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Slow Pilgrims: The Collected Poems

Slow Pilgrims: The Collected Poems by Scott Cairns

Having drunk the waters of Idiot Psalms before, this complete collection of Scott’s poems is truly a gem.  With all the vigor of a freshly minted monk and the genius of one who has immersed himself in words for a long time, these poems defy my expectations, turn my imagination on its head, and leave me with a sense of awe and wonder.  Some poems remain disturbing after the second reading, yet others push you to gaze above.  Themes of the human condition, faith, sacraments, and very mundane things permeate these poems, giving the reader something to hand their hats on.

One poem in particular certainly changed my expectations of it from beginning to end, this poem is called Laughter.  The beginning opens you up to a familiar laughter, Mom’s, and then the laughter turns into the delight a bully has for his beatings. 

“The whole thing got started
While I was listening to my mother,
giddy on the phone.   It was the way she
laughed that got me thinking….

Anyway, out of nothing particular,
I remembered the day
at camp when that kid from West Seattle jumped my brother
and started punching away for no reason…
All that week whenever
we saw that kid again, he’d look
right at us and he’d be laughing (11).”

The juxtaposition between laughter reminding one of his mother and her glee while also seeing laughter in a more sinister perspective upset my expectations of where Scott was going with the theme, but rather made me the duality of a giddy nature, being used in both times of joy and ruin. 

In the Communion of the Body Scott takes into perspective the diversity of Christ’s bride but also its frailty.  Scott writes,

“Like all of us, the saved
need saving mostly from themselves and so
they make progress, if at all, by dying

to what they can, acquiescing to this
new pressure, new wind, new breath which would fill
them with something better than their own good intentions.

The uncanny evidence that here
In the stillest air between them the one
we call the Ghost insinuates his care…(106-107).”

What you find in these poems is often not so much a connective tissue running through these lines that brings out a beautiful message.  Rather, what you most often find in these lines is the paradoxical nature of faith, the reflection of your own failures, and the suggestion that many things we take for granted can easily be distorted.  Take the giddiness of laughter, seen from the perspective of a mother, you get the sense of something beautiful but also rightfully funny.  Yet, in the eyes of a bully, laughter is the strait jacket that he uses to keep someone in check, to let other people know who’s the boss around here. 

I really enjoyed these poems not just for their aesthetic taste or even the way they are read out loud but for the way they turned my expectations of them on their head.

Thanks to Paraclete Press for this wonderful book of poems in exchange for an honest review.


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