For the early months of the new year I am appealing to the members of the board of the Woodley Press to present a Kansas author (with a book in print) that they know better than I do (perhaps one whose book that board member has edited).

For January I went that one better, and had one of the earlier board members,
Barbara Lerma,
present one of the newer board members,
Philip Heldrich,
with whom she worked closely at Emporia State,
and his new book,
Good Friday.

Picture of Philip Heldrich_____Cover of Good Friday

Review by Barbara Lerma

In Good Friday, poet Philip Heldrich reflects on those who have touched his life; in addition, the title announces prevailing themes of birth, life, death, and rebirth or reconciliation.  The book has four thematic parts: Faith, Hope, Charity, and Reconciliation.  The book won the 1999 X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize and was published in 2000 by Texas Review Press.  The cover, designed by Kellye Sanford, is a full-color photograph of a prairie burning in spring, "Fire Lines, Chase County, Kansas," by Larry Schwarm, illustrating dramatically Heldrich's resurrection themes.

In judging the book, Kennedy wrote, "This poet goes deeper than most. . . . he is aware of the size and sweep of the American prairie, and he can capture a good deal of territory in a limited number of well-crafted words."   The poems speak to midwesterners in their imagery and settings, but with philosophical appeal to a universal audience, forecast in "Osage," the frontispiece poem:

In words I follow each thread,
the way one idea trails another,
leans forward and dips backwards,
like reading the long line of geese
flying north this morning,
birds stretched across the sky,
an extended sentence, leaving me
their harmony, beating wings of their passing.
Across town, a train pushes up the prairie,
where bluestem bends east in warm spring winds.
By autumn, swollen Osage fruit will separate
from thin branches, and someday I will begin
to understand the necessity of falling leaves,
how darkness waits for the return of light,
the missing pieces needed again to be whole.
An ancient Buddhist master said, "Step by step, walk the thousand mile road," and in this collection we are brought to our own realities through the words of the poet as he progresses through the virtues.   In the first section, "Faith," we are drawn immediately into the intimate pain of men in anguish because of their wives' illnesses.  There are interludes with nature and the lines "As I came over the dam's ridge, we all startled-- / a blizzard of wintering gulls rising and falling like snow," (from "Wintering Gulls") resonates because of the poet's integration with the flock of gulls, and his place in the universe, questioning, struggling, accepting, being.  These poems are in the tradition of William Stafford, the late Kansas poet, who analyzes his own being by his interaction with nature and in his insights gained through memory and reflection.  Also like Stafford, Heldrich writes of his childhood and of his father; the son writes poignantly in "Litany," "There is pain, he guarantees, at the end."  The journey continues through "Hope," and we face our own questions of death, particularly in "Separation Anxiety."  In this poem, the existential question is dealt saving humor: "I imagine my stone swept clean, fresh flowers, / an all-weather plastic wreath placed with care."  Leaving the Midwest, the poems take us upward to the Himalayas, and to death at Cabresto Creek, but return to the prairie at the end, as three days of rain recede and there is "the clarity of an open prairie sky. / At once, everything is forgiven."

The last half of the book culminates in "reconciliation."  Spain is defined by sensuality as the traveler introduces the section on "Charity," and moves through Germany, Holland, comments on Bosnia, and visits the Westwood Cemetery to contemplate the death of Marilyn Monroe.  Like the work of Roethke, the childhood experiences in "The Day I Became Jimmy Carter" evoke our own childhood memories and insights that we too gained through the wounds and victories.  The meditation on racism in Chicago leaves the timing ambiguous, as it must.  We arrive at the section called "Reconciliation," which opens with commentary on Emporia, Kansas, with allusions to Yeats.  "The Nimbus" recounts a miraculous survival from an automobile accident, naming the simile of Lazarus as the survivor's out-of-body spirit rejoins the "broken body."  The final poem is the title poem, in which the poet understands his mother at last.  And while contending with his wife's surgery, he contemplates the everyday things which symbolize resurrection: "the returning sun at breakfast, . . . / the rising green after prairie burnings," and makes peace with his own faith.

Heldrich is professor of English at Emporia State University where he directs the Creative Writing Program and Bluestem Press, and is co-editor of Flinthills Review.  He has won a Council of National Literature's Fiction Award, Potpourri's Herman M. Swafford Award, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He is vice-president of the Southwest American Culture Association and is a board member of Woodley Press, Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas.

Good Friday elicits a personal, contemplative journey for the reader as well as the writer.  Having lived in Asia and traveled in Europe and now living in the Midwest, I am attuned to the truth of these poems; readers will find their own truths here.  Heldrich can be contacted at <> to arrange for readings or book signings.  The book is available for purchase from <> or from the publisher, Texas Review Press, at <eng>.