The National Catholic Review
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Once more the Foley poetry contest has run its three-month course, a thin flow of entries during most of that time but a veritable spate (about 400 poems) in the final week. As judge, along with William Rewak, S.J., of Loyola Marymount University, and Professor Claudia MonPere McIsaac, of Santa Clara University, I welcomed submissions from faraway places, including Goa and Andhra Pradesh in India, Sint Marten (Netherlands Antilles) and Antigua in the Caribbean, Yangon in Myanmar and Kibbutz Kramin in Israel.

I like to harvest striking lines or expressions. Kathy Arens tries to pair off the opposing forces, chaos and faith, with her title “Random Purpose.” The Rev. Stephen B. Perzan, a priest from Philadelphia in his 60th year at the altar, finds himself “looking down the aisle of life.” Bradford Manderfield calls the stop sign at an intersection “the icon of obedience.” One of many religious sisters, Jeanne Morin, S.N.J.M., celebrating “the gentle curve of Mother Earth,” informs us it is called “The Compassionate Curve.” I was happy to learn that. Another sister, Jerilyn Hunihan, A.S.C.J., a counselor to prisoners detained and awaiting sentence, writes of “the risen ones behind bars.”

The poems in this yearly cascade keep reminding me how precious life is. They are full of grief shared, outrage vented, memories cherished and piety outpoured. The sun does not shine evenly in all. Paul Poskozim, considering “dark shadows of the mind,” calls them “brain waves crashing on the shores of time.” Anna Rebecca Wood says of all the acrimony today: “Gnashing of teeth turns national creed.” Monty Joynes, a veteran of past wars, muses on the enlistment for present combat: “Boys will again/ experience a ruthlessness they/ cannot anticipate and/ killing and death will change them.” L. E. Bryan, writing of Vietnam in 1966, remembers “smoking till we were high enough to be at peace with war.”

Kenneth Stier Jr., in “Loons,” addresses “your lonely wails, your banshee cries/ your joyous in-flight tremolos” and concludes, “You are a metaphor of me.” In her poem “If Only,” 10-year-old Courtney Bogani offers us this stanza: “If I could only have the talent/ To make people smile when they are ill/ I’d say, ‘Today will be amazing.’/ And then I would make them food fresh off the grill.” Good start! A retired bishop, Sylvester Ryan of Monterey, serves up “a thought”: “When Jesus offered a drink of living water/ to the woman at the well,/ was it more a torrent he had in mind/ sweeping her away toward/ fathoms of mercy/ where she could just—plunge?”

What concerns me in any poem is the quality of imagination and distinction of wording, of course, but also the question, Will it have some recognizable pace? By this I mean rhythm, or linkage of sounds, i.e., music of its own. I find much fine writing in the Foley poems—profiles, stories, vivid memories, commentary. I just wish more of them would somehow sing.

Helen Vendler, editor of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985), reminds us in her Introduction to that anthology that poetry, as distinct from prose, “pulls us up, even if gently, at the end of each line.” Poetry, she says, “insists on a spooling, a form of repetition, the reinscribing of a groove, the returning upon an orbit already traced.” This insight makes me regret the increasing resort of our poets to the centering command on the computer. The maneuver offers symmetry and makes for a neat look, but to my old-fashioned mind, it switches attention from the aural to the visual.

That being said, I conclude with this tiny and fine poem from the Foley cornucopia by Regina Widney of Contaro, Ariz.:

Sit with me, Martha

Table is cleared, dishes done

Sit with me awhile

Congratulations to our winner this year, Moira Linehan, and to the runners up whom we will publish in the course of the year—Maria Hummel, “Villanelle for the Children’s Ward”; Anne Bruner, “In the Light”; and M. B. Powell, “Of the Tibetan Lion Dog.” Because of high quality, final choices were difficult.

James S. Torrens, S.J., is poetry editor of America.

Comments

Steve Perzan | 6/8/2010 - 9:17pm
Dear Father Torrens: I must clarify something about a poem I submitted for the 2010 Foley Poetry Award - A PRIEST TODAY from which you quoted a line “Looking down the aisle of life”. The poem was never meant to be biographical, only hopeful as well as a tribute to any priest who has celebrated such an event. Thank you, Steve Perzan 37 years A PRIEST TODAY.