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The angelic point of view

Review of "Angelicus" by D.S. Martin

My first thought when I encountered D. S. Martin’s latest book, Angelicus, was how on earth would he be able to compose a book’s worth of poems about angels? But after familiarizing myself with all 64 poems, I realized one could say he only scratched the surface. A very satisfying scratch it is, however!

Martin begins Angelicus with the poem “Angels Speaking” – an introduction to the first-person angelic voices we’ll hear throughout the book. It is followed by seven nine-poem sections, each begun with a quote about angels by notable sages like John Wesley, Augustine, and others. For the purpose of this review, however, I have divided the book into sections of my own. These run the gamut of Martin’s perceptions from angelic appearances in the Bible to pop music.

Perhaps predictably, poems about angelic visitations recorded in the Bible are the most numerous. In these poems we hear from angels who appeared from Genesis to Revelation – angels watching the fall (“Angels Watch You Fall”), angels who participated in Old Testament stories of Jacob (“Staircase” and “Jacob Wrestles”), Joseph (“Angel Dream”), the fiery furnace (“The Burning Heart”), and on to the New Testament and the many angelic visits around the life of Christ and the apostles. One that I found particularly moving was the angelic account of angels witnessing the incarnation:

All angels know the shock
though lost on you when celestial will
left the highest place & took on your form
to be made low

– An Angel Speaks of Living Things

Another significant number of poems addresses the way angels are viewed in culture – art, writing, music, and the movies. In several ekphrastic poems (like “An Angel Critiques Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel”) angels comment on how artists have depicted them in worship spaces. Martin refers to literary mentions of angels by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Danté, Rilke and others. Angels in music make an appearance when they tell us how they feel about their depiction in songs like “Teen Angel” and “Angel of Death.” Another angel comments on the movie angel character Clarence in “An Angel Watches It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In a third type of poems – the category I found most delightful – angels give us their point of view on human life. Here Martin, through his angelic altar egos, holds forth on a wide range of subjects. In “Laundry Drying in Open Air” we discover what angels do when they see laundry flapping in the wind – they play in it! In “What Angels Admire” we see our beautiful planet through angelic eyes. In “Birds” we learn about angelic flight, in “Polar Bear” we are alerted to the fragility of our warming planet, and in “Your Cat Watching” we get the angel’s story of why the cat was spooked by – nothing? My two favourite poems in the book are in this section. In one Martin gives us a moving description of how he imagines angels participate in human prayer:

It’s like when you whisper Dear God I carry
Your intentions to the sky …
… but when I arrive it’s like
A tornado that can’t touch me all’s a blur in the whirl of wings
& wonder … and then
His eyes lock on mine & nothing else is there but your prayer
& his compassionate stare

-An Angel Explains Prayer

In the second, faith is depicted as an orchid that grows within us, and of which the angel says:

Did you know, dear child, nurturing this orchid’s
your most crucial task?

-Surreal Angel

Most of these poems are free verse, with lots of unexpectedly pleasing rhymes sprinkled throughout, making them a pleasure to read aloud:

Angels come and go there are many things
We do not know so perhaps
We’ll watch her collapse
After her long hard skate to see
What imprint she makes in the snow

-Frozen Lake

The poems are all short, only one goes past one page, but they pack a punch past their physical heft with endings that frequently catch the reader by surprise:

When you see us whirring and conferring
Picking glowing coals barehanded from the fire
do not fear The familiar conceals
as much as it reveals

-Cherubim

On the page, Martin uses no punctuation except for question marks. Reading rhythms and pauses are indicated with line breaks and extra space between words. And, of course, he continues to use his signature convention, substituting the ampersand for “and.”

Altogether I found this a rich and rewarding read. The consistent angelic point of view, (maintained by the way the reader is addressed as “child of clay,” “little one,” “dear child,” “fragile child,” and others) provided fresh thoughts on angelic appearances in the Bible. The angels’ interesting and sometimes unconventional view of the stuff of ordinary human life was by turns humorous (“Swing Low Sweet Grocery Cart”) and thought-provoking (“The Angel of the Church in Toronto Writes”). As well, after reading Angelicus, I’m sure I’ll never again feel comfortable viewing cherubs depicted as chubby babies!

  • Violet Nesdoly lives near Vancouver, B.C. She has been a poetry columnist and editor, had poetry and prose published in a variety of print and online publications, and authored two novels. Besides writing she enjoys making art, reading, and walking local nature trails with her husband, camera in hand.

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