Fan Olgilvie’s Reflections On ‘A Strange Catechism’

These mysterious words are from the poem “Confirmation” from Justen Ahren’s first book of poems, titled A Strange Catechism. The book is a spiritual quest through the eyes of a woman who has lost her child at birth. She is trying to understand life’s deepest meaning of life and death. The book is also told through the mind of her first child, a boy, who has lost his brother and at times, his mother. The structure of the book leans heavily on precepts of the Catholic Church, but Justen is more original with thought and language than that would suggest.

In his poem, “Molt,” Justen speaks of “the soul who when ready takes off its clear feathers like a rain.” Justen’s musical soul is palpable in this work. The clockwise turning of the woman in the parking lot — the mother — is the Proustian cooking Justen will follow to unpack his and her spiritual lives. I deeply appreciate the serious questions the surviving brother asks: Where is the baby brother? What color are his eyes? Why take this new being and fill him with tubes? Where does my mother go at night? Where does she go in her grief? Where is God, what is God?

Justen has the courage to go where few poets journey these days — to the spiritual life, to search for God and the reasons for life and death, and grief. In the title poem “A Strange Catechism,” he writes one of the most beautiful lines in contemporary poetry: “to learn down the sound of my love for God into the dark of my body.” And we learn how some poets can make us fully alive to all the magic of life and death.

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