But I am a fiction writer; and I grew up Pentecostal. Whatever my preconceived notions, I now stand corrected. “Donegal Suite,” McNamee’s second book of poetry, is a quietly stunning collection that offers surprising insights into faith and life in the priesthood.
As evident in the opening lines, McNamee’s faith is inextricably entwined with the natural world. As a wandering stranger in “Homecoming,” he has no real home to visit. Instead, constantly displaced throughout the collection, he considers landscape his home. When walking County Antrim, he is “home as never elsewhere am I home.” But, much like faith, the natural world does not offer the comfort and certainty as the concrete presence of a house. It is always raining; the landscape is blurred and hazy. Although, as he offers in “Climate,” “Weather might be everything.” With this, changeable weather and moods become the driving force of McNamee’s faith, driving against the hard realities of the world: “I will accept this/ mood as a place from which to pierce the clouds.”
The most moving moments in McNamee’s poems come when he turns his gaze inward. A few times, he describes himself walking along a shoulderless road — a subtle metaphor representing the life he has chosen for himself. Walking against traffic, in bad weather, with cars zooming by, danger is ever-present. As in the poem “Diversion,” small things such as caffeine and a woman in a summer dress invite “a curiosity” beyond the necessities of life. In addition to these small distractions, moments of cynicism creep in at the most surprising times. “Graveyard Mass In Donegal,” which I believe is the heart of the collection, offers an unexpected edge to something so tragic as the death of an infant:
One ebony gravestone reads in gold:
Alana Marie Boyle died 1 April 1986 at 9 1/2 months
and below that a New Testament verse:
Jesus called a little child of course
I do not understand the Mass all
in Irish with priests and musicians…
Here, the comfort that the parents take from the Bible is rendered trite for just a moment before “of course” is ambiguously connected to the next stanza. Just those two words, straddling cynicism in the first stanza and off-handed confusion in the second, are a perfect example of the tension that fuels these poems.
As the collection progresses, the rural landscape gives way to the American city, where McNamee struggles with loneliness in crowded settings. “City Bus” finds him on public transportation, moved by the small courtesies and passions of the strangers around him. These, in the end, are the moments that lift McNamee out of his loneliness: “This bus would be a good place to die.”
However, after “City Bus,” the collection loses the weight that has been building for forty pages. The last third of the collection is less rooted in his internal struggles, turning its focus outward to parishioners in Philadelphia and hospital visits. The tone lightens and the spell is lifted. “City Bus,” being called a good place to die, would have also been a good place to end the collection. But, fortunately, by the end, the power of the previous poems is not forgotten.
By Rev. John P. McNamee
62 pp.; $13.95.
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