuses Everything,” celebrates “firemen clambering up fatal steps” and the minister who “bears his loneliness with dignity and a sip of gin.”


Here is Minhjan Dangs beginning “The Carthusians”: “Night is their diocese/ silence is their ministry/ their world is a mystery.” Excellent! And here is a riff from my favorite entry, six poems by teenagers at Rice High School in Harlem in New York. Among them, Henry Victor praises his girlfriend with a coinage he may not have been aware of: “In the darkness shone your immaculance.” Liam McNamara begins “My Sister’s Place” with this glimpse of her dementia: “She’s there now, in that house of not remembering.” And in “The Layoff” Mary Jane Ponyik ponders the all-too-current headline “150 TO BE LET GO.” She imagines a gazelle in the savannah, when lightning touches off a grass fire: “Her heart pounds; she turns to run.” Just then the wind changes, the flames turn away. The animal acts as correlative for the author: “Stunned, she wonders/ why she was spared.”

As poetry editor of America, I confess that I look above all for musicality—a pattern of sound, obvious or subtle. One tactic of musicality, serving so well in songs, is the refrain. In “The Road,” John Pudelski, who writes from confinement, keeps coming back to the line: “I always find myself on this road.” Meskerem Kinfe writes in “Brothers” of his old pals, sitting on a corner gabbing, whistling at the girls, with this refrain, “I knew these brothers then.” In a poem to a deceased mentor, Teresa Locke keeps summing him up as exemplifying “how to dance in the rain.”

Submissions to the Foley contest came in from everywhere, including Norway (a Trappist nun), Nepal, South Africa, Japan, Ireland and England. From Nairobi came “The Match,” a long, lively account of boys happily playing soccer from morning till night. We received “Winged Worship,” about the butterfly, from Francis Gonsalves, S.J., at a theology school in Delhi: “You feast on pollen plate/ sipping from petal perch/ say, what is it you fly for/ as stubbornly you search?”

I counted about 25 poems from priests and brothers, including one retired bishop in California, and about 40 from women religious. Among the latter, Sister Jacqueline Dorr starts off a riddle poem entitled “Fascination”:

I like the SOUND of them

The FEEL of them

Alluring TEASE-APPEAL of them


of them



Sister Jacqueline is writing about words, the gems we all have at hand. The principal gem in the Foley contest, as decided by three judges and appearing here as the winner, is “Ode to the Heart,” by Brent Newsom, a doctoral student in creative writing and a brand new parent. Three runner-up poems are in our winner’s circle, to be published in the course of this year: “State of Dementia” by Mary Damon Peltier; “In Which I Forgive the River,” by Charlotte Muse; and “Sarah’s List,” by Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B. My last word to the Foley gemsmiths of 2009 is: “A deep bow to you all.”

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9 years 8 months ago
So, James, now that you have successfully whetted our appetites, where can we read these poems in total? TM
9 years 7 months ago
Lovely article on the many enteries to the Foley Contest. Do this say something?
Do we need our own Catholic Literary Review in the name of O'Conner, Pope, and Newman? There seems a dearth of the old Golden Age of great literary writing,I would like to be able to send my writing on the web or in print to editors that would appreciate Catholic themes or undertones. I wasn't able to enter this or last year's contests due to family restraints, The Bible is poetry and story and in these times the multitude of Catholic artists both active and nonactive need to be heard ,else the next generation will have no role models or mentors. Please publish more poetry!


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