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Book Review

Blessed Are Those Who Yearn
New Poetry in Review

The Glacier’s Wake by Katy Didden (Pleiades Press, 2013)
God Loves You by Kathryn Maris (Seren Books UK, 2013)
Incarnadine by Mary Szybist (Graywolf Press, 2013)

 

AT THE END of Paradiso, Dante, after confessing his inability to describe the vision of Love he sees, nonetheless continues to speak the poem’s famous last lines before he is overcome by silence: “Here force failed my high fantasy; but my / desire and will were moved already—like / a wheel revolving uniformly—by / the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” For Dante, as for generations of religious poets after him, the desire for a vision of God, an experience of the holy, or a taste of divine love inspires the poet to strive after language, even as he knows language cannot capture what he most wants to see and feel. Although much of what I read in current poetry journals seems so involved with the self as to forget that there might be anything beyond it to desire—other people, the natural world, or social justice, for example, let alone God—Dante’s tradition is, nevertheless, healthy among contemporary poets. Three exciting new collections by Katy Didden, Kathryn Maris, and Mary Szybist probe the heights and depths of religious yearning with immensely satisfying formal versatility, as well as sincerity of heart, that do Dante proud.

§

In Katy Didden’s sharp-eyed and energetic debut, The Glacier’s Wake, encounters with the divine often take place within nature—but Didden is interested in nature at its most extreme, rather than at its gentlest. For Didden, the world is indeed charged with the grandeur of God, and this charge is best experienced alongside calving glaciers, at the edges of volcanoes, beneath crashing waterfalls, above newborn islands, or at the base of a mountain prone to deadly avalanches. Didden’s is a poetry that approaches the burning bush more than it considers the lilies; in it, the speakers and other characters are more often to be found awed by the stunning, sometimes terrifying, presence of God in creation, rather than calmly contemplating the similarities between nature and humanity. Nature is often other in this collection, strange and glorious, jarring the human observer to attention.

In “Pleasure Milker,” for example, we see the longing of the title character, an adventurous traveler, for his “fix” of awe as he regards the Iguazu Falls in Argentina:

You’re the kind who stands still
in front of awful things and squints
as though you could see into
the god chambers of every atom in every
drop of water. O! Maw of Fog.
O! Foam Throat.

Didden’s interest in the places where natural revelation meets scientific fact is evident in this and many other poems in this collection. Intent upon his experience of the holy, the pleasure milker, a “filmy pilgrim,” doesn’t consider that in geologic time, the earth is, like us, always aging: as the speaker says, “The old girl’s gone to peat.” Yet this doesn’t diminish the praiseworthiness of the earth’s wonders, nor the pleasure milker’s desire to “open [his] mouth / to sing as though it were a living thing.”

Didden explores this tension between what is dead or dying, and what is living, in many poems in this collection, including several moving elegies for the poet’s father, like “Avalanche,” “Lopez Island,” “Old Dominion,” and the title poem. The yearning for the divine spark present in a flesh-and-blood other pervades these elegies, as well as other poems in the collection that explore physical or romantic desire. In “Embrace Them All,” the title a translation of “Embrasse-les tous,” a song by French singer Georges Brassens, the speaker, youthful and athletic, runs laps through Parc Brassens in Paris in winter, commenting upon the park’s tiny vineyard:

[T]hose silver,
pruned-back stalks looked blunt,
strung-out on wires, and mostly dead
all winter. That was how I saw them.
That’s all I expected.

Unlike the speaker, who doesn’t expect to see much living in the overwintering park, the other character in the poem, a young guitarist who is often present when the speaker is running her laps, suggests that they “go at it right there, / on the ground, under the sun,” “in the middle of a Tuesday.” The guitarist sees incarnate life and possibility even when surrounded by dormancy. Reflecting on what would happen if she took the guitarist up on his offer, the speaker says, “This is how / one lives who knows that she will die: / rolling in the arms of anyone she can.” But her actual choice, expressed retrospectively and regretfully, is this: “Oh, but me, I thought I was immortal.” Now older and much more aware that she herself is mortal, the speaker sees the sense in embracing “them all”—each person, each moment, and each yearning—while she can.

