One-Minute Book Reviews

April 5, 2007

Robert Cording’s ‘Common Life’: Poems for Easter and Beyond

A distinguished poet explores “possible answers to unanswerable questions”

Common Life: Poems. By Robert Cording. CavanKerry, 105 pp., $16, paperback. [Note: The template for this site does not allow for the correct indentation of the lines quoted from “Pigeon Man.”]

By Janice Harayda

One of the poems in the Robert Cording’s elegant Common Life tells of a man who, every Easter, would bring a truck full of caged pigeons to a town green, then release them and drive home to await the return of his flock. “The pigeon man” put on his display for residents who felt an odd mixture of spirits:

High on resurrection hymns, yet dampened by
Nagging reminders – Jim’s young wife dying of cancer

And their two boys who would be
Motherless in a month; a divorce ot two members
Loved by everyone; a suicide bombing in Jerusalem;
And soldiers occupying the church at Bethlehem.

“Pigeon Man” adds that though the release of the birds took only a moment, the townspeople looked forward

To the pigeons which must have suggested,
Whether we believed or not, and even if we knew
The movement in the opposite direction was far
More common, that grief could suddenly turn to grace.

That flash of grace amid tragedy is typical of the poems in Common Life, all rooted in the epigraph from Psalm 37:7: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” A professor of English at Holy Cross, Cording has said that he explores “possible answers to unanswerable questions.” And the 43 poems in Common Life radiate a sense of the mysteries of life that, like those of the rosary, can be joyful or sorrowful.

Some of the most memorable poems have their roots in practices you might find in Ripley’s Believe It or Not but that are transmuted in the book into something higher. Cording meditates on a petrified fetus that lived for 15 years in a Brazilian widow’s uterus, the 19th century tradition of photographing the dead and a man who wanted to kill himself when doctors restored his sight after a lifetime of blindness, an event that might have overjoyed others:

But now the most familiar objects lurch at him,
Irrationally, maddeningly.
They bear so little resemblance to his blind conception
Of them, the man actually wishes to be blind again …

Several poems besides “Pigeon Man” relate directly to Easter, including “Lenten Stanzas” and the title poem, which begins:

Like Christ on the Emmaus road concealed
From his disciples by his ordinariness,
The commonplace is sometimes hardest to see –

Yet if “the commonplace is sometimes hardest to see,” Cording evokes it with exceptional skill and mastery of form (which includes an occasional rhyme). He opens with “A Prayer to Adam,” a fine example of sprung rhythm and its strongly accented first syllables. And in “Rosary Bead, Netherlands, c. 1500” he recalls a medieval rosary in five ten-line stanzas that echo the form of the rosary itself.

For all their sacred imagery, the poems in Common Life never read like tracts or veiled exercises in proselytizing. They are poems first and “religious poems” second. Cording has said that he tells his students that the readers of a poem must feel that they are “making contact with a real human being, not simply with arguments and opinions.” In this collection, readers make that connection on every page.

Best line: Many. Here’s one from “Skellig Michael,” about a visit to a monastic ruin: “ … More than half / My life already over, I have come to know lately / How little I know, and how even that gets in my way, / My mind trafficking in perfectly managed confusions, / In creating comfort and security where neither truly exist.”

Worst line: “Much Laughter” is a good poem about the melancholy Samuel Johnson. But to say that Johnson entrusted Hester Thrale with “with a padlock/ And chain to restrain his fits when the time came” may be an oversimplification. Some scholars would argue that he had sexual reasons for doing this.

Published: March 2006

Furthermore: Cording’s poems have appeared in magazines that include the Nation, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, American Scholar, The New Yorker. Among those in Common Life, “Parable of the Moth” appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and “Advent Stanzas” in Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Links: www.cavankerrypress.org

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’: What Do You Say to God Besides, ‘I’ve Always Been a Big Fan of Your Work’?

After a bruising divorce, a woman in her 30s finds her way back to herself with rest stops in Rome, Mumbai and Bali

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. By Elizabeth Gilbert. Penguin, 352 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In her early 30s, Elizabeth Gilbert kept thinking about something her sister had said while breast-feeding her firstborn: “Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.”

Gilbert took her words to heart. She quit trying to get pregnant, divorced her husband, moved out of their house in a New York suburb and took a year-long break from life as she had known it.

As she puts it in Eat, Pray, Love, she went to Rome for “pleasure” and to an ashram near Mumbai for “devotion” or spiritual renewal. Then it was off to Bali for “balance,” though this goal took a hit when she had so much sex with her island boyfriend that she got a bladder inflection. (A medicine woman cured her by making her drink a foul-smelling brew made from roots, leaves, berries, turmeric and a “shaggy mass of something that looked like witches’ hair.”) Gilbert, a writer for GQ, has some interesting things to say about the places she visits. But she’s nowhere near as good at highly inflected travel writing as, say, Geoff Dyer, whose Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It offers much more thoughtful writing on Indonesia and other countries. Great travel writers sell you on a personal vision of a place. Gilbert is selling something else: the idea that you can fix what’s wrong with your life buying a few plane tickets to spots that you’ve always wanted to visit. In her case, “recovery” sounds a lot like another form of consumerism.

Best line: Gilbert says that as her marriage fell apart, she wanted to ask God for help but wasn’t sure how to pray: “In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from saying, ‘I’ve always been a big fan of your work …’”

Worst line: “A word about masturbation, if I may. Sometimes it can be a handy (forgive me) tool …” This kind of wordy and cute-instead-of-witty prose turns up often in Eat, Pray, Love.

Published: February 2006 (Viking hardcover), January 2007 (Penguin paperback)

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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