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Book Review

Entering the House of Awe

By Susanna Childress
New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2011

The Ninety-Third Name of God

By Anya Krugovoy Silver
Louisiana State University Press, 2010

Sky Burial

By Dana Levin
Copper Canyon Press, 2011

 

IT’S CERTAIN there is no fine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring,” writes Yeats in “Adam’s Curse.” The curse of the poem’s title is the difficult labor that man must endure as a result of his fall; Yeats’s speaker is not alone in his insistence that achieving any fine thing requires a working through, a suffering. “Affliction,” writes Simone Weil, “is a marvel of divine technique. It is a simple and ingenious device which introduces into the soul of a finite creature the immensity of force, blind, brutal and cold.” Along the continuum of pain, from Saint Augustine’s acknowledgement of the agitation of fallen man (“Our hearts are restless until we rest in thee”), to one of the four noble truths of Buddhism (“Life means suffering”), to Weil (for whom affliction is “a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time”), we may discern suffering’s essence, that embodiment of trembling and energy, the desire to shiver out from darkness toward light.

Instances of poets seeking illumination abound: working from John Donne’s comment on the essence of God (“God is a straw in a straw”) Denise Levertov writes, “Poems bear witness to the manness of man, which like the strawness of straw, is an exiled spark. Only by the light and heart of these divine sparks can we see, can we feel, the extent of the human range.” Simone Weil calls prayer “a chlorophyll conferring the faculty of feeding on light,” and in this regard it’s not hard to imagine the afflicted human as a germinating seed, seeking outward for what will break the seed coat in the form of illumination. (Lighten: “to descend; to light; to burst forth, to grow clear, to make less burdensome or afflictive, to illuminate.”) Affliction is part and parcel of enlightenment.

Three recent books of poetry concern themselves with the move toward enlightenment. Each collection uniquely explores the experience of physical, emotional, and spiritual toil in the quest for illumination.

§

Readers familiar with Susanna Childress’s first book, Jagged with Love, will not be surprised by the fresh, in-your-face voice that opens her second collection, Entering the House of Awe. In “What’s Done,” the opening poem, the speaker half shouts, half complains, directly to her God:

Lord       about the women who pummel their children
in public                        Sweet Jesus
both you and I been angry enough to shake a baby to turn over tables    Lady

at the airport flinging her spatula of a  girl again         and again
into a chair         SIT    loud enough to render an ocean still only
she isn’t       she wails

In this rough-tongued, dysfunctional world, the speaker doesn’t see miracles: “This is not loaves and fishes / Isn’t the white stone on which you’ll carve our new names         this is // The lopped-off ear    the hem of your gown after all those years / of blood.” Yet what begins as complaint transitions to a rollicking prayer, and to the potential for revelation, unseen and ever-present:

Let the lettering of their oversized T-shirts

spell out our own failings Holy One                   about the women
who have no shame           Split open the hazelnut under
our ribs         Let there be enough to go around             and around

The mention of the hazelnut echoes the fifteenth century’s Julian of Norwich, who recorded her spiritual vision in her manuscript “Shewing of Love”: “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, it seemed, and it was as round as any ball.” As Julian wonders about the importance of something so seemingly small and insignificant (“I thought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness,”) she learns that it represents God’s love for all things. “It is all that is made…. It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”

Childress’s book is marked and scored throughout with revelation of divine love and mercy in the midst of turbulence. She shows us a scathed beauty all the more real because her encounters with awe neither ignore nor wash away the hardscrabble things of the world. A number of poems are layered atop a psalm or Bible story to excellent effect: “The Wry World Shakes Its Head” is a meditation on Isaiah 40, that psalm of comfort for the people of God; or, in the case of Childress’s head-shaking speaker, her imperfect family:

The first time you see the rugged place become a plain
is the moppy red hair of you mother’s retarded cousin

Roy Dale, cropped, stern as a recruit, something of a joke
atop his docile body: slack, spittled, set in the corner

with cross-legged abandon by Shirley Ann, his sister,
for whom you hope every mountain and hill shall be

made low since she’s baring more than details of last week’s
breast enhancement: blood, stitches, pus and pain, —that bitch….

The cherished object of contention in “Just like Solomon” is not a child, surrendered by its mother so it will not be cut in half, but the motorcycle of a couple dividing their possessions as they split up. As the man relinquishes the motorcycle and offers, instead, compassion (“he says, calm as pie, I hope you / find somebody, somebody who’ll be / good to you…”) the speaker tastes her own biblical stubbornness:

                                            this
is the dark almond lodged in your throat when you remember
____what you said once: if I have to
I’ll saw the place in half,
____I swear I will.

