Yahweh's Other Shoe
by Kilian McDonnell

(Saint John's University Press)

A Benedictine monk since 1945, Kilian McDonnell began writing poetry ten years ago, at age 75, and has had two collections published since then. His most recent, Yahweh's Other Shoe, though a slim volume, is an exceptionally broad and clear exploration of his interests: God, the world order, himself, and his community.

As you might expect, McDonnell writes poems on religious subjects: Jacob's wrestling with an angel, God's covenant with Abraham, the prodigal son. Some familiarity with the Bible helps inform his surprisingly wry attitude toward these stories. Much like Harold Bloom, McDonnell views the writer of the Pentateuch to be a comic genius, infusing Yahweh with an all-too-human ambiguity and more than a little capricious tricksterism.

McDonnell is a teaser, himself. He sees the humor of God's often eccentric behavior, summed up neatly by Sarah when she hears she is to have a child at ninety:

When Gods say silly things you laugh.
Even Abraham breaks, up, falls on his face ...
The Lord has his lame jest
Yaweh names our boy 'God Laughs'.

McDonnell's interests are not exclusively religious, however. He also writes with convincing force about the perils of aging in "If I Reach 86," and ponders the nature of his place in the universe in the exquisite twinned sonnets of "Lilacs and Galaxies." Another poem is a humorous account of his search for a borrowed car lost in a vast parking lot, and others are elegies to fellow monks who have passed on. And, as if that is not enough, several poems explore the civil unrest in Serbia from the last decade, culled no doubt from McDonnell's experiences as co-chair of an institute dedicated to international cross-religion dialogues. I get the sense that McDonnell, even at 85, is never at rest.

Religious without being pious or saccharine, McDonnell writes with a purity of vision rare among poets, a stoic confidence earned by years of the contemplative life. He also possesses a refreshing lack of ironic distance, the plague of younger poets, who would do well to mimic the clarity of McDonnell's purpose, if not his themes.

- Michael Ramberg