On Pilgrimage With a New Catholic Poet

A young poet’s debut collection shows the Catholic literary world is thriving in the 21st century.

Andrew Calis’ ‘Pilgrimages’
Andrew Calis’ ‘Pilgrimages’ (photo: Wipf and Stock Publishers)

It is not every day that a new poetry collection is published — the bar is high enough, in the contracting publishing world, for nonfiction authors to break out. Poetry, deemed less accessible and with a smaller readership, is in a little league all of its own.

So it is a bit shocking to see Andrew Calis’ Pilgrimages lying on my desk: because new poetry does have that high bar to pass. This particular volume is more startling because I know the author. He and I belonged to a group of English graduate students at The Catholic University of America who workshopped each other’s writing. My praise should, under the circumstances, be taken with a grain of salt; but I think it is no exaggeration to say that Andrew’s work deserves to be read, even in a time when poetry in general is not.

It is almost hard to recall why anyone ever did read poetry. Most generally, poetry shares with the other arts the ability to evoke strong feelings, and that mysterious, perhaps transcendental quality called beauty. But the sort of feelings that used to be evoked by the strongest poetry are found today, if anywhere, in popular music. One does not seek sonnets to lament a broken friendship, but rap.

As for beauty — beautiful songs are still written — but those who speak most persistently about the beautiful are also, frequently, those who seem to find it chiefly in the old. Beauty, after all, depends in part upon the form, and that most modern of “forms,” free verse, is supposed to have no form at all.

But there is a school of modern poetry that has not in fact abandoned form altogether. One does not need to go to Shakespeare for a sonnet, or Tennyson for rhyme:

A fight was in the air before the first

fist, when knife-sharp words were flying. We hunted

for predators, tooth-bared faces, cursing

in their heads, their unstained skin youth-stunted.

That is the first quatrain of “Breaking Up a Fight at School,” one of several sonnets in Pilgrimages. The rhymes are there at the line’s ends; the internal rhymes too, and the rhythm and alliteration: the poem is contained (more or less) within the traditional form. But that containment contrasts mightily with the topic — not that this is modern either; after all, some of the world’s oldest poetry is precisely of battles.

What does feel very modern, however, is the placement of the poetry. Sometimes it is geography that stands out: in the map on the cover page and in titles like “In NoMa” and “Circulatory Systems: D.C.”; but it is also in the diction itself:

  A walk home. A town

too much a city. Streets sweat, wetted

by the sky’s monastic monochrome. A walk home.

 — “The Splash of Rain Came First”

One is not living in the age of monasteries anymore when one invokes them to account for a “monochrome” sky.

But if the monasteries are absent from this poetry — if it is thoroughly at home in rough city metro cars and uncomfortable college classrooms — the tabernacle is still present. The first section of the book, “To God and to the Cloud’s Edge,” contains a number of overtly religious poems, all the more powerful for being none too at ease with God. Indeed, precisely part of the virtue of these poems is that they stir up the quiet, sleepy sort of faith into which practicing Catholics may sometimes fall into a faith more surprised at what is, in fact, truly surprising:

The world is dirt made rich. Earth terraformed

Before we knew the term.

 — “Still, Loved”

God as aliens — it’s a theme of modern pop culture and pop science and sometimes conspiracy theories, when the uniqueness of our world is explained by appeals to one equally material, but more advanced. But here the poet turns the idea round: people of good faith and reason also should see earth, as it were, as terraformed: as shaped by an alien hand; but that hand is, precisely, the hand of God, who

  so loved

And loved and loves the worm …

There is playful irreverence here, calling up “God so loved the world” and tying it to that equally biblical idea, “I am a worm, and no man.”

That playfulness, that willingness to pun and to surprise the reader with the next word is another hallmark of this collection, as of poetry in general. The point, indeed, is surprise, not subversion: not to deny what is true but to put it in a light where it can actually be seen.

That is how the best modern poetry works: if it shocks, it is not for the sake of shocking, but for seeing. Ryan Wilson, another CUA English alum, has the gift; Dana Gioia (former chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts) has been a practitioner and proponent of this kind of poetry for years; go back a little further, almost to ancient days, and Robert Penn Warren is almost young enough to pull it off. Return to the present day, and you can find it in the pages of Presence, or Dappled Things, or The Lamp Magazine, or the St. Austin Review; you can hear it live (or these days via YouTube) at an event hosted by Contemporary Catholic Writers (another CUA group, founded by alumna Jessica Schnepp).

Indeed, those who really know the contemporary Catholic poetry circles are certainly shaking their heads right now about this list’s omissions, its eccentric and its eclectic nature. But my point is not to be exhaustive; rather, it is to position Calis’s work in the milieu where it belongs, and to urge readers — both those who feel “poetry” is a stodgy word, and those inclined to faint at anything less ancient than Shelley — to pick up, if not Calis’s work, then someone’s. To read verse is itself a rare thing, a pilgrimage in its own right these days — one more of us should take.

And Pilgrimages is a good place to start. You do not need the PhD to understand it — read aloud, its beauty is manifest to the tongue and ear, and provides its own answer to the question of why anyone would walk the camino. But Calis’s is also the sort of writing that repays rereading: the fullness of any given poem is not immediately clear. Archibald MacLeish (in)famously suggested that a poem “should not mean, but be.” Calis’s poetry both is, and has meaning; but the is-ness is not crucified to the meaning: it does not become, for all the deep religiosity animating parts of the book, about a message or moral. Instead, the poems record an experience of meanings grasped in part, severally, sometimes conflicting, sometimes confused, but each one worth taking seriously.

One of the poems, “The 10 Ways to Read in English Class,” tells the story of a young student who hastily, rashly judges a poem as being “anti-war.” Once the other students have heard this first interpretation, it becomes canon; and the teacher — whose job is, at bottom, to get the students to actually think, is stymied. Yet there is in the end almost a happy ending: although no one quite forgets the simple anti-war reading, eventually that very experience of haste becomes salutary: it

prick[s] the backs of some students’ eyes

when we talk about labels; or about the many

sides a story has; how no to eyes share

the same sight; how maybe both stories are wrong

and the right story is out there, wriggling in some gut;

and that’s when I see a glimpse of that poem’s roots — 

when I catch them thinking, not quite certain

but just starting to wonder

There, unpunctuated, the poem ends. One hesitates to say that it sums up Pilgrimages — for one thing, to wrap the collection up in a neat bow would be precisely not the right directive to take from this poem. But it does beautifully illustrate what a good poem, read well, can do for the human mind and heart.