Philip C. Kolin
Philip Kolin has taught in the Department of English at the University of Southern Mississippi since 1974 and in the Fall of 2010 was made the Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters. In addition to his extensive scholarly publications (more than 30 books and 200 articles) on Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Adrienne Kennedy, and other modern American playwrights, Kolin has published four books of poetry as well as coedited (with Susan Swartwout) an anthology—Hurricane Blues: Poems on Katrina and Rita—that has earned national recognition. More than 200 of Kolin’s poems have appeared in such prominent journals as Michigan Quarterly Review, Louisiana Literature, Blue Collar Review, Christianity and Literature, Penwood Review, Theology Today, South Carolina Review, The Christian Century, etc. His poetry has received several awards—Deep Wonder: Poems (2000) won recognition from the Catholic Press Association while “Praying the Icons” was given the Editor’s Choice Award from the Penwood Review (2009). Another poem, “She Talks to the Waves,” was featured as the Poem of the Month (December 2009) by Negative Capability. In 2010, Kolin founded Vineyards: A Journal of Christian Poetry (www.vineyards.com), which boasts a prestigious editorial board of contemporary Christian poets. Kolin has also written a play, Emmett Till Goes Skip Stopping on the CTA, which was staged by the Black Theatre Ensemble at the University of Georgia in February 2010 and directed by Freda Giles.
Kolin’s draws his inspiration primarily from Scripture and the natural world, most notably, the Gulf of Mexico. His poems have been described as sacramental and metaphysical. Many of the titles, themes, speakers, and scope of Kolin’s poems reflect his Roman Catholic background and its traditions. In his first book of poems, Roses for Sharron: Poems (1993), Kolin weaves Biblical imagery into diverse secular landscapes, be they his boyhood in Chicago, his intense engagement with the Gulf, or the Piney Woods of Mississippi where he has lived most of his life. Deep Wonder, arguably Kolin’s most important book, has been variously described as a collection of contemporary Psalms—lyrical, impassioned, deeply personal yet profoundly spiritual. As poet Anne Astell noted in a blurb for Deep Wonder, “Kolin’s poems are prayers that can be prayed—as [. . .] sighs of longing, as cries of penitence, as hymns of praise, as prophetic outcries.” Kolin’s third book of poems, Wailing Walls, echoes in contemporary and sharp imagery the cries of the prophetic books of Jeremiah and Habbakuk. In her review of Wailing Walls for Christianity and Literature, Stella Nesanovich pointed out that Kolin’s “poems themselves are the wailing walls alluded to in the title. They are in effect, both prayers of lamentation and of petition.” Clearly evident from its title, Kolin’s A Parable of Women: Poems (2009) is spun around narratives, feminine voices, testifying to the cries of the victimized for social justice and human dignity found in Matthew or Luke’s Gospels. According to Anne Fowler in her review for The Chapbook Review, “Kolin’s ambitious collection of poems, sketches of individual women and their experiences, becomes an overall parable, or illustration, of loneliness and isolation.”
Structurally, Kolin’s books are carefully crafted, visually and verbally. Mirroring the spiritual journey of their speaker from despair and dejection to transcendence, Deep Wonder contains 67 all new poems that are divided into four sections titled “The Desert,” “Jesus Ministers,” “The Banquet of Christ,” and “Bravissimo, Abba!” In a blurb for Deep Wonder, Susan Ludvigson claimed that “Kolin charts the progress of his journey from worldly desolation to spiritual ecstasy, from hopelessness to a renewal of faith.” This journey begins with “The Desert,” where Kolin writes, “I fell into / A wasteland of / Loneliness— / Hope died next” and ends with “The Father’s Love” where “The Father’s love / Creates family / Out of strangers / He paints togetherness/ Out of the gloom.” What is remarkable about this collection is Kolin’s perspective. As Skylar Hamilton Burris emphasized, “Deep Wonder is highly personal, but this does not mean readers will be unable to relate to it. Anyone who has suffered and turned to God with a newly opened heart will be able to join in the celebration Kolin offers.” Kolin’s skill at developing his poems around key metaphors has been frequently praised. In “Christ’s Hospital,” for example Kolin uses a medics vocabulary: “admissions,” “balm,” “pain,” wards,” “Red Cross,” “medic,” gurney,” “anesthesia” etc. to heighten his reader’s understanding. Elsewhere, too, in Kolin’s canon the spiritual infuses the earthly. As in the Psalms, the poems in Deep Wonder reveal a profound compassion for the victims of contemporary crimes. In “Abba Father,” for instance, Kolin recalls “All those hungry families / Whose fathers have left/ Mothers to feed/ Children alone/ on two jobs and love” (27). Throughout this book, as well, Kolin’s impassioned language is reminiscent of the Song of Songs or even John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, evoking the speaker’s personal relationship with Christ. “He is a suave courtier/ My Christ, my lover / He wears a cape / Of seasons / And spreads it out / In the sky / Midnight blue” in “Christ, My Courtier.”
