Philip St. Clair

Pine Row Issue No. 2 Autumn 2020 - Featured Poet

London: St. Mary-le-Bow

My wife and I enter the sanctuary, sit in chairs toward the rear:

it’s a midweek afternoon, and we are alone.

Above us, halfway to the ceiling, hangs a wooden tableau:

here is Christ crucified, his day of agony

finally at an end. The Centurion, spear in hand, points up at him,

bears witness to his righteousness;

the Magdalene, whose grief is an act of defiance, lets her hair

fall across her shoulders as she kneels

to embrace the foot of the cross. Mary the Mother tilts her head,

places her right hand upon her heart, raises

her left hand in a gesture of helpless sorrow as John the Beloved

stands at her elbow to give support:

he stares off into the horizon as he listens to sounds from far away,

for now it is the ninth hour of Good Friday,

and the curtain in the temple is torn from top to bottom

and the dead cry out in their graves.

From the left, a tall young man has entered: he is fair-skinned,

and his long red hair is gathered

into a ponytail. He carries a skateboard, dappled with the logos

of punk rock and heavy metal;

he carries a length of broomstick, crutch-tipped at either end.

At first he takes a seat in back,

but then he strides to the votive candles near the altar, and I think

he will lash out in a vandal’s rage

and fling his stick to ravage the fragile sculptures above us, but then

he snaps to respectful attention,

and after a quick, confident salute lights one of his own. He pauses,

tilts his broomstick into the flame,

and at the first wisp of smoke he nods his head, slips out the door

into the busy London street.

We walk outside to a narrow staircase, descend to the crypt:

a modern icon of Christ

in Byzantine style glows on the stone wall. I step back

and fall silent, deferring to her

as she approaches its steady gaze. She takes a candle

out of a basket,

lights it, places it near the others. She folds her hands,

and for a moment

she becomes a still point between the Norman pillars

built upon Roman tiles.

Later she told me about the presences she felt:

they tugged her purse

and tapped her shoulder, and she thought their faces

were beginning to emerge

out of an invisible swarm. They did not seem angry

but merely a little needy,

and she remembered, with a sudden pang of wistfulness,

the day she left Sydenham

just after she turned sixteen to be au pair with a family

near the hill of Montmartre,

where the white dome of the Basilica de Sacré Coeur

gleams in the distance.

Interview with Philip St. Clair

What inspires you to write poetry. Why do it?

Self-expression. Self-discovery. The pleasure of working away at an art and a craft.

How do your poems transition from inspiration to draft to final version?

It varies. Sometimes the "finished version " (if there is such a thing) comes easily, but usually not. First draft in longhand, subsequent drafts word-processed.

What book is currently on your nightstand?

Allen Ginsberg's The Best Minds of My Generation: a literary history of the Beats. Also a couple of histories concerning the FDR years.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

A bit more than half-full.

Will you please name a few poet/s (or people/role models) you admire and why?

Latter Twentieth-century poets I've always admired for the their craft and their insights into the human condition: Stephen Dobyns, Jack Gilbert, Ted Hughes, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, William Matthews. And Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets is a perennial delight.

Do you have a routine, such as where or when you write?

Not really. But the pandemic we're in has prevented me from going into a coffee shop with paper and pen, and I don't like it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring poets who are just starting out?

Aside from reading other poets, Knowing Thy Market, and not giving up the day job, the best thing I've ever seen for any beginning artist in any discipline is Ben Shahn's classic The Shape of Content (1957). Still relevant after all these years.


Philip St. Clair’s ninth collection of poetry, Red Cup, Green Lawn, was published by Main Street Rag Press in 2020. His awards include the Bullis Prize from Poetry Northwest and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council. He has loaded aircraft in the Military Air Transport Service, mopped floors in a student union, tended bar in an Elks club, worked at the editor’s trade (both in-house and freelance), and taught at Kent State University, Bowling Green State University, Southern Illinois University, and Ashland Community and Technical College. He lives with his wife Christina in Ashland, Kentucky.