At times Childress’s figurative language is like a county fair at night, alternating quiet moments with firecrackers, glimpses of beauty among the clamor and grit. To the speaker in “Of Course I Hit at the Moon,” virginity was a “gift…its bright / weight, like a burst of carnival sounds, it gaudy strength, / spun high, sky-stark as a Ferris wheel carriage.” Elsewhere she finds a grounded human love flowering in surprisingly crooked images: in “In the Pocket of Your Winter Coat,” a father sacrifices re-soling his shoes so his daughter can have eyeglasses, “palming something staid and weightless / in the pocket of your winter coat, the navy one / with duct-tape on its sleeve:    there in the pouch of corduroy, / knuckled thin, a blooming wad of dollars.” The poems offer a number of revelatory moments among the ordinary, the feeling that “the miraculous” (she quotes Anna Akhmatova) is “so close to the ruined, dirty houses…wild in our breasts for centuries.”

The “house of awe” in the book’s title comes from Genesis 28. Jacob, awakening from a dream, is filled with “solemn awe” and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in the place and I was not aware of it.” One expects neither miracle nor manifestation in the day-to-day; an encounter with the divine would presumably yield that mix of dread and veneration. Yet Childress’s concern is less with the mythic past than with divine presence in our average, raw, and afflicted world. “Indirection, / you say, protects us from truths we cannot bear,” she writes in “The Necessary Dark.” Indirection works like Dickinson’s truth told slant, and Childress is a master of that old magician’s trick of getting you to look elsewhere while she does her work. Her jangly, plainspoken experience is foregrounded, rendering the grace and trembling which penetrate these hymns of imperfection unexpected and inspiring.

§

The title of Anya Krugovoy Silver’s The Ninety-Third Name of God comes from the Muslim tradition of the ninety-nine names of God, in which number ninety-three is Ya Noor, “The Light.” Fittingly, light runs throughout the book’s three sections, as Silver’s lyric voice and stunning, insightful metaphors illuminate the ordinary, the challenging, and the sublime. The poems have the ring of true prayer, that uneasy voice that seeks grace and expresses agitation, gratitude, and sometimes anger all in the same body. If, as Simone Weil says, “[t]wo forces rule the universe: light and gravity,” then it’s no surprise that the body, anchored by gravity, struggles to receive light. It’s difficult to accept life’s challenges as blessings; it’s in the act of trying that light breaks in.

Taking a cue from George Herbert, from whom the second section’s epigraph is taken (“And all my sour-sweet days / I will lament and love”), Silver praises the bittersweet, lamenting and loving nearly simultaneously, both the large and the ostensibly small. In “Canticle of the Washing Machine,” the poet sings her hymn for that appliance “whose swingle flails the soiled and stained. // For he ministers to the splot, the blotch, the spattered cuff. // Be praised, my Lord, / for your spirit that comes upon him….” In “Marrying Outside the Faith,” she writes of the struggle, in faith and in art, of simply being human and occupying a body: “But always, the artist cuts holes over Christ’s face and hands, / releasing from metal those dark oval eyes, the human fingers’ faithful kiss.”

Indeed. Silver lyrically chronicles her experience with breast cancer, which transforms her, and which her poetic transfigures in turn. “Biopsy” opens with an epigram from Weil: “Each time that we have some pain to go through, we can say to ourselves quite truly that it is the universe, the order and beauty of the world, and the obedience of creation to God that are entering our body. After that how can we fail to bless with tenderest gratitude the Love that sends us this gift?” As Silver attempts to understand her diagnosis as a kind of gift, she creates artful metaphors: The pathology report as an icon, and “the tissue / staining the slide” as “God’s kaleidoscope.” Yet she doesn’t shirk the stubbornly human. It’s difficult to celebrate the report of potential malignancy as a gift:

And those cells, obeying their DNA,
cosmic dust as they whirl and split.
Why not praise cancer, relentless, blind,
that seeks and finds the lymph and blood?
Because I am unthankful, rude.
Because if I accept this gift,
I will change, I will vanish from the earth.

In the seam between raw reckoning and a flickering, rhapsodic gratitude, the poems seek buoyancy and illumination. Light appears throughout the book, in candles and lanterns, through windows, in yoga instructions (“If I can breathe light into my nostrils, / if breath can open my crown so that light / pours downward and then outward, light / drenching the brain and puddling / in my sockets”); light is the force that not only renders things visible, but luminous, alive, enlightened. In “Persimmon,” the speaker places a piece of fruit by a window “so your flesh will yield to succulence, lush with juice, / so the saints of autumn will bless your flaming fruit. // Because cancer has left me tired.” She admits she doesn’t feel God in church; “I have found God, instead, when I’ve crouched in bathrooms, / lain back for the burning of my skin, covered my face and cursed.” The persimmon, a “votive candle at the icon of my kitchen window,” becomes a “dwelling place for my wandering prayers.” The persimmon’s ripening toward the window’s light is a parable for the soul: “Because when your body bruises and softens, you are perfected.”