Embracing isn’t having, however, and Didden’s poems reject the idea that we should try to possess what we yearn for, whether another person, something majestic in the natural world, or a fleeting moment of divine encounter. The many poems which feature glaciers implicitly convey, through images of melting, the transitory nature of yearning and awe; in “Perito Moreno Glacier,” the speaker and her companions are astounded by the “heavy-tailed, befanged, and slow” glacier that seems “as though it breathed,” even as, later in the poem, they drink whiskey on the rocks from melting ice the ship’s pilot has pick-axed and brought aboard. Although the people on the boat “chew a little ice between [their] teeth,” they cannot possess the glacier, “its white forked tail / unfurling miles up Patagonian peaks.” Similarly, in “Mind’s-Eyed Island,” the speaker praises Surtsey, “Earth’s newest island,” which “erupted above sea level in 1963.” Surtsey, the speaker explains, is an island that no one is allowed to inhabit, and she approves this: “I’m glad there’s somewhere we can’t wreck, / where earth’s beginnings get re-set.”

Didden’s poetry, though, mostly praises what we can wreck, or what time can. The ability to praise what is mortal—what is aging, what is worn-out, what is fallen, even—is a particular gift of Didden’s, shown at its most delightfully whimsical in her series of persona poems from the points of view of a glacier, a sycamore, and a wasp. In “The Sycamore on Praise,” for example, the tree explains,

Seeing death everywhere, you can choose
despair, blunt your roots on rocks, accuse
the cold wind as it lashes your limbs
then train your shape to the synonym
for “whip.” You can rip the sky to skim
water. Or, you can watch yourself change,
marvel how death mottles you with strange
spots, wrinkles your skin and plumps your veins.
In the shade, you can love what repeats—
…our daily habits, hearing a tune
in thunder, words in the shaking leaves.

The sonic density of this poem—not only rhyming couplets but internal Hopkinsesque chiming—is characteristic of the collection, which includes sonnets, rhyming quatrains, and blank verse, in addition to free verse poems; this attention to sound adds to the already considerable pleasures of diction (think Moore) and description (think Bishop) that Didden makes look so easy.

The Glacier’s Wake is a book that’s not tortured by its longing—for God, for the poet’s “beloved dead” (“Peace Tower”), for the equally loved and unpossessable living, and, most of all, for the marvel-filled and dying earth we inhabit, and the innumerable spaces beyond it. Instead, Didden’s first collection embraces, winsomely and wisely, our “longing, / to which we’re tuned like bells” (“Before Edison Invented Lights”), encouraging us to “hover in the black night / on the web of [our] awe / at a billion suns / towards which / everything [we]’re made of yearns.”

§

American expat and London transplant Kathryn Maris’s second collection, the provocatively titled God Loves You, published by the Welsh press Seren Books, is as full of longing as The Glacier’s Wake, but the speaker of these poems is anxious, doubtful, and sad about her yearning for God’s love. The central question of God Loves You is simple but unanswerable: how can we really know that God loves us? Maris asks the question in earnest, but perhaps surprisingly, this doesn’t make for an utterly dark book; indeed, this collection contains some of the funniest poems about religion I’ve read in years. Maris’s wit is one of her great poetic strengths, and in this collection she uses it to great effect. Balancing a zingy sense of humor with an aching desire to know if God’s love is truly real, Maris’s book is, by turns, side-splitting and devastating.

In the first section of the book, “What Will the Neighbours Think?” Maris puzzles over the very human longing for other people’s things, situations, lives, and even their relationships with God. The speaker of these poems, who throughout the book will describe her own domestic woes, in this section explores the tension between feeling compassion for her London neighbors’ problems and coveting what they have, whether that’s their relationship with their children (“The Witch and Macduff Exit my Neighbour’s House”), their money, fame, and style (the hilarious blank-verse poem “Will You Be My Friend, Kate Moss?”—yes, that Kate Moss), or their own closeness to God, as in the whip-smart “Why I Will Gladly Take Your Man Away.” Figuring God as a male lover and herself as a scheming home wrecker, Maris makes a wickedly funny point about what it means if God’s love is impartial: “if you’ve got God, then watch Him hard / because I will take Him if I can / and I know that I can because I have heard / He loves me as much as He loves you.”

Although the speaker may feel pangs of envy toward her neighbors, she never hates them for having what she lacks, nor does she judge them for their wrongdoings or flaws. In “On Returning a Child to Her Mother at the Natural History Museum,” Maris’s speaker encounters a girl, Emily, who cannot find her mother at their appointed meeting place in the museum. Upon returning Emily, the speaker reassures the mother:

Don’t worry: I don’t ever judge
a mother. Look at me: my daughter drank
the Calpol I left out when she was two;
I gave my kids Hundreds and Thousands once
for dinner while I lay down on the floor,
a wreck. I know you well! Here’s Emily.