The poems in Wailing Walls (2006) include Kolin’s lamentations for the new century. Beyond doubt, this is Kolin’s most intense plea for social justice. “He looks starkly at suffering in a multitude of forms, mostly described in the structure of a personal story [reflecting his] Catholic heritage,” observed Christina Torbert in her review for Mississippi Libraries. Kolin’s speakers include the disposed, the trampled, the wounded, the scarred. In often bitter, short, heavily ironic lines, Kolin attacks loan sharks, abortion clinics, deadbeat dads, spousal abusers, adulterers, and those who would infect others with AIDS. The cries—the wailing walls—here come from homeless men who visit St. Simon’s, the runaway teens who “use an anonymous handshake,” and the discarded elderly abandoned in “coffin rows” in “warehouse” nursing homes. Stella Nesanovich lists the range of voices Kolin records—ranging from victims of “prostitution, racial prejudice, religious hypocrisy” to “terrorism, cancer, and natural disasters” to a “striking denunciation of modern condominium construction. Prefiguring Parable of Women, the poems in Wailing Walls pay special attention to crimes against women such as adultery and domestic violence. In “The Shelter,” for instance, we hear “How can a man / Keep fire in his chest [. . . and of] / His battering rages / Of slaps, punches, kicks, / Bullet holes of molten anger.” Bravely, though, the wife victim “must go / On the other side / of the gate tomorrow. / She’ll travel on / A passport of prayers/ And coupons of self worth.” At his best Kolin hauntingly alludes to Psalm 31 (on a Godly wife) and other Scriptural references in decrying a battered wife’s plight and her courageous decision to be free.
Unlike the unmitigating satires in Wailing Walls, A Parable of Women offers 23 poems from women spanning centuries and cultures. Anchored in poems on Scriptural women—Hagar, the women at the tomb, Mary Magdalene, the Blessed Virgin, even Herodias—Kolin’s poems such as “Over Coffee,” “Cha Cha Blues,” or “The Lady of the Viaduct” explore contemporary reflections of these Biblical women. In this regard, Fowler praised Kolin‘s ability to “stress the commonality of women’s experience throughout history and society and to put readers at ease with the towering figures of Christian myth and tradition.” Alongside an angry Hagar, and a vicious Herodias espousing the high life of luxury, abortion, and makeovers are Kolin’s homeless women, young girls, widows, and jilted brides. As Fowler stresses, Kolin “articulates his profound insight into the lives and souls of women, his deep empathy with their quiet and not so quiet desperation.” Bleak, horrifying, yet lyrical—these are the heterogeneous qualities that critics have applauded in Kolin’s poems. But there are also powerful celebratory poems in A Parable, particularly of a young woman entering a convent and an older nun who gently chastises a young man “Stop putting starch / In every petition. Relax your mea culpas . . . Bend your prayers/ A little while” (“Nun in a Prayer Room”). In a concluding prophetic poem “Mary’s Aria,” the Blessed Mother describes the Incarnation, her life in Nazareth, and predicts the Apocalypse.
Amid all of Kolin’s poems there remains his reflections of blended cultures, landscapes, yimrd. “Pilsen Rican,” from Wailing Walls,with its observation that “The Madonna / Cries the same amount / Of tears for both / Cholos and old boushas” recalls Kolin’s Czech ancestors sharing their Chicago neighborhood with bourgeoning Hispanic population, In “Wicker Basket,” found in A Parable, Kolin again reflects on his Czech heritage while looking at “a funeral home of photos of ancestors.” In Roses for Sharron, many of Kolin’s poems infuse Southern landscapes with his Chicago roots. Seagulls are iconically linked to the Holy Spirit and the Catholic prayers Kolin learned as a boy. “High Mass, 1955,” is comfortably juxtaposed with “South Mississippi Autumn” in Roses. Kolin is especially instructive at collapsing Scripture into contemporary events. In “Wondra’s Dolor Bill’s” from Parable, we hear about an impoverished black waitress: “History’s got her wrong. / Who says she’s free and clear? / The 13th Amendment means / No more to her than / A wink to a hearse rider.”
