In Praise of the Physical World

Leonard Gontarek’s Spiritual Poetry at the Public Library

A week before both Passover, when we commemorate both freedom and slavery, remembering always, that as long as anyone is oppressed we are all still slaves in Egypt, I had the pleasure to begin the week at the Philadelphia Public Library Monday Poets Reading Series, now in its 16th year. Run for fifteen years by Michelle Belluomini, the new director of the series, Kay Wisniesskik, explained that “Philadelphia has a lot of creative people.  This venture is special as we feature local poets who have published books and have often won prizes.  We want to expose people to the excellence of the Philadelphia poetry scene.”  

More after the jump.  

On April 2nd, at 6:30 pm in the stunning Skyline Room of the Parkway Central Library, poet Leonard Gontarek read from new work for about 40 minutes that held the audience, comprised of about 40 people, captivated.  Gontarek’s poems are filled with both praise and melancholy, both images of rebirth and death.  “Truth is very subtle like a thief in the night.”   In poems that sampled from the Bible and Bruce Springsteen, from Gilgamesh and Zen Buddhism, Gontarek writes, “everyone steals a glimpse, because it is spring.”

Gontarek is the author of four collections. His poetry collections include Déjà Vu Diner (2006) and St. Genevieve Watching Over Paris (1984). His poems have also been featured in Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry (2006) and in Best American Poetry (2005). Gontarek’s honors include several Pushcart Prize nominations and two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.   His new work is written in numbered sections, often consisting of one line of verse, which draws attention to the poetic line.  In an incantatory poem about masks and identity in a fragmented, post-modern world, Gontarek writes: “it’s all shadow and we wore many masks.”  

Where many modern and post-modern poets shy away from the word God or any hint at spirituality or transendence, in Gontarek’s lyrical, erotic, playful poems the physical and metaphysical are inextricably connected: To praise Buddha without belief “is cereal without milk” he writes.  From a poem about a $69 hotdog, that is a sensuous celebration of the physical world, to melancholic poems about “the math of sadness” Gontarek’s poetry provides a precise questioning of the world, never reducing its complexity but paying close attention to its paradoxes.

The evening ended with Gontarek paying homage to the poet Adrienne Rich, a Jewish lesbian poet, who died last week at the age of 82.  He read her poem “Perspective Immigrants Please Note” an apt selection.  Rich writes: “If you go through/ there is always the risk/ of remembering your name.”  Gontarek welcomed us to go through many doors with him on this Monday night in April.  

A 20 minute Q & A followed with the audience asking questions about craft and composition.   This was the last in the 2011-2012 series which will resume its Monday Poets Reading Series in the Fall.  There will be an open mike at the end of the readings “so local poets can get over stage fright” Wisniesskik explained.  

Monday Night Poetry Series. 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Skyline Room of the Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street. Copies of the Featured Poets’ books may be purchased at the readings. For additional information, please call the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Literature Department at 215-686-5402.