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Songs of Seven Days: Traveling Through Creation

Marla Dial Moore reviews James R. Dennis's third poetry collection, "Songs of Seven Days"

Published onMar 24, 2024
Songs of Seven Days: Traveling Through Creation

Photo by Mohan Reddy:

If “Songs of Seven Days” is your first poetic encounter with this writer, you might be forgiven if you’d quickly skimmed his bio (the words “Dominican friar” leap to the fore), glued that to the “Genesis/creation” theme of the book and assumed it was a stiff, albeit reverential, religious collection.

But to rest on this assumption would be to miss out on a body of work that is both instantly accessible and deeply thoughtful – a meditation on the creative process that is only loosely framed by the structure the Biblical creation story provides. In the hands of James Dennis, the separation of light from darkness (“Songs of the First Day”) becomes by turns a visual study of the quality of light prismed through the cathedral of Chartres, a discourse on the summer solstice, and a scientific/cultural contemplation of “emptiness,” as encapsulated in the magnificent “Tohu wa Bohu.”

The following sections, appropriately named for each day of the creation story – such as Day 2, “The Dome of the Sky,” Day 3 for “The Earth, the Seas and Plants,” Day 4, “The Sun, the Moon and the Stars” and so forth – do not disappoint.

 On a technical level, Dennis shows a mastery of poetic forms, including list poems and ghazals, which can be appreciated even by those unfamiliar with poetry. At the same time, the subject matter reads like a well-researched poetic travelogue in love with nature – from the expanse of a West Texas sky to tropical islands to the frozen moons of Neptune, and beyond.

Consider, for example, the opening lines of “The Irish Coast,” fittingly placed in the section that contemplates the creation of dry land from a watery void:

“… where the land and the water
have haggled for ages, in that liminal space
between the rocky shore and the sea … “

or, later in the creation story, the concept of “Dinoflagellates,” which are plankton “merely going through a blue phase// like Picasso”:

“… If you’re snorkeling or swimming
among them, you can watch the light drip from your arms.
Or if you’re taking a boat in the Matsu Archipelago,
you can see the glittering light spray from your oars. …”

At the emotional level, the writing betrays a rapacious curiosity about both the physical world around us and the forces that govern it, leavened with generous doses of humor and a deep sense of social justice and compassion. No acrimony exists between the worlds of science and spirit, which merely inform and complement each other.

 And though seldom overtly political, such commentary – where present – is judiciously placed and on-point:

“Genetically, they say we have
a common ancestor, a woman
they like to call Mitochondrial Eve.
Maybe it was her idea
to skedaddle, to pack up
our prehistoric things and leave.

 It seems we were born
out of restlessness, in search of someplace new … “
(From “Saudade”)

And even, more pointedly, from the seventh-day song called “Sanctuary”:

“Our art will teach us
how to be human again: …
As for me, I have sought shelter
within the cathedral of words.
We’re told that the Almighty
spoke the world into existence.
Let us then speak of a better world
in a more compassionate tongue.
It is time.”

Finally, no commentary on this volume would be complete without a mention of the artistic collaboration between the author and his designer, Lana Rigsby. From the cover to the internal artwork, acquired with permission and modified, to the typeface and the epigraphs, no detail has been left to chance or gone unexamined.

This is a gorgeous book that you will want in your own hard-copy collection.

Marla Dial Moore is a recovering journalist and writer who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She has written poetry peripatetically for more than 20 years. Her work has been published in recent years by San Antonio Arts Alive!, Voices de la Luna and Journal X. 

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