Truth in Poetry: A Review of Wailing Walls, by Philip C. Kolin

I’ve got a photograph in my files that shows a group of anti-abortion protestors holding up a sign. There’s a picture on an aborted fetus on it, and the words underneath say: Face the Truth.

Philip Kolin’s new, extraordinarily powerful collection of poems, Wailing Walls, does just that. The book isn’t about abortion per se. It’s about aborted hope, aborted faith, aborted joy and aborted justice. It’s a family portrait of secular America at the beginning of the 21st century, and it’s not flattering. Kolin has called it, in a private communication, his “Lamentations.”

Why should anyone read these unhappy truths? Well, why should anyone read Jeremiah? Truth, even unhappy truth, is a sovereign remedy against pride, which always thrives on flattery, and a medicine against delusion &#0151 a sickness which can be fatal to a person or a country.

In Wailing Walls we meet:

Teen-agers who wear the sign

Of the beast &#0151 a tattoo of MTV


Life-long workers whose pensions

Vanish on corporate smoke screens


…coyotes who take immigrants across

The borders between dreams and death


Seniors who split their meds in half

But sup on full rations of dog food

We hear the sound of the adulterer:

He grinds his teeth in bed

Sharper than spears and arrows

To silence his tongue…

We see the battered woman in the shelter:

…She gave him

Her credit cards

To pay his bills

In her name

Until his debts

Due them join.

Kolin doesn’t pull any punches, either, about a tough upbringing as a Catholic Czech kid in Chicago. He says:

I grew up in Hispanic Pilzen

Hearing Dobra noches….

The Madonna

Cries the same amount

Of tears for both

Cholos and old boushas…

Are the cities getting any better?

Kolin writes:

Half the teens in Portland

Use an anonymous handshake,

Or kiss. On the streets flesh

Is the only currency….

Is it all too gloomy? In the poem “Christmas at Saint Simon’s Mission,” Kolin begins with the oceanic transcendent:

God’s love is

Like the waves of the Gulf,

Waves followed by waves,

Until our eyes are washed to see

Them as endless gifts…

And then gets down to earth:

The men on homeless row

Roll in,

Waves of smoke, laughing,

Coughing, chewing tobacco,

Hiding their half pints

In torn overcoats, chipped

Teeth showing.

Which waves are the real waves, the waves of the sea or the cigarette smoke waves of the laughing old juicers, celebrating the Lord’s Birthday? The waves of the Gulf are beautiful (and terrible), but they never celebrate, neither do they feel sorrow and regret. But poets can see both kinds of waves and they can help us to wash our eyes so we can see them.

In the clear eyes of a Catholic poet like Philip Kolin, there is a truthful vision of full-spectrum cosmic war, good homely truth against the evil beautiful lie, and those two opponents go at it like boxers with a billion fists.

Wailing Walls, by Philip Kolin, is unusually truthful, unusually good.

It’s published by

Wind and Water Press

P.O. Box 49

Conneaut Lake, PA 16316

Or email

This book deserves to be widely known and read.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage