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Thursday, July 1, 2004 04:27 am

Remembering what it means to be human

prayer against famine & other irish poems By John Knoepfle. University of Missouri–Kansas City, BkMk Press, 94 pages, 2004, $12.95 (paperback)

No one who reads the remarkable new poems by John Knoepfle can fail to be touched by their penetrating strength. If poems from the sangamon (1985) brought history up out of the Midwest, this one goes back to Knoepfle's place of Irish ancestry, taking everything American and Irish with him, and us, too. There are accounts of the lost histories of Knoepfle's mother and great-grandmother, a tribute to Yeats, some longer meditational poems, reports from the Dublin streets, trips to nearby ruins and islands. But more than these, Knoepfle's ancestral journey of loss and discovery has turned to the world's hunger and suffering as well, a great contribution for which we are extremely thankful.

Nothing can remove the sting of the natural potato blight that beset the Irish between 1845 and 1849, and the suffering it involved. Knoepfle's return to a green field in Skibbereen, where "the famine pits/reach to the bottom of the world," enables him to turn his historical and empathic consciousness to other countries and his own America. The poems join with the common man and human spirit for which he has become so well known. You cannot read one of these poems without feeling the deep pathos in his sense of loss, whether he mourns a miscarried child or the theft of a precious peacock feather.

The Irish were ignored, as thousands were left to die. It is one thing to go back and find no ancestors; it's quite another to realize that almost the whole country died without anyone caring. This lack of concern for the starving and suffering spreads through poem after poem of Knoepfle's like a sorrow that can't be quenched, surfacing in a late poem's quip, "we wrote the white house/they condemned evil/said what famine."

With a compassion comparable to the Dali Lama's, Knoepfle's empathic vision moves out to Guatemalans, the Inupiac of Alaska, the Menominee of Wisconsin, the Japanese of Hiroshima, and the sailors at Okinawa. In a typically brilliant Knoepfle gesture, "the blue shirt," a Guatemalan named "jesus" tells how his villagers and family were killed and thrown into a ravine. Jesus and the suffering Christ then enter this book to make us see ourselves and Knoepfle in relation to suffering. Knoepfle's destiny here is always to be human, perceiving the human in his exchanges between himself and the world, which makes his confessional moments in these poems exceptionally moving. The title poem of the book speaks for all of us when he writes:

protect us when we are tempted
when we want to make ourselves
the center of your world
when we would deny others
a place in the circle of your love

Not only the center of the book, this poem prepares us for the penultimate nine-section (nine-day) "novena," in which, having expressed empathy with many, the voice in the novena becomes one with them, yet is Knoepfle, freely speaking and praying about compassion and community, forgiveness and dispensation, the true subjects of these poems. Though he never speaks of his father, he writes, "I hope some day/I will lie down in peace/and my father will find me."

These are poems to be read slowly. With Knoepfle, the door of hope swings wide out of the dark places of the world's heart. "Famine" doesn't just mean famine but all the meanings included with it when we see from these poems how greed and neglect and violence can accompany human suffering and would trample it. Not enough can be said for the compassion here that invites us to ever-renewing quests for humane understanding. It will be hard to find a more timely and needed book of poems in the 2004 of world terrorism and war in Iraq. Hasten, I say, to obtain and read a copy. prayer against famine calls us to more than a sense of suffering in the world, and the Accords at Belfast are only a beginning.

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