James Bourey reviews Helen Losse's A Flower More Enduring, Main Street Rag
By Helen Losse
Main Street Rag Publishing 2021
One of the joys of being asked to review books of poetry is the chance of coming across an author who not only creates some admirable work but shows bravery in daring to expose herself to criticism from those who might be intolerant towards a particular religion. In A Flower More Enduring Ms. Losse writes freely and imaginatively about being a Roman Catholic. She also writes about other facets of her life but there is always a Catholic sensibility running through her lines.
The poems in this collection are not like the mystical visionary poems of William Blake, Thomas Merton or Gerard Manley Hopkins, three of the most renowned Catholic poets. Nor are they like the more reserved, questioning poems of Elizabeth Jennings, a highly respected Catholic English poet, a member of the “Movement” poets of the mid-twentieth century, a group that included such Modernists as Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Thom Gunn. Though Jennings was considered part of that group stylistically, she was never really accepted into the predominately male circle. Ms. Losse’s writing is more like that of another Catholic poet, Dana Gioia, although Losse’s work in this volume is more directly concerned with her spiritual experiences, devotion and ardent belief.
But this author is not a proselytizer. She’s not trying to convert anyone. The poems are reflections on personal experiences and observations, not sermons. The thirty-eight poems in this collection, divided into six sections, are lyrical and clear. From the first poem, I Want to Eat Ambrosia, we get a sense of the direction of the work to follow. And the final stanza in this poem gives us an introduction into the imaginative mind of the poet: Then, just as silence/ slices through morning, Heaven’s jagged edge/ cuts my finger to the bone. Other pieces in the first section are reflections on leading a prayerful life. And they seem to have a quiet exuberance that is very appealing.
In other sections Ms. Losse also touches on some social issues, but not in any strident political way. Throughout the collection she explores memories but doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. In fact, emotion is generally tightly contained except in a few poems where her fervency seems to escape like steam from a pressure cooker. But the poems are interesting enough that this steam-letting seems entirely appropriate.
The many references to Catholic tradition, doctrine and ritual may require a little research for those who have not been exposed to such things. And for those who are put off by devotions to Mary the mother of Jesus, or saints and angels will not be happy with some of these poems. In fact, in a poem titled I am at prayer on Tuesday the author describes a visitation from Mary and Jesus. The vision is described with some very fine lines: I/ recognize Our Lady/ by the way the air moves/ maternal scent of roses and She stands perfectly still/ yet refines like a river/ sculpting each pebble/ in a valley of stone. This poem is reminiscent of descriptions of various purported Marian Visions throughout the history of the Catholic church. I was particularly reminded by this poem of some of the writings of St. Theresa of Avila as she described her mystical visions – I was one day in prayer when I found myself in a moment… she began and then goes on to describe the event, including precise details of her surroundings and movements. If the author of this collection modeled the poem on those accounts it is not mentioned, and in fact there are many other accounts of visions and visitations that use similar language.
This collection of poems is well worth exploring. Most of the poems are beautifully structured, musical, full of interesting language and it is a useful tutorial in helping us understand a person who is devoted to a spiritual life. We are given an opportunity to see many everyday experiences in ways that most of us never consider. And it is for those reasons that I enjoyed the book and would recommend it for the reader of today’s modern poetry.
Jim Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the author of two chapbooks of poems. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.