Hurricane Blues—co-edited by Kolin—is grounded in the Deep South in the aftermath of hurricanes Rita and Katrina. As Ellen Steinbaum noted in her review for The Boston Globe, the two editors “received more than 10,000 entries to choose from, poems from people who lived through it and poems from those who watched from around the world.” The widely praised anthology includes works from many distinguished poets including Fred Chapell, Peter Cooly, Averill Curdy, William Greenway, John Kinsella, Bob Hicok, Linda Pastan, and Robert Nazarene. Like Kolin’s own books, Hurricane Blues is structurally cohesive, charting the progress, landing, and devastation caused by the hurricanes in the sections titled “Looming,” “Landing,” “City under Siege,” “Under Water,” “Aftermath,” “Mourning,” and “Resolutions.” As Van Viator commented, the book is “one of the most comprehensive poetry anthologies that primarily deals with both storms.” At times “heartwrenching” and “uplifting,” Hurricane Blues both records a momentous natural disaster and prepares its readers for recovery.
Kolin’s accomplishments as a poet and an editor mark him as one of Mississippi’s important creative writers. He has drawn on such traditional Southern sources of inspiration as the Bible and the Gulf Coast but has done so in powerful and distinctive ways.
—Cecily E. Hill
Related Links & Info
- Roses for Sharron. Birmingham: Colonial P, 1993.
- Deep Wonder. Takoma Park, MD: Grey Owl Press, 2000.
- Wailing Walls. Conneaut Lake, PA: Wind and Water P, 2006.
- Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita. (Co-edited with Susan Swartwout.) Cape Girardeau: Southeast Missouri State UP, 2006.
- A Parable of Women: Poems. Itta Bena, MS: Yazoo River P, 2009.
Selected Scholarly Books
- On Tennessee Williams:
- Confronting Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: Essays in Critical Pluralism. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.
- Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.
- Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire. Plays in Production Series. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
- The Undiscovered Country: The Later Plays of Tennessee Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.
- The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004.
- The Influence of Tennessee Williams: Essays on Fifteen American Playwrights. (Ed.) Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.
- A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (ed.) London: Methuen, 2010.
- Other Books:
- Shakespeare in the South: Essays on Performance. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1983.
- Shakespeare and Southern Writers: A Study in Influence. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1985.
- David Rave: A Stage History and a Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988.
- Conversations with Edward Albee. Jackson: UP of Mississippi 1988.
- American Playwrights since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance. Westport: Greenwood, 1989.
- Othello: New Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2001. Understanding Adrienne Kennedy. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2005.
Reviews and Criticism:
- Burris, Skylar Hamilton. “Deep Wonder.” Book Reviews: Small Press & Self-Published Poetry Collections. 2006. Web. 2 Aug. 2010. (http://www.editorskylar.com/small2.html/)
- Coffey, Kathy. “A Parable of Women: Poems.” St. Anthony Messenger (Aug. 2010): 52.
- Fowler, Anne. “Philip C. Kolin’s A Parable of Women: Poems.” The Chapbook Review. Web. 20 Jul. 2010.
- Hall, Joan Wylie. “Roses for Sharron (Book Review).” The Mississippi Quarterly 47 (1993): 237-9.
- Larson, Susan. “After the Deluge, Poetry.” nola.com. The Times-Picayune, 27 Aug. 2008. Web. 21 Aug. 2010.
- Maddox, Marjorie. “Deep Wonder: Poems.” Anglican Theological Review 83.4 (2001).
- ---. “Under Review: Wailing Walls.” US Catholic (Sept. 2006): 44.
- Nesanovich, Stella Ann. “Wailing Walls.” Christianity & Literature 56.1 (2006): 181-4. WilsonWeb. Web. 28 Jul. 2010.
- Parrish, Paul A. “Hurricane Blues.” Callaloo 31. 3 (2008): 949-53.
- Richardson, Rachel. “Hurricane Blues.” Southern Cultures 14.2 (2008): 133-4.
- Smith, Elton E. “Deep Wonder (Book Review).” Christianity & Literature 50.2 (2000): 378-9. WilsonWeb. Web. 28 Jul. 2010.
- Steinbaum, Ellen. “Verse by Verse, Poets Seek Meaning amid Ruins.” boston.com. The Boston Globe. 21 Jan. 2007. Web. 21 Aug. 2010.
- Torbert, Christina. “Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita.” Mississippi Libraries 71.1. (2007): 27.
- ---. “Wailing Walls.” Mississippi Libraries 71.1 (2007): 27. WilsonWeb. Web. 28 Jul. 2010.
- Viator, Van. “Hurricane Blues.” Louisiana Libraries 70.1 (2007): 36-8.
- Williams, Carmeletta M. “Book Reviews.” African American Review 42.2 (2008): 376-7.
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