Similarly, there is correlation and reciprocity between the literal house and the body. In “The Name of God,” Silver writes, “I will open the windows of my house so the name of God can write itself / on my walls with pigments of breeze and pollen, with stylus tipped in light.” It’s not only daylight, but the Light, that she seeks:

When I was a girl, I drank from the chalice and felt the wine’s heat travel down my bones, each pressed grape’s drop alit with the secret name of God.

And later, full of grief, I let a woman press hard against my spine and felt
life rushing again through my body, releasing the clenched-up name of God.

I want the name of God to frost over my sight, to loop the tides to my ears.
How can I be frightened with those vowels in my lungs,

flaring like paper lanterns?

True gratitude is complicated, involving both thankfulness and obligation. “A Handful of Berakhot” should satisfy the rabbis who, as the Talmud teaches, insist that pleasure must be accompanied by benediction. Silver offers up customized berakhot (blessings), merging praise, humor, happiness, and solemnity into poetry:

For cracking open an egg
Blessed art thou, O Lord, Our God, Ruler of the universe,
who breaks open the golden gates of the ark.

For buckling my son’s shoes
Blessed art thou, O Lord, Our God, Ruler of the universe,
for the tongue and the sole, for binding his foot to the earth.

For slipping my prosthetic breast into my bra
Blessed art thou, O Lord, Our God, Ruler of the universe,
who raises the dome from its ashes.

For reading the obituaries
Blessed art thou, O Lord, Our God, Ruler of the universe,
for these haiku tied, a single day, to foam, to sun-lit branches.

§

In 2002, Dana Levin lost her mother and father, and four years later her sister also died. “Death is the new and unshakeable lens though which I see,” she said in an interview. Her new book, Sky Burial, considers rituals of interment, sacrifice, decay, and emergence, meditating on the burden of the body and its impermanence. “It’s hard and vulnerable to have a body, where to live means to kill (even the poor carrot gets yanked from the ground).” Flesh abounds in the Sky Burial, as burden and transformative costume, as food, as repository of spirit. Levin spares little detail in her studies of, among other things, Tibetan burial practices, the afterlife of the Buddha, human sacrifice, and the life cycle of the parasitic blowfly, but what is potentially gruesome is illuminated by her deft, grave poetic.

The first poem, “Augur,” is named for the priest who observes bird flight to determine the will of the gods. It’s an apt image for the speaker, who looks to the natural world for signs: “the hawk fanned out its banded tail like I should // pick a card.” Levin is in a state of exhaustion and grief: “I thought of my father and mother and sister being dead. I was so sick of feeling anything about it.” In a dream, she hovered as an explorer above “mammals in the raucous waters, their slick skins / of danger and wonder // My soul hath thirsted, the Vulgate said, He hath put a new song / into my mouth.” The reference is to Psalm 4, a song of frustration, a cry at God’s absence (“My tears have been my bread day and night, whilst it is said to me daily: Where is thy God?”) Consumed by loss, Levin is equally haunted by the guilt of the survivor. “I’d been wanting to know if it was all right to live,” she writes.

“Cathartes Aura” (translation: “Golden Purifier”; also the scientific name for the turkey vulture) alternates moments from Levin’s mother’s death and burial with glimpses of sky burial, the Tibetan practice of exposing a dissected corpse on a mountaintop for birds of prey to clean. “They took you in an ambulance even though you were dead // they took you // and my sister said // Why are you saving her if she is dead? // Shey shey— // Curve of sky a crescent blade // Vultures wheeling / on thermal parapets, shunyata— // void that flays—” (Shey is the Tibetan word for “eat” and shunyata, Sanskrit for “emptiness.”) To an uninitiated reader, the sky burial’s lessening of flesh, the vulture’s stripping it to emptiness, may first appear grim, then enlightening: the castoff body as food, as charity for nature’s cyclical renewal; the body as impermanent and death as life-giving. “What is the body but a bag of alms // for the Infection-Eaters, who will cleanse the corpse to the bone— // Sever her arm.” The contrast with her mother’s burial is striking: “There is a law. // That one must put color / to the lips of the dead— // file them in the ground under a name—”

In “Pure Land,” Buddha has become bodiless in the afterlife (“Shedding-So-Glorious—”), discarding the shell of flesh to a purity:

        to scour the skin from each waiting face,
snip the lid from each
___sleepless eye—saying You

           who’d wanted to feel
the true burn
___ who wanted not meat

           but light—

Here and elsewhere in the book, flesh is a literal and metaphorical cocoon, a kind of protection that must be cast off: the cleansing of skin from bone in “Cathartes Aura”; the molting of skin in “Pure Land”; the breaking of a cocoon in “This From That,” where Levin summons first Wikipedia (“Insects that pupate in a cocoon / must escape from it”) and then an American philosopher:

