Donegal Suite

By John P. McNamee

Dufour. 62 pp. $13.95

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


Inquirer Books Editor

nolead ends Donegal Suite is just the book to have in hand as another St. Patrick's Day approaches.

The Rev. John P. McNamee's collection of poems provides a useful corrective to the vulgar take on Ireland and the Irish that the day - populated with leprechauns, decorated with shamrocks, awash in watery green beer - has come to represent.

It also provides a corrective to the vulgar take on faith being put forth in best-selling books by the likes of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.

McNamee is pastor of St. Malachy's Catholic Church in North Philadelphia and is best known as an author for his Diary of a City Priest. The poems in his new book, many of them written during a trip to Ireland, are all exemplary of what faith looks like from the inside by someone who happens to be living it.

"Prayer Walk," for instance, begins an account of a stroll by the sea by noting, "The Exercises of Saint Ignatius say / the Mystery will be as intrusive in us / as we by listening allow." It concludes by admitting, "We are / more the sandpipers skittish / about staying dry than fat gulls / sitting Buddha-like gazing out / with an attention that evades me."

"Come back to the closeby," McNamee writes in "Hedgerows," and he takes his own advice, bringing a sharp eye to details likely to be overlooked but whose poignancy conjures a strange, uncomfortable - though not altogether uncomforting - beauty:

Brick walls dust sidewalks

with rust crumble as far

as the empty factory

worn as the body

I force snail-like

to my morning window

where sunrise now burns

glass shards and paint peel.

These stanzas are themselves worth taking a closer look at. "Brick walls dust sidewalks" - all nouns, though dust serves as a verb as well. The empty factory is worn as the body is by the soul, the same body the speaker forces to the window to see the burning sunrise. With its seemingly casual rhymes and assonance, this is very well-crafted verse.

Critics of religion often presume that faith settles all questions for the believer - "no more doubt or fear," as the song would have it. It isn't that way at all, of course. As John Henry Newman noted, faith doesn't eliminate doubt. It simply makes it bearable.

There is certainly no sense of complacency in these pages: "The demon is doubt / the silence like nothingness." Or take "Habitare Secum" - the title refers to dwelling in the presence of God: "The aim is emptiness," but "the vacant spaces within . . . both invite and frighten." And so:

I succumb. A cabinet in the next room

has spirits to soften the lump of self

a switch and a blank screen fills

with distracting color.

On the tube is a program about the poet Philip Larkin, and McNamee quotes Larkin: "Boredom and fear and with the years / more fear than boredom." "And," observes McNamee, "more spirits to ease / the terrors and death spirits softened and hastened."

It is McNamee's awareness of his own shortcomings - or, to use the traditional term, sinfulness - that makes these poems so humane. From the old bachelor sitting alone in an Irish pub, passing "the short or long Irish nights hearing / songs he has heard a thousand times," to the bus driver "who cradles / the huge steering wheel as ably as / she does grandchildren off somewhere in daycare," to the old and young man (the younger with Down syndrome) "side by side in a front pew" and "more a homily than / any words I am about," these poems teach us to see people as we ought to, but seldom manage to.

The poet John Hall Wheelock wrote that a poet is "an eye that watches in secret . . . a mouth to tell us something we have forgotten . . . to tell us all over again / Something we always knew."

McNamee fits the description, drawing our attention to the rising sun, "already shaping the black roof / of night into a blue dome . . . a finger- / print of the singular that is every dawn"

Try thinking about that before you sip any of that lousy green beer Saturday night.

Contact books editor Frank Wilson at 215-854-5616 or fwilson@phillynews. com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/frankwilson.