Learning the Angels is Rennie McQuilkin's fifth book of poetry. Depicting love's labors and delights, the collection moves from sensual pleasures to the battle between Love and its adversaries, Time and Ego. The last section, “Balancing,” arrives at a sort of “lumination,” a sense that the Angel of Love is with us more than we know.
McQuilkin was for many years the director of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Yale Review, Yankee, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, The Gettysburg Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The North American Review, The American Scholar, and many other publications.
Read some poems from the book.
Praise for the book:
"Rennie McQuilkin's poems are pungently exact about the properties of the real world: how things look, what they're called, how they happen. In a book which has poignancy, gusto, and many another mood, there is never a false feeling... Most of all I relish in these poems the surprising yet probable way in which a scene or association of images can produce what seems an inevitable development of thought." - Richard Wilbur
"Rennie McQuilkin is a poet with an extraordinary eye. But more than that, he is a poet who knows how to use it. He looks at the hard questions of the world, never flinching, and translates them with a clarity that is rare in American poetry today. Whether he is writing about the world itself, or the world mirrored in art, his poems strike to the heart of the thing and give us time and again 'the truth beyond the lines.' " - David Bottoms
"He has a voice unlike that of any other contemporary poet - so natural, so sympathetic, so convincing that the many moments and passages of fulfilled perceptions occur in these poems like the effortless unfolding of wings. McQuilkin speaks from us and with us in a language so devoid of all rhetoric it is pure American: the natural man is lifted out of himself almost beyond his knowing... My response is one of pure thanks." - Dick Allen
LEARNING THE ANGELS
Waiting up, he’s deep in Angels & Archangels:
lion-bodied Cherubim, Principalities
six-winged, translucent as cathedral windows,
heavily armored Archangels, and the usual
angels for the dirty work, recording, hand-
delivering, and as he now learns, placing a finger
on the lips of every newborn, leaving the cleft
imposing silence concerning clouds of glory.
Now she breezes in, douses the light, wants
to cuddle, undoes, runs a finger along the cleft
that gives the tip of his sex its face of a heart.
It's devil's work, he knows.
At dawn he’s in the dew-damp garden, picking
strawberries for her,
turning the leaves pale-side-up to uncover
the heart-shaped fruit,
and coming on the snake, a hog nose, head up,
neck flared and glistening.He knows its lineage,
says his prayer
to angels, archangels and wheels of fire.
Reinforced, he returns
full of Powers and Dominions. She yawns,
half-rises on her divan, plumps a pillow,
pours cream on the berries. Its blush
deepens. He finds himself
sliding a hand beneath her robe,
along the nape, the shoulders, the spine,
the small, that valley lightly downed—
which leads to what comes over him,
her shoulder blades working the air, her finger
on his lips.
WE ALL FALL DOWN
for Kelly, my student
Her turn had come. She knew
by heart almost
the lines she was to speak
but gave us, God help her,
beyond the lines,
beyond the book she dropped,
its pages thrashing to the floor
like broken wings--
she beat her head upon,
bit into so hard
I could not pry her jaws,
the truth beyond us
she saw as ever,
her risen eyes gone white
I did what I could,
I held her and held her, seized
with sudden love and knowing
we all fall down.
In the end
I carried her curled in my arms
across one threshold
for my mother
In her eighty-ninth year she’s reducing
on one her husband’s initials,
full of antique gap-toothed keys with elaborate
where every night the dry-bones come
END OF THE SEASON
I pole us,
now is on its way
Is that you humming?
how you let a
slime of duckweed
But what do you
make of this
and sinks, slowly
We know the stories—
What you do
Next thing, it's
I like how you
smile, reach back