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Book of Entangled Souls by Richard St. John. Broadstone Books, 2022. $18.00 (if purchased from publisher)
While reading Richard St. John’s fourth book of poetry, I was reminded of legendary American documentary photographer W. Eugene Smith’s Tomoko and Mother in the Bath—part of a 1970s series about the effects of industrial mercury poisoning on the residents of the fishing village of Minimata, Japan. In this photograph, a mother cradles her teenaged daughter, Tomoko, who has been severely deformed by poisoning, naked inside a traditional Japanese bath. Smith’s incandescent image is simultaneously unsparing and suffused with tenderness and awe, akin to religious art that depicts the Crucifixion or the martyrdom of saints.
Again and again in Book of Entangled Souls—an entanglement that springs from the laws of physics as well from as the uncharted territory of the soul—St. John, like Smith, looks deeply and compassionately where others might glance away or move on, and draws the reader along with him. The poet’s encounters with those who are disabled or dying, displaced or drugged, deranged or difficult, pushed to the margins or disappeared from the frame are sharp and luminous. Whether calling on his kinship with mythology and art or his observations of an ordinary Pittsburgh afternoon, St. John’s work engages the struggle at the heart of the moment. As his sister Sandra—who lived with Down Syndrome and then dementia, and is the subject of a series of poems collectively titled “Sandra Shrine”—used to tell St. John on their city walks: “I’m a litto nervous of these cracks.”
“Sandra Shrine” is replete with cracks and light. In “Hospital,” the speaker rides with Sandra in an ambulance to the nursing home where his sister will end her days on this earth:
…Yet there were moments—
Hugging your weight, to keep you
steady on the curves, drawn deep
into the gray-blue of your eyes,
saying to your ear
my useless mantra:
“I’m still right here.”
“You are the best-of-ever sister.”
“We’re almost there.”—moments
out of all my years
that I felt the most alive. Colors,
said Goethe, are the deeds
and sufferings of light. And there,
in the moving flicker
of the ambulance, well, I
was washed in it, your light.
In “Poet Peter Oresick Cleans His Brushes After an Icon Painting Class,” the light comes not only from the titular poet (who would die of brain cancer at age 60 in 2016), but from the icon of Anton Chekhov—doctor and writer—that Oresick is painting in this poem, from St. John’s reference to the 19th century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” and from the enduring sparks created by Oresick’s art and his working class Pittsburgh history:
…Your work, this waning afternoon: It’s Chekhov,
with a golden nimbus. Sober, impish,
bald as a saint yourself from side-effects,
you stand rooted at the slop sink—
part of any painter’s work. Part of
your life of work: Carpatho-Rusyn family
n the molten glassworks line;
Working Classics; always poems.
Now you wash the oils
from sable brushes, thumbnail working
at the ferrules’ nickel plate, here
at slant-crossed, onion-domed St. John Chrystostom,
sorrow of its icons—silent song.
Now, the work of chemo. Now,
first-hand, you learn the mysteries
of radiation, irradiant gold leaf, shook foil,
shot through. Work of holding on and letting go.
Letting go—of possessions, grudges, loved ones, life itself—is a recurring theme in Book of Entangled Souls. In “Mother at 87,” the speaker’s mother sits for hours at her kitchen table, restlessly sorting all types of papers—“…An old church bulletin. Another / appeal from the Children’s Fund.” It ends: “..She never seems to throw / anything out. As if / she’s only practicing / letting go.” The poem “Good Riddance, Soon” follows St. John into another cracked and lighted moment, as he rakes up fall leaves as well as memories in the yard of a house he and his wife are giving up after many years:
…I lean against the smudged brick wall
to catch my breath. The sky’s that high,
sharp, leaf-raking kind of blue
that pierces when it comes. Never in my life
will I be doing this again.
