Reviewed by Ed Werstein
It was with a bit of skepticism that I started reading Larry Janowski’s recent book, dancing a dizzy holiness. After all, Janowski is an ordained Franciscan Friar and I’m a former seminarian and a recovering Catholic. However, I am happy to report that I have absolutely nothing negative to say about this collection. I thoroughly enjoyed, and was frequently amazed by it.
Right from the opening lines of “Religious Poem”, Janowski lets the reader know that he’s not going to be preached to:
I hear you secretly groaning, Jesus–
not religion! Well, yes, but not a sermon
in poem’s clothes, but the thick Latin root
of religion, the ligof it– as in ligament…
And near the end of the poem the word ligature creates a nice echo with the opening. These are poems for word lovers. Poems to be read aloud.
If you like poems with titles that point the reader down a path that ends in an unexpected place, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here as well. For example, given some of the history of the Catholic priesthood, one might cringe before diving into a poem titled “Abuse”. It ends, though, in a decidedly pleasant little turn. And which of us has ever read a confessional poem written from the priest’s side of the screen? The last poem in this section, “Severe Thunderstorm Warning”, is a narrowly constructed poem of abrupt line breaks evocative of the poetry of Todd Boss or Eavan Boland. Many of the short lines could stand alone as poetic prompts.
The book’s 45 poems are grouped into seven sections. As if planned that way, the shortest section (two poems) is titled, “Coming Up Short.” Both poems are quite humorous, self-deprecating riffs on the author’s own diminutive stature. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Short Guy”, is a series of backhanded insults, each in its own particular style:
I didn’t see you.
When it rains,
you’re the last to know.
The six poems in the section, “The City”, make up a collective ode to the place Janowski calls home, Chicago. They take us from colorful descriptions of pedestrian-watching while stopped at red lights, through the city’s fickle changing seasons, and ends with election night 2008. Like many poems in the book they are full of creative metaphors. Have you ever heard slow traffic described as the “thrombosis of arterial streets”?
Family, is a section of poignant, often tissue-grabbing poems that venture from the author’s childhood to the parenting of his own parents in their old-age. The evolving relationship of boy and father is especially heart-warming.
The poem, “Life Expectancy”, which opens a section called, The Waning Crescent, is a thought-provoking read for those of us living under the delusion that the longevity of our parents has given us a free pass into our old age. But my favorite poem in the entire collection is one called, “Skin: A Letter”. It is a dreamy, speculative tribute to the author’s two poetic heroes, Gerard Manley Hopkins (also a priest-poet) and Walt Whitman. In it Janowski imagines an afternoon of skinny-dipping with his heroes.
These are accessible poems written for everyone, writers and readers alike. So, leave your dictionary and mythology encyclopedia on the shelf, grab your favorite beverage, and sit down for a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Ed Werstein is a Regional VP of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. He has published three books of poetry, and has a fourth volume forthcoming from Water’s Edge Press. In 2018 he received the Lorine Niedeker Prize for Poetry from the Council for Wisconsin Writers (judged by Nickole Brown). Visit his website at edwerstein.com.