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The Caterpillars at St. Bernard

By James Miller Robinson
Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press, 2014
$14, Paper


Reviewed by Harry Moore

The speaker in James Miller Robinson’s chapbook The Caterpillars at Saint Bernard is on a quest. From the naïve hitchhiker in the first poem, who hears as he is stranded on the roadside “the distinguishable voice / of [his] own particular life / whispering its promises / murmuring its warnings,” to the seasoned pilgrim in the last poem bringing home an entire monastery on his back, the poet is looking for something.

In a voice steady in its cadences, guiding the reader easily through unfolding syntax and through one situation after another packed with physical details, the poet recounts his forays into cities and across continents. Readers can decide for themselves what the object of the search is—“the things we all want but none of us can name”—but it is clearly not in “the false light and the noise,” though perhaps it is in “the profound silence that always throbs beyond the noise.” It isn’t in the accumulation of things through “ambitious crush / and senseless chatter.” In fact, homeless people and beggars who know “the terrible joy of traveling light” may understand the quest better than people at the art fair.

The poems celebrate those who have been good pilgrims: a friend who held true to his Zen-like calling; the groundskeepers of a park who pass their lives in a “paradise not yet lost”; a barber who gives a perfect haircut and a hug to boot; the poet’s old professor, whose grave marker he finds in a flowerbed outside a bar so that the he can “continue to believe” in poetry. As “believe” suggests, the poet’s unwavering commitment to his search is often supported by, and in some cases merges with, recurring religious images. In the title poem, for example, the mystery of resurrection is enacted by butterflies that travel between two monasteries thousands of miles apart.

Robinson’s poems, however, are not didactic; meaning arises naturally out of finely rendered concrete situations. Even when, in a few cases, poems move toward allegory, as in “The Moth,” “Uncertainty and Doubt,” and “The Glimpse,” where the murky depths of a lake become an image of the subconscious, the poems are probing and concrete, not preachy. That is true in large part because the poet sees his exalted search in a healthy self-ironic light. When, for example, with the excess zeal of a devotee, he climbs the mountain to Sewanee, listens to a famous poet, and drives home in an exalted mood buoyed by three glasses of wine, he is clearly chuckling at his own idealism. The same is true when, in a spasm of high-minded generosity, he decides to give away the perfect house he has dreamed of all his life to the people who already own it and actually live there. Such gentle self-mockery endears the pilgrim-poet to the reader even as it purges all hint of moralism.

The Caterpillars of St. Bernard ends with the poet having taken apart and stacked on his back an entire monastery—Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton lived—so he can rebuild his own “dilapidated” house in its “gleaming image.” Although this is serious business—he will use “these borrowed pieces / to hold the roof and walls firm / when the uneven floors begin to tremble”—it is also high comedy worthy of Don Quixote. It is the return of the hero. And what the hero brings in this case is of great value, full of wisdom and delight: twenty-two well crafted, solidly anchored visionary poems.

Harry Moore, a native of Tallapoosa County, is the author of two chapbooks, What He Would Call Them and Time’s Fool: Love Poems.

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