Few poets can weave history and hope together with surprising poetic language. But Philip C. Kolin is that rare poet. In Delta Tears, from Main Street Rag Publishing, he succeeds. He has published over forty scholarly books and ten poetry collections in his long career, now as Emeritus Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. I have reflected on two of his recent collections here in the past: Emmett Till in Different States: Poems (2015) and Reaching Forever (2019). Philip is not only a masterful poet, he is generous and kind, one of the best humans I know.
Delta Tears fits naturally into the larger body of his work. Its poems hold history’s horrors and hopes. These poems also rest upon a deep and honest faith. Delta Tears unfolds in six sections That Old Mud River, Centuries of Tears, Jukes and the Blues, Delta Dogs and Other Critters, Seasons, and Places to Store Memories. If you love the South, history, elegies, simply beautiful and moving poetry, you will love this collection of poems.
I want to reflect on this collection by looking into five of the poems in Delta Blues, beginning with its prologue, “The Mississippi Delta.” This poem open the book in rich and evocative fashion.
Infinity pauses here,
the place with the longest horizon in America.
Kolin means it. From this opening, he will unravel that horizon with honesty and awe. He asks:
But for now let the fields with rows
of cotton, soy, and sorghum be words
and the river the syntax that pulls them
Then in “The Mississippi River’s Proclamations,” Kolin takes on the voice of the river itself:
I am the Father of Rivers
millenia flow through my kingdom—
This poem goes on to recall the beauty of paddlewheel boats, the Louisiana Purchase, “a slave’s ride south to hell…” and more. This poem reminds us of the river’s ugly side: “I can be the darkest place on earth.”
Philip C. Kolin is that brave poet who is not afraid to dive into a region’s most cruel realities. In the haunting poem, “Parchman Prison Farm,” he describes the horror of that notorious Mississippi prison.
In the heartache of the Delta
grieves Parchman Prison Farm
20,000 acres of agony
He chronicles the deaths, disease, and suffering the Delta holds here in one of the most vicious American prisons. The poem’s last stanza is a testament to Kolin’s vision and craft. He considers a sign and what it might mean to be on one side of the prison wall, or the other:
A sign on Parchman’s wall of razor wire reads:
“Emergency Stopping Only.”
True no matter on which side you stand.
In the next poem, Kolin does what, in my view, makes him a masterful and important American poet. He connects American history to American present. In “Only Let Us Breathe,” he links the 1955 murder of Emmett Till:
Emmett Till’s smothers cries still make shadows
shriek and mourning sweetgum drip tears.
with last year’s murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota:
Countless black faces since have tried
to warn us about tortures in cottonmouth
fields, river towns, gut-splattered
streets only to have hate seeking
bullets shatter their voices. “I can’t
breathe, I can’t breathe,” their last words.
This thread between the past and the present offers us the transformative power of poetry. I am one of those believers, Philip C. Kolin is too, in the rebellious power of poetry to confront, console, and change us. His poems make this possible, over and over. This is hope.
In his poem “A Delta Christmas,” he offers a vision of beauty. He imagines an elder preparing Christmas dinner, getting ready to head to church, “welcoming chilly angels.”
In one of the book’s closing poems, “The Old Cotton Field Church,” Kolin shows us the hope that faith offered to the Delta’s suffering people. Imagine this church:
Once an ark sailing across Delta heat haze
carrying 40 souls every Sunday
to the next week’s heartaches.
Philip C. Kolin’s ability to describe a world in honest, surprising, and beautiful ways– his unflinching view of suffering, his insistence on beauty and hope– these make him a poet I return to over and over. His poems make me better, more generous, more human. I hope you will explore them. Let’s see if they do the same for you.
Purchase this book here!