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Review: Award-winning Michigan poet tackles getting old in new collection

cover of Saint Peter and the Goldfinch by Jack Ridl with a yellow goldfinch and title on cover
Wayne State University Press

Award-winning Michigan poet Jack Ridl has a new collection out called "Saint Peter and the Goldfinch." Our reviewer Keith Taylor says the West Michigan wordsmith explores a necessary, but often overlooked, subject: Getting old.

Jack Ridl taught for several decades at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He was a tremendously successful professor of literature and creative writing. He won state and national awards for his teaching. He left a legacy that most people would have been proud of and would be satisfied with.

But all during those years of teaching, Ridl kept working on his poetry, finding a way through the craft that suited his personality. His poems told small stories about ordinary life, suggesting  larger issues that reached past the personal toward big subjects. His poems were very clean, uncluttered by any excess verbal baggage, and spoke directly to their readers.

Unlike many other writers/teachers, when Ridl retired from his day job, he became even more prolific. He kept many of the techniques he had mastered earlier, but his subject matter became noticeably different. Ridl has become one of the few poets we have who writes interesting poems about aging. It might not be a fashionable subject but it is a necessary one. In St. Peter and the Goldfinch Ridl has a wonderful sequence of poems called “Suite for the Long Married.” In one of the poems there he describes a simple morning in the life of the older couple he writes about:

There is this quiet,

this way the day has of being where

we belong. At precisely 7:45 the bells

of Saint Peter’s will send an old hymn into

the quiet and we who are still pilgrims

will then walk our way into another day.

The religious element in that poem shows another aspect of the work in St. Peter and the Goldfinch that gives this book its power and helps to make it unique. Many of the poems included here sound like prayers – quiet, uncertain prayers directed toward a god the poet isn’t quite positive about. In an earlier poem in the same sequence about “the Long Married,” Ridl writes:

We will be religious

without faith or doubt.

The trees will be our amen.

The cedar waxwings at the feeder

will take our place at Communion,

redeeming seed into flight and song.

Tonight with the moon’s generosity

we will gather the vestments for tomorrow.

And that quiet space – where “the trees will be our amen” – is almost enough for those of us “who are still pilgrims” and who might find the need for poems like these Jack Ridl has written in the daily lives we struggle through.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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