Review: Poetry Collection Darkness on the Face of the Deep Takes Risks with Emotional Depths

Darkness on the Face of the Deep by Patrick T. Reardon Kelsay Books Review by Renny Golden

In Darkness on the Face of the Deep, Third Coast Review writer Patrick T. Reardon’s poems grapple with the depths—ours. His poems take us on Job’s journey. There are writers who risk such paths: Franz Wright, Rilke, Mary Karr, and Patrick Kavanaugh, for example. But few dare such vulnerability for fear of getting lost in wrestling with their own inner doubts and demons. In short, Reardon goes there.

We ride with him on the Chicago L, past Brownsville, Canaryville, and Hegewisch, with stops at Purgatory, Ascension, and Epiphany stations. Patrick Reardon is looking for a God who is absent and everywhere. His imagination is startling, because he is unwilling to accept any answer to suffering, yet his interrogations, so irreverent, so scarred and brave and tender, invite us to walk Ecclesiasticus and Leviticus Road. When it feels too much, he makes us laugh. His “Communion of Saints” are all of us but especially Chicago’s wretched: drunks, punks, street workers, buskers, rockers, runaways, vets in filthy blankets huddled below Wacker Drive. The saints and the sinners are indistinguishable which is good theology and zany poetry.

“City Hymn” begins with a tribute

to sewer lines…to six flats, courtyard buildings/the bungalow belt, the forest preserve clearing/lagoon scum/the dainty fox through tombstones.

In the middle section he is a boy who looks out to the curve of the earth/ the broken glass morning glint/ to dog shit alleys/ to street grid lines leading away/ leading to puzzle and more puzzle. The long hymn to Chicago is Riordan’s untranslatable scripture/ the word at the start and the end.

In “Prairie Melancholy” he carries

my road/ map, thirty pieces of silver, McDonald’s brown/ napkins, an ocean of worn Jewish/ shoes, a single Marlboro, my brother’s gun, an envelope of Tower/ dust, a new translation of the Book of Job, my/ burdens, my spit in the mud,/ soundless keening amid the click of/ blood, sap and Big Bang debris.

Reardon can’t come to grips with his beloved brother’s suicide or, for that matter, the anguish of the persecuted and abandoned. The poems are a howl, a prayer to accept all that is. It’s not a Buddhist prayer, it’s fierce, demanding, compassionate, at times laugh out loud sarcastic, at times, sacred. Here’s his redemptive history in the poem “Itch”:

Thrones and/ dominations fell/asleep at their angel/ duty and the Son/ escaped out a side/

door to go bowling/ with the blind/ weightlifter and the/ hip-hop doorman, a/ radical trinity, if/

there ever was one.

There are angels everywhere and like the Chicago saints and sinners, they are pained but won’t look away.

Angels fly complex patterns/ over the drunk anesthesiologist and the beautiful child./

Angels are out tonight./ The boy rocks his body right and left/ to sleep/ as angels whisper green forests in his ear/ without mentioning the future gun/ a charity…

These angels, whoever they are, sing gospel songs/and blues hymns/and country & western anthems/and Ubi caritas. Reardon’s sense of entanglement is either his read of the new science or his refusal to accept the apartheid boundaries of Chicago’s neighborhoods. or both. He’s all in with everyone. It’s rare to read a contemplative poet whose inner compass, demanding and complex, sends him again and again into the world, to Chicago’s forgotten or foolish, whom he regards as brothers and sisters. It’s a beautiful book.

Darkness on the Face of the Deep is available through the publisher.  

Renny Golden, author of The Music of Her Rivers, University of New Mexico Press, finalist for the New Mexico Book Award and Blood Desert, winner of the WILLA Literary Award for poetry, named a Southwest Book of the year.

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