Philip C. Kolin’s A Parable of Women, Reviewed by Anne C. Fowler

A Parable of Women

Poems by Philip C. Kolin
Yazoo River Press

Reviewed by Anne C. Fowler

Philip Kolin’s ambitious collection of poems, sketches of individual women and their experiences, becomes an overall parable, or illustration, of loneliness and isolation. His characters and speakers include Biblical characters – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Herodias, and Hagar– as well as historical and contemporary American women. And Kolin explores class and age as well as time and distance: nuns and homeless women, widows, young girls and women populate his lyrics.

This poet articulates his profound insight into the lives and souls of women, his deep empathy with their quiet, or not so quiet, desperation. There’s pathos aplenty here, and it’s spread democratically throughout the pages. For readers who find characters from Scripture unfamiliar or alien, Kolin introduces biblical women whose thoughts and yearnings are as recognizable, and universal, as any we might encounter in our own friends and neighbors. For those who are well acquainted with these women, Kolin takes the old myths and makes them new.

The characters inhabiting these poems all speak, or are spoken of, in accessible language. We can read the words of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, or hear of the sleazy trappings of a modern singles party, without struggling to decode meaning. The benefits of this approach are several: to stress, again, the commonality of women’s experience throughout history and society, and to put readers at ease with towering figures of Christian myth and tradition.

And Kolin’s lyric style varies with his subjects: the biblical women speak with more elevated diction, and employ figures and images drawn from their worlds. For instance, in “Hagar’s Lament” the titular character declaims:

But God opened
My eyes to wells
Deeper than the Red Sea:
My son’s sons all darkened
In the promise that baptized
The offspring she weaned
In the shadow of my tent.

And here is Kolin’s description of Magdalen:

There before her
The laughter of angels
Sprung the snares of time.

I find, the poems featuring women from the Bible more arresting and more artful. Kolin demonstrates equal compassion for, and identification with, the plight of contemporary women, his language in these poems sometimes suffers from flatness or awkwardness. Here is a stanza from “The Singles Again Party”:

The room is skewed
Toward the door and windows
Escapes for all eyes
That have not discovered
Someone worth a second glance.

And from “Midlife”:

Orange and yellow lights
On every porch or above
The condo balconies
Flicker like votive candles
To a kind desire
Mellow, at midlife, now
Comfortable, predictable, assured.

And some of the poems would benefit from less telling, more showing.

Kolin has an unflinching eye. He directs his attention to the tawdry, the wretched, to the least, the lost, and the left behind. He does not offer false hope or facile resolution; his view is often bleak. But what shines through in his work is the indomitability of these assembled women’s spirits: these poems are parables of how we endure.


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