“It is queer to be assisting
__at the éclosion

        of a great new mental epoch,”
wrote William James
___in 1906:

eclosion, verb eclose,
___“emergence from concealment”—

which is what “religion and philosophy” do,
___which is what certain
insects do,
——even people, slipping their suits, and what we need

        is a new mental epoch—

whatever lies
___beyond

        self-liquidation—

Levin’s long tension-wire of a line is resilient, punctuated with indents, dashes, and white space, which provide her moments to yield and recharge, as though she risks being overcome, and rightly so: her poems consider not only plants and butterflies, but slaughter and rotting flesh. “In Honor of Xipe” and “Spring,” though rooted in the conventionally creepy, quiver and open to insight and transformation.

Xipe Totec is the Aztec vegetation deity typically depicted without skin, having flayed himself to feed humanity. Because the priests who mimic him in the ceremony of the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli need skin for their costume, they commit human sacrifice: “flayed the slain captives’ skins and wore them, dyed / ‘golden clothes’—to impersonate the Spring’s // Skinless Lord—.” Levin envies the priests’ powers of renewal, to “conjure a power I wanted. You know, // to make the corn stand up. Piercing the hardpan / inside my head, new self // green and scored— // Died. My sister died. In the fourth year / of parentless night. // Aztec blood-drinking, why should I oppose it? Or put down / my proper // terror of the earth—”

“Spring” narrates an excursion through the Forensic Anthropology Center of Knoxville, Tennessee, a 1.3-acre plot of land where bodies are left to disintegrate, to facilitate the study of natural decomposition and the activity of insects involved in this process. The poem’s title underscores the cyclical nature of life: the speaker first sees pollen as we imagine it, released “to the air, its colonial dream / of a new imperium of trees,” and then how it’s traveled to a decomposing body she observes with a scientist:

Bees in a cloud round your hand.

Egg-herder, your smell
___synonymous with treasure—

Shining a light at the back of the throat.
___blowflies

in liquid pearl
___the bees murder to eat—

And all at the lips and nose a yellow dust, pollen
___ they have
delivered—

Sky Burial moves from affliction to insight. The work transforms as if in chrysalis, that form pupae assume before their winged state. All is metamorphosis, an arduous transformation of being. Mid-book is “Art Sutra,” an ars poetica, where Levin seeks “a conduit to awakening that is not suffering.” Levin writes towards that awakening, towards a breaking of the husk for egress, like the cicada’s green winged emergence from its battered shell.

§

Perhaps one of the most misread quotations about the nature of poetry is Auden’s line, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Auden wasn’t revealing poetry’s inefficaciousness or uselessness in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”; he was insisting that poetry is not propaganda. Rather than flatter or misrepresent, he contends, poetry eschews the rose-tints and frees us from delusion, as he writes in The Dyer’s Hand, “by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” Those who seek soft-focus landscapes or elevated thoughts should go elsewhere: “One must show those who come to poetry for a message, for calendar thoughts,” he writes in the introduction to The Poet’s Tongue, “that they have come to the wrong door, that poetry may illuminate but it will not dictate.” Poetry enlightens—and it endures, if you quote the full line of Auden’s poem: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives.”

Yet in the third section of his elegy for Yeats, Auden commands the poet to “persuade us to rejoice,” which is puzzling. How might the poet illuminate the world with its flaws and also convince us to rejoice in this, without propaganda? To understand what Auden means, we only have to consider “Musée des Beaux Arts,” his observation of Breughel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, wherein he explores the very concept of affliction. Artists understand suffering:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along….

Icarus falls from the sky into the water, and no one comes to save him; everyone has something else to do. This is far too small a consolation, or no consolation at all, for those looking for an alleviation of distress, but affliction is not outside of our condition; it’s a constituent of it. Even on the day of the birth of Christ there were children skating on a pond who couldn’t care less, Auden muses with a clarity so restrained as to seem unmoved. James Merrill is said to have described Auden’s poems as having been written on paper on which the tears had already dried. Merrill doesn’t mean Auden doesn’t suffer, only that Auden, like those Old Masters, accepts suffering as a component in the struggle between gravity and grace. For Auden, the poet’s task is to express experience as one expresses grapes for wine: “With the farming of a verse / Make a vineyard of the curse.” In these three new collections, we find the concentrated essences of such a harvest: complex, heady instruments of communion.

—Reviewed by Amy Newman


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