I'm a bit late getting this written -- but for the best of reasons: The new Gary Metras book moved me to multiple readings, and I've wrestled with how to present this.
Metras' name isn't at the top of the charts unless you treasure small press poetry. A gentle, well-read man who teaches at the local college and acts as a mentor to many a poet, Metras is the publisher of Adastra Press. He's brought out some eighty neatly crafted, carefully designed letterpress books, almost all of poetry, and a charming photo of him working with his type box recently ran in Poets & Writers.
I particularly like Metras' own work in DESTINY'S CALENDAR, which he printed at Adastra. It's an exploration, in fifteen poems, of what it is to be human. Many of the poems are long, with numbered sections. In "Five Yearnings," the first section, "I. Nature's Models," begins:
the sun feeds on itself
and licks planets
with soft winds of fire.
In the third orbit
temples of fusion
are thrown together.
Everyone wants his own sun.
Then the poem moves to the speaker, and visits multiple settings, until it concludes with a trek up a mountain and a ramble alongside the ocean.
In other poems, Metras explores fatherhood, a woman's pregancy, aging, faith ... in simple language and loose forms.
But that collection came out in 1988. Now, twenty years later, Metras dares to create a book-length poem in FRANCIS D'ASSISI 2008. Beginning with an interior look at the life of the beloved saint, Metras outlines in short stanzas how Francis came to understand his life and his mission:
Because his thoughts could be unclean,
the young man built a stone chapel
in the wilderness of the Umbrian Plain
to pray and purge himself,
to contain that other wildness, that doubt,
within those short walls
of gathered stone and wood, earthen floor
to rest his head.
There are delicious sequences in the poetry's lyrical flow. I like this one: "Came Bernard of Quintaville. / Came Sabatinus and Moricus. / Came Ferdinand from Lisbon / who went for to convert the Muslims, / but got sick. Yet still he believed, and worked, / sacrificed, and became Saint Anthony. / Came John of Capella, who afterwards went away." And it keeps getting better, with the maidens, the jester, the companions. An outline of community emerges.
Then Metras elaborates on the history of Assisi's chapel, then church, then tourist destination.
And in the great age of global leisure,
tourists came, more and more each year,
and with them hotels, restaurants, laundries.
Came Coca Cola, Levis Jeans. Came iPod.
And somewhere in this story of faith
the hill of hell was made heaven
in the name of Francis.
Finally Metras reveals that he and his wife have made a pilgrimage to this site, "Because we honor the years of our love." They've taken time to feast together at a place that, in spite of the tourists, speaks to them of faith and humility and sweet love. And although Metras reports that "If you talk to animals they lock you up" -- well, he also can move to the child who ignores the tourists and sees the white stones on which to step in entering the cathedral, and then to sheep on the hillside, and to being loved by his wife.
At last, then, this is a poetry of love and faith. It comes in a shape that, like the recently concluded Days of Awe for Jews, may be unfamiliar to many. But the grace of Gary Metras is that after so many years of writing, he is willing to tell a story that's both simple and brightly decorated with hope.
Looking to purchase a copy? Finishing Line Press.