The speaker’s honesty and humility about her own shortcomings extends to her neighbors, and their city block of houses, which “you could make the mistake / of calling… / identical” (“The Witch and Macduff Exit My Neighbour’s House”), forms a sort of community of sinners that feels like its own kind of church, a congregation made up of luckless unbelievers.

In the book’s second section, “God Loves You,” Maris switches the focus from the neighbors to the speaker’s own troubled pursuit of both God’s love and human love. In these formally varied poems—rhyming couplets, Italian and English sonnets, and a sequence of poems written in numbered prose paragraphs, visually calling to mind the King James Bible—Maris contrasts God’s unconditional love with humans’ conditional love and finds that she does not feel that she can count on either, though she longs for both. In the title poem, one of the most emotionally bare and affecting in the collection, the speaker refuses the idea that God might love her:

  1. God’s image was in the mirror and God’s image was my grief. And lo, I knew I was not loved by Him and wept. And I knew shame. For though I was young, I was not young enough to weep in the face of the Lord who made me.
  2. In sorrow, I set out. I prayed that God might look on me in my search for signs of love in His great world….
  3. On the road there was a child who pressed into my palm a yo-yo, where it was written: ‘God loves you.’ And I thanked the child, held him and wept, for he was righteous, and he was called Matthew. But still I was unloved.
  4. For if God is in the mirror, and if God is the mirror of our world, then the signs will be false, for the world will reverse what God has shown me.

Similarly, the speaker does not believe that her relationships with various lovers will last. The sonnet “Last Supper” details domestic discord that has reached the breaking point:

I asked for liver as it was the closest thing to poison.
He cooked it robotically in the scratched Teflon pan….

Then he said he was sick of being cast as a demon,
that I’d asked too many questions that resembled accusation,
and did I know I have a limitless need for affection.

I had things of my own to say, but why say them.

As Judas betrays Christ at the Last Supper, so at this Last Supper, both parties feel betrayed—and tired. The sins visited upon human relationships in this section—jealousy, communication problems, boredom, lack of affection—make the love that initially sparked those relationships difficult to access. Often, the lovers turn away from one another (“Lord Forgive Me,” “Doubting Thomas”), as Adam and Eve did in Eden once their sins were discovered.

Maris doesn’t quite make her peace in section three of the book, “Praise Him,” but there are moments of illumination. In the pitch-perfect and moving poem “Street Sweeper,” which ends the book, the speaker attempts to see God in the wind scattering trash and dust in the street:

Sometimes the wind is bluster.
Sometimes the wind is a mute.

There is the God who listens.
There is the God who speaks….

Sometimes he speaks through his dog.
Sometimes he doesn’t speak.

If his mother tongue were ‘dog’
or ‘frog’ or ‘wind’ or ‘rubbish’

could I learn that language
and hear that I am loved?

Or would the answer
be something I couldn’t hear.

Ultimately, the speaker gives up on hearing the answer she is looking for, but there is a hint of acknowledgment in the look on a stranger’s face: “The sweeper smiles at me lovingly / like the silent god, / the one with the message I cannot hear.” Perhaps if we are able to receive love from unexpected people, in moments in which we are caught off-guard, we might catch a glimpse of God’s unexplainable love—maybe. Maris’s book draws no conclusions. It’s a book about religious yearning, but also a book about the wrenching pain of unbelief—a pain that is all the more intense because it is relentlessly open-ended.

§

Somewhere between Didden’s assent to the divine and Maris’s disappointment is Mary Szybist’s second collection, Incarnadine, which explores not only the human longing for a divine encounter but also God’s longing for the human body, its incarnadine flesh. The central question of Incarnadine is about incarnation: what does it mean for the divine to yearn to overtake, and to inhabit, the human? Secondarily, Szybist asks—what are the different possible ways the human might respond to this? In Incarnadine, we get a mix of responses, from willingness to terror, from arousal to ambivalence.