Two of my favorite poems in this book, “Carthage” and “Elegy Across a Boundary,” examine in depth a subject that many poets raise only to rail against or dismiss—the inescapable presence of an unsettling, even frightening neighbor. In “Carthage”—whose epigraph is taken from St. Augustine’s Confessions—the speaker recounts, with a mixture of sorrow, anger, incomprehension, and pity, “…the tragic Punic wars / on our front stoops” with Irene, the neighbor “…whose name means peace” in ancient Greek:
…Was it the raving messages
on our machine, accusing us of sex and dirt?
The day she drove the Oldsmobile from her garage
to double-park us in, and wouldn’t move?
…Now she lives alone
And we pretend she isn’t there. Is it true
she’s banned from shopping at our grocery store?
We never speak. I only rarely wave.
In “Elegy Across a Boundary,” Irene has died, but her tormented and tormenting spirit lingers to harry the poet, even as he wonders whether “…that broken pane, / marked by a ghostly ‘x’ for years, / will be repaired again”:
…A sudden front moves in.
With it comes the tang of ozone,
dusty pavement, rain—
and at the border of our yards, Irene,
the chain-link fence we shared
begins to shudder in the wind.
When in this rich and wide-ranging collection, St. John returns to the territory of childhood and adolescence, he combines the poignant recollections of a young body and spirit with the mature writer’s understanding of not only himself but other people, including his enigmatic father. In “My Father Sets His Hand Upon My Head,” a scouring of the poet’s six-year-old self by his father in “the too-hot spray” of a shower— experienced as punishment—takes on an opposite meaning in reflection:
…What drove him then? He didn’t say—
adopted, then the foster homes, adopted yet again,
later, the war, his work, the Maalox and the gin,
quotas to hit downtown…running late that day.
But after he died, I stood in the shower alone
and wept. He’d meant: Whatever you might achieve,
you’re cleansed, you’re loved. And I’d misunderstood.
“The Tao to Disneyland” revisits a whirlwind cross-country family road trip—not uncommon for a middle class white family in the 1960s. The pace of the journey by sweltering station wagon, along with the adults’ compulsion to check off every landmark and attraction, exhausts and frightens the five-year-old speaker, although it proves unforgettable. (My family took a similar trip when I was thirteen, the oldest of five children. I remember roasting in the way-back—as my brother and I called the station wagon’s rearmost seat—while a surreal America receded through a grimy window.)
Here, the all-powerful father of childhood appears in indelible detail:
…He smoked Chesterfields,
stubbed them in the dashboard’s fold-down cup.
Hung his sunburned arm outside,
palm open to the rushing air.
…I don’t remember swimming much;
just the chugging ice machines; our plastic buckets
brimming with bright gems, as we ran down the halls.
How proud we were, when father took our offerings,
dropped them in his three-inch amber of Old Forester
The final treat—or ordeal—is Disneyland, because “…we had bought the tickets.” By the end, the dazed child retreats toward the family’s lost car like a soldier: “…I sleepwalked, but I walked.”
I conclude this review of Richard St. John’s marvelous Book of Entangled Souls with a look at “Raised Incorruptible,” a poem that brings together some of the poet’s abiding concerns: Catholic iconography (at the Resurrection, the faithful will have perfected, incorruptible bodies, and saints whose bodies—or parts of bodies, such as the heart or tongue—are found to be miraculously preserved are referred to as Incorruptibles); the moral struggle to imagine being in another’s skin; grief at past failures of compassion; a longing for grace. “Raised Incorruptible” melds these preoccupations with a glimpse into the stirrings of adolescent sexual desire:
I never as a kid tried on
my cousin’s tortured skin.
Instead, I mocked and ran
But, lonely, longing, in my teens
I slept once in their upstairs room,
body burning, in the same pale bed
in which she must have lain
rubbing her cracked red ankles, wrists,
her leprous legs and arms.
If there’s any grace in this,
it may be in the lingering,
the touch of pain,
a phosphorescent skin—
that says, Forgive, forgive.
Angele Ellis is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor and the author of four books, including Spared (Main Street Rag). Her poem “Self-Portrait as Wine Glass” was a finalist in the 2021 Jack Grapes Poetry Contest.
Copyright 2022 by Angele Ellis