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Sewing Lesson

Book Review: The Blind Stitch by Greg Delanty

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An unlikely figure presides over Greg Delanty's fifth collection of poems. A St. Michael's College professor with an impressive string of poetry awards to his credit, Delanty grew up in Cork, Ireland, where he first heard the tale that forms the nucleus of this volume's opener, "The Scalding."

One day in the late 19th century, Father Damien, a missionary to the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, scalded himself with a pot of boiling water. Feeling no pain and recognizing this as an early sign of the onset of leprosy, he hastened to address "his flock the next morning, almost joyously, with 'We lepers.'" Nearly a century later, in a schoolroom in Cork, Ireland, a young boy listens raptly as a priest turns this story into a parable of the burden of sin and "the bacilli of complicity" we all carry. No matter how pure or fortunate we imagine ourselves, the priest insists, "[r]eally we're all lepers."

The story continues in the poem "Little India," where the adult narrator comes face to face with the difficulty of embracing a leper as one's brother. Standing in an Indian train station confronting a "begging leprous child with stumped hands," he "muses how you can't even raise/a few rupees sewing for chainstores on our side of the globe" and, at a loss for a more meaningful response, he tosses the child a coin.

The poems in The Blind Stitch abound with these ironies -- as when we learn that a street in Cork called Lovers' Walk is in reality Lepers' Walk, mistranslated from Gaelic. But if the leper represents our numbness, the fears that keep us locked in our small worlds, Delanty focuses his attention on the counterforces that, like Father Damien, unite us.

The second motif that runs through the book is that of the "blind stitch" itself, the strong but invisible thread that links Third World to First, beggar to poet: "every-blessed-thing is somehow threaded together in a homespun stitch." In these poems, the humble domestic art of sewing, passed from mothers to daughters and sons, becomes a metaphor for poetry as well as for the human connections both arts strive to maintain.

Poets writing about poetry is a common practice today, and this literary self-consciousness can make modern verse feel academic and inbred to the casual reader. Delanty shows that he can stitch a tapestry of words with the best of them. These poems can be challengingly complex in their syntax and vocabulary -- particularly when they launch into Gaelic or Cork slang. (A note on the copyright page translates some of these stumbling-block phrases, but not enough.)

Yet much of what Delanty has to say about his craft is both simple and resonant, as when he asks in "The Malayalam Box," "...Why is it people on boats wave/when minutes later, if they passed on the street, they'd not/give each other the time of day?.../...Is that all a poem is, a wave from a boat?"

The wave, like the stitch, unites. While the poems range widely in their settings, from Cork to Brooklyn to Burlington to India, they don't lose the threads of connection. Following a Hindu funeral procession through the streets, the narrator relives his family's rituals of mourning. Gazing at the polluted East River, he thinks nostalgically of Cork's "beloved river the colour of slime."

Delanty reaches out to the reader, too, in a personable voice that's as likely to sound like a yarn-spinner on a barstool as a poet in the tradition of Yeats. But perhaps the two aren't so distant, since poetry has always been enriched by the energies of "ordinary" language. We're reminded of this in poems like "The Husband's Aubade," where musty poetic tradition -- an "aubade" laments the coming of dawn -- meets modern marital sitcom. The husband begs his early-bird wife not to "ride roughshod round our home/ [...]/with your get-up-and-go bathroom horseplay,/your soprano accompaniment to every chore./Call the marriage union. I can't take no more."

But the lepers keep coming back -- emblems of human misery and strife that remind us what, in the end, words are for. In "The Emerald Isle, Sri Lanka," the poet visits a temple guarded by "machine-gun police" who point out a monitor lizard basking in the sun and tell him that "magic/words flow from the mouth of/whoever touches the lizard's tongue." At once he finds himself wishing for this "gift of words," not "for myself,/but that the Tamils and/Sinhalese would risk talk, dumb and green as it sounds" -- talk that might bring peace to a nation torn apart by war and genocide.

"Dumb and green as it sounds," these poems offer hope that words can stitch us together, blind as we may be to the fact that "we are all lepers.

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