Common Life, Robert Cording's fifth poetry collection, is informed by religious faith and enacts it. Each poem deftly traces a core story, humanizing it with detail so we identify with those involved, and then the poet is able to discover the "love that is always living and dying, deeper/ Than we can know." That quotation comes from "For An Unknown Widow in Brazil," about a woman who, 15 years after her husband's death, discovers that what she'd thought was a tumor was actually a petrified fetus. Some stories are so ordinary we can easily identify, while others are bizarre yet rendered so warmly that the humanity is plain.
Take, for instance, the remarkable poem "Parable of the Moth," which is the tale of an "ordinary evening of unnoticed pleasures." A man suddenly experiences a moth trapped in his ear and its frantic wingbeats create an unbearable roar, "as if all the doors and windows/ Of his house have blown away at once." He tries shaking the moth out and digging it out with a cotton swab, but both his liberation and the meaning of such a strange event elude him and us. Cording comments: "His body no longer/ Seems his own; he screams in pain to drown/ Out the wind inside his ear, and curses God,/ Who, hours before, was a benign generalization/ In a world going along well enough."
LIKE SOME ANTI-JOB, he rails against God when his fate turns on him and the ruse of autonomy over life and limb is lifted. Then the parable takes a natural, miraculous turn. On the way to the hospital, on a dark road, his wife stops and tells the man to sit in the grass while she holds a flashlight to his ear and "unbelievably,/ The moth flies toward the light." Relieved, the man is changed again: "He feels as if he's suddenly a pilgrim/ On the shore of an unexpected world." The creative synthesis of this poem is achieved because the poet leaves us delighted and amused, though also thoughtful and wary.
In short, this poem and others like it—including "Sanctuary," about a man who creates a hillside of bathtub shrines, "Visitations," about the statues of Mary weeping tears of blood, and "The Couple," about a husband's slow failing due to ALS and his wife's care for him—all leave us in a place where fact and feeling are so fused it seems "an unexpected world." Paired with the extended meditation-poems, these pieces work together to explore the ways our lives are common and ordinary but also shared and unified. This highly readable collection has poem after poem that people will pass along to others in times of trouble, in response to spiritual questions, and when simple faith cracks its husk so that articles of creed give way to mysterious truths. n
Edward A. Dougherty, former volunteer director at the World Friendship Center in Hiroshima, Japan, is a poet, writer, and teacher living in Corning, New York.