What We’re Reading in February

Books Editor Kristofer Collins reviews Richard St. John’s “Book of Entangled Souls.”

46f72eb8108460fc66ee121dca94d9685c5d06ffBook of Entangled Souls
Richard St. John

In Richard St. John’s poem, “Thinking of a Friend, I Quarrel with Yeats and Stand in Holy Fire,” a stand-out poem from his fourth book, he assures the reader: “There’s fire all around us. / We stand in it–charged, interwoven fields / flow everywhere, unseen.”

The clamor of this world rising up, with the poet’s aid, to the level of our blunted perceptions is that “interwoven field” in which we all live. If the music dies, then what of us? Connected as we all are, what happens when that connection is ignored or, worse, denied?

In the final stanza, St. John asks: “All this sensual music, does it die / entirely?” He then dissects a veritable symphony of white noise, the ever-present background clutter most of us have become experts at blocking out: barking dogs, passing traffic, insects going about their business.

St. John, long a stalwart of the Pittsburgh writing community, is a poet of exquisite quiet. It would be a mistake to interpret this as placidity. The F-16s that “passed overhead / at intervals” during the wedding ceremony described in “Letter from Babylon, 2004” make no sound, but in their regularity they embody a constant threat of disruption and disaster.

The notion that the “fire all around us” is beyond our control comes fully into view in “After Our Colonial Tea.” An anonymous bureaucratic functionary, political revolution, and British colonial history merge to exert their deadly pressure on the life of one man. That history is implacable and pernicious is the thrashing current that rages beneath the still surface of these poems.

When reading St. John’s work, it is worth remembering James Baldwin’s quote: “History is not the past.” Or, in St. John’s wry-yet-wistful parlance, “How did they begin, the tragic Punic Wars / of our front stoops?”

“Book of Entangled Souls” is equal parts ruminative and compassionate. The poems ask the reader to slow down and take note of our connections, both great and small, to this world and the people with whom we share it.

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