by James Sale

Jesus and Eros, Bardsinger Books, 2014
Sonnets, Bardsinger Books, 2019-10-08

Theresa Rodriguez is a relatively new and exciting poet on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets. As a classically trained singer and teacher, she has a particularly fine voice and a tremendous presence and passion in reading her work. It is well worth attending, therefore, any live reading of her work, and I was privileged to hear her perform at Bryant Park in New York earlier this year.

These two collections comprise a total of 79 poems (if we include the songs too), although there is some overlap of sonnets, some of which appear in both collections. Three themes stand out: one, a spiritual longing for union with God which is underpinned by her sense of her own unworthiness and sin; two, a deep but very measured eroticism (no filth in other words) which explores failed relationships and the fantasies of the longing mind; and third, the act of writing itself as a purgative or panacea for the afflictions life has vented on her. This last point is important too, since it is why she has developed a fascination with forms and structures as she seeks to communicate, understand and order her experiences. I would observe—I think justly—that by far and away her best poetry are those poems (of which there are many) in which she uses form, rhyme and meter, and where the verse is free, I find the poems far less effective.

The strength of Rodriguez as a poet is in her ability to access and confront her emotional states directly. She does occasionally comment on wanting to come up with original ideas, but this is a mistake: she is not a poet made to impress us with new ideas hatched in the mind; she is a poet who speaks from the heart. We see this in contrasting a poem that appeared on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets, “Writer’s Block,” and its concluding lines:

oh, would that something fresh would come to me
Not what amounts to sheer banality!

This is fun but no more than that. Contrast that with this first line from “Finale”:

The rigor mortis of my love for you has not set in.

Phew! That is pretty startling on a number of levels. Or take her poem, “Sweet Bird,” where I would ask is this really about a bird as we are “awaiting your long descent”? There is a plangent eroticism in all this suggestive of a lover to be; the bird is always “he.”

And again, the concluding stanza of “Shaman of the Waves” also captures something of her intense yet understated erotic power:

And so we are of polar force
that meets in synergy;
you are the shaman of the waves;
I am the sea.

But having said earlier that there are three main themes, they of course blend in all sorts of ways. Indeed, the title of her first collection, Jesus and Eros, might appear to be such a blend as well as being oxymoronic in its mixing of the sacred and the sensual. Here, however, I am reminded of two lines from a C.H. Sisson’s poem, “A Letter to John Donne”:

That the vain, the ambitious and the highly sexed
Are the natural prey of the incarnate Christ.

That is beautifully put; he was of course referring to John Donne in terms of the three attributes, but certainly the “highly sexed” applies to Rodriguez’ writing. And since she writes frequently in sonnet form it is worth contrasting her efforts with another favourite sonneteer who writes occasionally on these pages, Joseph Charles Mackenzie. Whereas Mackenzie’s sonnets are usually theological, public and “objective,” Rodriguez’ are confessional, intimate and “subjective.” Both, of course, have their own strengths, but how different they can be!

In Rodriguez we have the sense of a soul longing for order, for discipline, for that unreserved giving for the great cause of either passion or love. One suspects that in another life Rodriguez would have made a formidable nun or saint of an order. Take her “Platonic Sonnet”:

I hope that by a deprivation all
Might turn into a longing at your core.

Or, from “You’ve Made It Clear”:

For though I’ve longed for you in every way,
I also love enough to stay away.

Or, from “Simple Little Things”:

Do you have any sense of what can be
Within a body touched by loneliness?

The poems, then, at their best can be touching, affecting and profoundly felt experiences, and I think represent real poetry from a real soul whom the Muse has visited. Perhaps one final great example, where Rodriguez brings it all together in the concluding couplet of a sonnet is “Grey Sonnet” (yes, she uses the English spelling!):

For grey to dwell alone is grey indeed
When colors yearn to contrast, blend and bleed.

That is wonderful writing, and a quite brilliant sonnet that I invite everyone to read and find its joys for themselves. And as a footnote, “bleed” is a favourite word of Rodriguez.

Regular readers of the pages of The Society of Classical Poets will also be heartened to know that Rodriguez’ strong religious beliefs lead her to reject much of the feminist and other contemporary claptrap that passes for thought. Her poem, “Goodbye, Sweet Fetal Child,” is a searing indictment of “hedonistic choice” abortion. There is, then, so much to recommend in her poetry. But where, perhaps, may there be improvements?

I think the major fault in these collections is in the editing. First, the collections could be tighter – some poems do not justify their place in the collections, and if we take Sonnets, then 37 is not a number I recognise! Shakespeare had 154 (11 x 14, the number of lines in a sonnet) and Mackenzie has 77 (half 154). 33 is good (Dante liked the number) and 36 is also good (4 x 9 or 3 x 12): one poem that should be omitted is “The Earl of Oxford’s Sonnet” which seeks to assert that Shakespeare did not write his plays. Quite apart from the fact that he did, as I have explained on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets, it should be obvious from all I have said about Rodriguez’ poetry that this is not a suitable theme for her: it is academic, dry-as-dust, and not from the heart. Why bother? It’s a weak poem anyway.

Second, on the editing front, the proofing needs improving, and most particularly in the area of punctuation. Punctuation is intermittent in places; if Rodriguez were E.E. Cummings, then that might be justified, but in writing traditional sonnets I think punctuation is not a burden but a major semantic benefit. Her sonnet, “I Cannot Write,” is I think impaired by its lack of punctuation. So I would ask her to rethink her punctuation policy for future poems.

But my criticisms must be considered inconsequential compared with the praise I wish to lavish on her collections: they are a real achievement. The poetry contains some dazzling truths as she unashamedly faces the demons of herself, her life and her imaginings. Let me leave you with her couplet from “I Wake My Eyes”:

For everything is better when from cares
We turn our full attention to our prayers

Simple, direct, child-like, but massively affecting with all the potency of truth. Read Theresa Rodriguez.



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4 Responses

  1. Theresa Rodriguez

    Thank you James, for writing this beautiful review and to Evan for posting it. I am deeply humbled and gratified.

    • James Sale

      Hi Theresa, It was a great pleasure to read your lovely poetry and I hope this review helps bring it to a wider audience. Naturally, feel free to take any lines or quotations from it to use in your wider marketing of your work! Keep in touch with the Muse!!

  2. Sally Cook

    Congratulations ! ! I will continue to follow your work, and wish all the best for your continued progress.


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