Unlike the other two collections, much of Incarnadine works with a single conceit, puzzling at and reinterpreting the biblical story of the Annunciation from manifold angles and using a handful of recurring images: angels, girls or women in blue dresses, girls or women alone, grass, sky, clouds, mothers, daughters, and things falling. There’s a renewed shock of pleasure each time we see how Szybist will employ these images anew (in this way, Szybist reminds me of Gjertrud Schnackenberg, who works her images with a similar thoroughness). If this sounds difficult to pull off, it is; but as Szybist proves, it is far from impossible. Szybist’s formal inventiveness and her winning mix of wit, weirdness, and sincerity combine with the recurring images to make this collection a mesmerizing read.

The first poem of the book, “The Troubadours Etc.,” sets the tone nicely: “Just for this evening, let’s not mock them…. At least they had ideas about love.” Szybist will spend the collection turning over ideas about love, as well as desire, particularly how these emotions play out religiously. Later in the poem, she writes,

The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love
only through miracle,
but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through,
how to make themselves shrines to their own longing.
The spectacular was never behind them.

God, too, knows how to burn himself through with longing; as Szybist says, “God could have chosen other means than flesh” (“Insertion of Meadow with Flowers”), but something about the flesh attracted him. In the different “Annunciation” poems in the book, in particular, Szybist considers why this might be. In “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr,” Szybist collages italicized quotations from Lolita and The Starr Report into the divine encounter, casting God as a creepy sexual predator:

I simply can’t tell you how gentle, how touching she was.
I knocked, and she opened the door.
She was holding her hem in her hands.
I simply can’t tell you how gentle, how calm she was
during her cooperation. In the windowless hallway,
I bent toward her.

She was quiet as a cloud.

In “Long after the Desert and Donkey (Gabriel to Mary),” the female figure is similarly compliant in the face of the divine; as Gabriel says, “Sweet child, you’d go to anyone. / You had no preferences.” Here, Mary is portrayed as the receptacle of both God’s and the angel’s longing— the angel asks himself, “Now what seas, what meanings / can I place in you?”—but the receptacle herself is “always dissolving”: “…you were not solid. / From the first moment, when you breathed / on my single lily, I saw / where you felt it.”

Although most of the Mary figures in the collection are open and receptive, in more sinister moments, as in the poem “On a Spring Day in Baltimore, the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers,” where the Mary figure is a student and the God figure is a pedophiliac teacher, the girls seem coerced into submission. “Annunciation under Erasure” is an erasure poem that, unlike many poems in this genre (which often seem done for mere cleverness), makes some truly interesting commentary on the text it erases—which, in this case, is the biblical text of the Annunciation from the Gospel of Luke. I quote the poem here in full:

And he came to her and said
————-The Lord is

troubled
in           mind

be afraid Mary

The Holy
——–will overshadow you
therefore

be
nothing          be impossible

And Mary said

And the angel departed from her

The way Szybist has erased the biblical text conveys the terror of being chosen and touched by God, particularly the line “And Mary said,” followed by a blank space, as if Mary has been stunned into silence (who wouldn’t be?).

Szybist’s use of form—some received forms, and some invented—dazzles throughout the book. In addition to erasure, we find here sonnet, cento, villanelle, prose poem, and terza rima, as well as an abecedarian poem, a poem arranged as a sentence diagram, and a concrete poem whose lines radiate out from a blank space as if they were shafts of the sun. Whether she’s working with traditional forms or creating her own, one gets the sense that Szybist, like Didden and Maris, is making something absolutely her own. In the aforementioned concrete poem (unfortunately impossible to reproduce here), “How (Not) to Speak of God,” the poem’s shape and its words work together, the attempts to describe God—“whose shadow does not flicker under streetlights,” “who can feel without eroticizing everything,” “who can feel without exaggerating anything,” “whose face is electrified by its own light”—flinging out from the circular, blank center of the poem where no words are. That place where the page is blank is how to speak of God, as Pseudo-Denys and the rest of the negative theologians would tell us. The silences in Incarnadine speak as loudly as Szybist’s graceful words.

§

One of the epigraphs to Incarnadine comes from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Weil’s words are fitting for all three books. Didden’s pleasure-milkers, Maris’s nosy neighbors, and Szybist’s troubadours and angels all instruct us in the importance of both longing and looking, at the world and at one another, for glimpses of God’s mysteries. It’s true that there is little we can affirm or deny for very long—glaciers melt, relationships dissolve, and the self is not as solid as we might like to believe. Yearning, not certainty, leads us into the mysteries of faith (or of doubt, or of both) that Weil is talking about. Blessed are those who yearn, these poets seem to say—and I think Dante would agree—for they will continue to yearn.


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