Book Review: Litany of Flights, by Laura Reece Hogan
Review by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes
Paraclete Press, winner of the 2020 Paraclete Poetry Prize
Laura Reece Hogan’s award-winning collection of poems, Litany of Flights (Paraclete Press), draws us into a watercolor of words where the material world she vividly presents bleeds into another world, one invisible yet powerful in its beauty and Providence. In poem after poem, we find ourselves firmly in place, our senses doused with Hogan’s luxuriant imagery, but then somehow, seamlessly, we are transported to a realm of spiritual light that burns through even “the darkness underneath, the clay knowledge of endings inevitable,” darkness that “gives over to beginnings” where all is mercy, “this forgetting of the winter, the drought, the fire, and / the hunger” (37). The vision in “One Handful with Tranquility” informs not only the book’s theme, but also its design, and her masterly construction earned her first place in Paraclete’s inaugural poetry prize in 2020.
We open to the title poem, “Litany of Flights,” twelve flights to be precise: “First, the winged movement, steady, forward. / Scrub jays in flitting / progress, hawks in predator glide, a ringing up, a knife-sharp slope / down” (3). The naming of birds and their flight patterns continues, some effortless, others “hungry, against the gale,” but then, unpredictably, flight has taken on more, is now “A flight out of Egypt, a path through the sea cleared by /divine hand,” then “The times you ran, the times you were left behind in lament” (3). We come to understand these are our own flights and fugues—we are Jonah fleeing Nineveh and “rotting in the belly of a whale” until tamed; we are caught up in “flights of despair and of yearning, two sides of one / letting go, hard-earned release back into the wild” (3). At the last, it’s the Beloved who captivates us, “the one / making all things work together, wings, body, arch, air—caught up, like the / Shulamite bride, to regions beyond aeronautical wisdom, transported in joy” (3). The poem ends landing us on a branch of sublime insight: “See, he says, the painful paring of your hollow bones has made you light” (3).
Birds, wings, feathers appear everywhere in Hogan’s book, which is divided into three sections: Emerge Winged, Loft the Bones, and Scale the Light. The titles convey a sacred wooing, an enticement for us to fly into divine presence and lavish joy, but Hogan reminds us in “On Adoring You” that God’s embrace comes at terrible cost:
In dark cords of night you weave for me
a cocoon of yourself. Splinters for silk,
thorns your thread, a love poured, an emptied
truth. I drink, in stripped unknowing. I long
to emerge winged, a bloom from black earth (5)
The weaving/sewing metaphor extends throughout the poem, transporting us to “a pink-embered sky” of sunrise where “Dew shines, / a needlework of mercy” (5). Breathtaking language here and everywhere: “You stitch starlings, silvered chaparral, morning / glories, the faces I kiss—I feast / on the oranges of your love,” then down to the cellar “under silenced words” where God waits with “impossible / wine in stone water jars” and “Golden threads” that “embrace, embroider, draw me / astonished, to you” (5).
This transplanting of the readers’ sensibilities has surprising effect. In “Sacrament of Spring,” the voice of a bear, “Heavy with hibernation and eye-blink,” fuses into a human voice adoring the Creator: “Sight and sound and / scent of the sacrament of spring surge into / my heart, a living lightning strike of joy” (23). “Moveable Feast” plants us in a shop with the “snow-dusted . . . cardinal Christmas ornament” (31). A litany of other creatures follows, but there’s also a high tea of honey with lemons and “bowls of fragrant / prayers”— and “the little sparrows gazing so faithfully at your cloak of cloud” (31). We come to see that the true litany is written in the narrator’s heart, a heart of longing to give gifts to her Beloved, to write her life “on a sheet of linen paper / spill all the notes of my love,” but at the end, the realization: “But you have already given it all to me” (31).
“Pink Moment on Mulholland” moves from a kitchen where the narrator and nameless others are trying to make soup in a time of grief for “abrupt losses—one expected, one tragic” (68). Short of ingredients, she’s “Sent at dusk / for onion, ancho pepper, head bowed,” almost missing a beatific moment, a “sudden pink, the mountains blushing / tender,” “the world a rosy flush / if you were looking” but the moment can’t be held and she returns to “Pepper fading already from our tongues” and “graying light,” back to grief and “dishes washed and put away” (68).
While her skillful use of various formal patterns, whether traditional stanzas or innovative uses of white space to reinforce meaning (for innovation, “The Color Ultramarine” and “Exodus” are excellent examples), the collection’s greatest coherence is gained primarily from two literary tools: word music and metaphor. The rhymes and rhythms, the mingling of euphony and cacophony (the sonic honey of an ocean that “hushes and hums” (4) ; the discordant lemon of “stench and snaking abusive stare” (36), as examples—these deliver unforgettable songs of light and shadow, adoration and sorrow.
Hogan also wields the power of metaphor adroitly. Drawing from the rich landscape of Southern California where she makes her home, she uses as tenor for her metaphors, birds and flowers, fire and skies and seasons; these, through the vehicle of her remarkable figures, carry large significance—Donne’s “great, granite truths” of God and love and death.
Hogan possesses a mind and heart of unusual depth and balance. As an attorney, her verbal precision is diamond sharp. As a theologian with an MA degree, and as a Lay Carmelite in the Third Order of the Catholic Church, she is mystically attuned to the Christ she loves, the one who “blazes as the nucleus of the universe” (61).
SUZANNE UNDERWOOD RHODES is a poet, essayist, editor, and teacher from Fayetteville, Arkansas. She is the author of several books of poetry, lyrical prose and a student guide for writing poetry. Her most recent poetry collection is Flying Yellow (Paraclete Press, 2021), reviewed by Linda Parsons here. Her poems appear regularly in such journals as Atlanta Review, Image, Shenandoah, Poetry East, and Christian Century. She teaches virtual poetry workshops through the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia.