Blues, Prayers, & Pagan Chants
by Diane Sahms
54 poems, 86 pages
Price: $11.25
ISBN: 979-8873734580
Publisher: Alien Buddha Press, 2024.
To order: Amazon

Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Poet, educator and editor Diane Sahms is the author of eight works of published poetry: six full-length collections and two chapbooks. A graduate of East Stroudsburg University, Sahms has worked at various points in her career as a government employee, Contract Specialist and teacher of English and Poetry at Council Rock (North & South) and at Cheltenham High Schools, Pennsylvania. She currently works as a Purchasing Agent for the Department of Defense buying medical supplies for ships around the world, mostly for the Navy. She is the Poetry Editor for the on-line literary magazine North of Oxford and spends much of her time volunteering in her community to promote, facilitate and encourage poetry and the arts in and around her native Philadelphia.

The title of her latest collection, ‘Blues, Prayers, & Pagan Chants’, has a scriptural ring to it. Several possible threads hold these words together, one of them being music. Two poems that occur in the middle of the collection both confirm this notion and offer us further clues. In the prose poem ‘Burning Blue’ the title almost comes out of the wash whole in the following lines: ‘A blue woman’s reaching fingertips cannot always touch prayers’ inner lining of protection or climb out of memories’ pagan chants’ and in the next poem ‘Dogwood’ the title makes its appearance in its truest form: ‘sparrows, goldfinches, mockingbirds / singing blues, prayers and pagan chants’. Even though these poems are very different from each other in style, mood and content, the threefold structure of blues, prayers and pagan chants fits their subject matters very well.

In this collection, it is the word ‘blue’ more than any other word that predominates. This is obvious in the number of times Sahms uses it in her titles: ‘Lady Blue’, ‘Dem Dare Blues’, ‘My Lovers’ Blues’, ‘Blue Shoes’, ‘Operatic Blues’, ‘Morning Glory Blues’, ‘Ambush Blues’, ‘Blue Moon’, and so forth. Sometimes it relates to a colour and sometimes to a mood while at other times it is used in its musical sense of singing the blues.

The second component of the title, ‘prayers’, manifests itself in Sahms’ gratitude for every living thing. Thanksgiving for a world teeming with wildlife is evident from the start which opens with a series of short poems in praise of birds and their songs: rose-breasted grosbeaks, American goldfinches, downy woodpeckers, orioles, catbirds and mourning doves. Other poems are populated with butterflies (swallowtails and monarchs) and plants (mimosa, phlox, daylilies, hydrangeas and rudbeckias). In the case of the latter, Sahms chooses to employ the more poetic-sounding name of ‘black-eyed Susan’.

Her descriptions of birds and flowers are exacting and exquisite. The rose-breasted grosbeak has a ‘black-hooded head / brilliant semicircle of red, / with a leaky valve extending down / the middle of a white breast’, a male American goldfinch is ‘a sunbeam…..with reverently pressed black napkin wings’ and the rhythmical movement of the wing of a mourning dove is likened to ‘a flamenco dancer’s risen fan [which] opens and closes continuously’. The centres of rudbeckias are described as ‘gumdrop centrepieces’ while the ‘needle blossoms’ of mimosa are said to be ‘as fine as silken threads’. No detail goes unnoticed and you can sense the author’s delight in everything she sees.

The Christian element propelled by the word ‘prayers’ also manifests itself in the use of stand-alone words that one usually finds in a religious context: ‘gospel’, ‘sermon’, ‘faithful’, ‘hymn’, ‘saviour’, altar’, etc., and also in references to specific Biblical stories: the Garden of Eden, Jacob’s dream at Bethel, Jonah in the belly of the whale, the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin, Golgotha and Christ’s Crown of thorns.

The pagan element is less apparent but may be detected in the darker undertone of Sahms’ poems. A clue may be found in the quotation from Lord Byron that is used, as one of three, to head up the collection: ‘There is something in me that I cannot shake off’ but it is also reflected in the pantheistic exultation of the natural world and the forces that it (and the moon) exert upon us.

Sahms prefaces her collection with this dedication: ‘for the preservation, protection & restoration of Mother Earth’ and several poems such as ‘The Slaughtering’ and ‘Dogwood’ illustrate her empathy with the natural world and, in the case of the first poem cited here, ‘fatality inflicted by narrowminded humans, / thoughtless chainsaw butchers, & corporate greed’s / slaughtering of defenceless, living trees, and humans / unfeelingness toward unhuman things’. Even inanimate objects which no longer have their uses are not forgotten: an old Mercury Grand Marquis, a dulcimer’s broken strings, a shoe lying on a riverbed and an old discarded washing machine rusting in a backyard. Through all these poems, Sahms gives thanks and in so doing makes us re-evaluate our feelings about our world.

Stylistically, there is some experimentation with different poetic forms, in particular Japanese forms, and also with the ways in which certain poems are laid out on the page. Her poetic voice ranges from soaring lyricism, as witnessed in ‘Lady Blue’ and ‘As if they were dancing yin and yang’ to the blunt conversational level of a poem like ‘Depression’ where Sahms writes: ‘Most of living is pretending to be happy / when the fact is: you die a little every day, until the last day’. I guess there’s nothing to be gained from trying to dress that up any other way.

The collection opens with birdsong and closes yet again on a musical note. This time it is the sound of crickets. It is a short poem and it is included here in full as a good way to bring this review to its close:

Cricket Blues

It’s early August & there’s this soloist,
who has never stopped playing his body’s blues,
tireless as Muddy Waters’ voice on guitar.
Remarkable stamina: vocalized persistence,
as if running an all-night singing marathon,
a calling song into night’s open mic:
I Just Want to Make Love to You,
Love to You.


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