*Note on the text: because of constrictions of WordPress, poetry excerpts are formatted as closely as possible to the text, but discrepancies might appear.
Filled with evocative images, stunning beauty and violence, Allan Safarik’s Blood of Angels (2004) is a collection I would recommend to those who typically avoid poetry. With fifty years of experience, Safarik’s work is often surreal and imagistic, probes human complexity yet is accessible to a wide audience. Blood of Angels was written following his time as Writer-in-Residence in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, which included weekly sojourns to St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster. Inspired by monastic life, there are poems about monks working the field and wracked by age, devotion and changing seasons, but also religious fervour and bloodshed. In one ten-page stretch, Safarik leaps from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, to a gruesome “portrait of truce” in no-man’s-land, to elegizing a slain El Salvadoran Archbishop. Reading this collection reminded me of the eclectic conversations in Safarik’s creative writing class at St. Peter’s College. It showcases a curious mind, activated by the raw material all around him.
The first section, “The Harvest of Souls,” offsets austere reflection with surreal, even humorous insights. “The Sowing” asserts that “life turning lonely and small, depends / on a handful of dried seeds planted in time” (10). By contrast, in “New Year’s Resolution: St. Peter’s Abbey,” Safarik pictures himself as the “Mouse Man of Muenster,” chewing cream “and whole grain bread into a thick pap / before I feed the naked baby mice / with an eyedropper from the monk’s infirmary” (32). Safarik does not lack imagination and is clearly indebted to Imagism. “Blood of Angels” demonstrates his penchant for short, concrete lines:
evening piling up
in the western sky
sun peering above
the horizon like
a half-cooked egg (12)
One could interpret clashing colours in the sky as symbolic of the clashing expressions of faith this collection portrays. Fittingly, the standout poem of this section is “Harvest of Souls” (27-28). With its neo-Beat repetition of “The souls,” everything from vegetables to flowers, geese, vacationers, transients, and departed ancestors are put on equal spiritual footing.
The second section, “The Holy Road,” counter-balances the peaceful and whimsical reflections that precede it. Warfare, paranoia, and persecutions populate these pages. A man muses on tribal conflict: “This war never really starts or ends / but like all wars simmers forever on the / hearths of storytellers and old scarred men” (“The Holy Road” 46). Safarik explores primeval impulses that consider “the letting of blood… a necessary purging” (“The Traveller At The Beginning and End of Time” 66). That some narratives of extremist violence blur together suggests there may be a few too many. Nevertheless, poems like “The Grave” (38), depicting a man digging his own grave, and “Cargo” (49-51), a chronicle of a colonial sea voyage gone awry, are both shocking and thought-provoking. A non-violent poem, “Things That Might Have Been,” imagines life around the Ganges River: “fragrant oranges in shaded grottoes / severed monkey hands in the bazaar / grey-headed nuns washing bodies” (63). Here, as elsewhere, Safarik layers image upon image, energetic as a child, deliberate as a bricklayer.
The third and final section, “Abbey Meditations,” is indeed meditative, set against a backdrop of seasonal change. In “Under The Apricot Moon,” Safarik slips away from “literary conversation about the poets / who moved out west and became movie stars” (73) into the refuge of a summer evening in Muenster. In “October Song,” he states:
Every tree in the shelter belt
a permanent resident
I represent the temporal
simply a visitor caught
up in a lifetime
reading and writing (80)
In “First Winter Storm,” while monks make “solemn music in ecclesiastic air,” Safarik struggles to write, “cannot empower the voices in my head / to speak to me about God, only poetry” (84). Throughout this section, spanning late-summer through winter, Safarik ponders what it means to be a West Coast writer in Saskatchewan, a “visitor” amongst disciples of God, a human in a holy landscape. But he avoids esoteric musings, worships at the altar of precise images: “dark-limbed spruce trees with hoary beards” (“Witness” 87) and “old monks in black robes” with “discarded onion-skin faces” (“Onion Skins” 88).
Blood of Angels may be inspired by sojourns to St. Peter’s Abbey, but it is no simple record. Flip to any page and one will find a mind transmuting regular experience into singular art. These poems, by an itinerant poet already “gone on / to the next accidental location” (“Epilogue” 95), evoke the universal in the particular, the spiritual in the secular.
Safarik, Allan. Blood of Angels. Thistledown Press, 2004.
Review by Brandon Fick. Born and raised in rural Saskatchewan, Brandon Fick writes realistic fiction (and some poetry) and reads a variety of genres, with particular interest in horror, war, and western novels. Brandon has been published in Polar Expressions, in medias res and The Society. He received a B.A. Honours (English) from the University of Saskatchewan and a Writing Diploma from St. Peter’s College, and was proud to be awarded the Reginald J.G. Bateman Memorial Scholarship in English and St. Thomas More College Creative Writing Scholarship, among others. Currently, he’s very grateful to be connecting with other writers in the MFA program at the U of S.