Earth Science by Sarah Green (421 Atlanta Press, 2016)
Everyone at This Party Has Two Names by Brad Aaron Modlin
——(Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2016)
The End of Pink by Kathryn Buernberger (BOA Editions, 2016)
I WAS STARTING A THIRD UNIVERSITY DEGREE related to poetry when I first began hearing the expression “life of letters” on a regular basis. I understood it to mean a life lived with a daily commitment not only to the act of writing, but also to the idea of it. The phrase implied that by joining a centuries-long conversation among writers, readers, publishers, mentors, and critics, you might find—and even produce—something transformative and enduring. Maybe even sacred.
The life of letters is there for the taking for tenured professors, yes, but also for gas station managers, bakers, stay-at-home dads, and tattoo artists. If you’re a poet, all you have to do is show up at your laptop or legal pad daily, create—as Coleridge puts it—“the best words in the best order,” and share them.
Achingly impossible on many days and for so many reasons? Yes.
When I kept returning to the academic universe, I was looking for a family. Not a watered-down Hallmark version, but a community from which I’d never really graduate, one that would hold me accountable to my best self and our best world. And our collective belief-doubt in story and mystery would keep bringing us together.
In other words, I was looking for a church. I still am.
To me and to many with whom I’ve crossed paths, reading and writing are acts of faith. More than ever, I connect making and reading poetry with New Monasticism, a community-based movement in the tradition of the Simple Way, Bruderhof, or the Catholic Worker. Simply put, New Monastics are seekers who reimagine the traditions and sacred spaces of monasteries, hermitages, and convents into today’s cities, communes, farms, homeless shelters—and writing communities.
At a 2004 conference, a group calling themselves “new friars” shaped a list of goals: submission to the larger church; living with the poor or outcast and near other community members; practicing hospitality and a shared economy, along with peacemaking, reconciliation, care for creation, and contemplation; and celibacy or monogamous marriage.
Choosing to live with others who share their ideals, New Monastics create communities diverse in age and gender, even beliefs; a growing number of communities embrace a kind of “inter-spirituality,” drawing not only from the writings of Christian sages but also Buddhist monks, Sufi poets, or secular humanists. Their choices and actions often critique various forms of power and corruption, including in the church. Their work isn’t always comfortable. It often surprises, challenges, and bewilders religious groups, political leaders, and even their own families. The same is true of the writing that comes from these communities.
Someone who lives and breathes reading and writing doesn’t have to enter academia to pursue the kind of intentional community I’m talking about here, but I’m guessing many of the three or four thousand people in the US who get MFAs in creative writing every year are hoping to find something like it. Whether we discover our writing family through a local group, Skype workshop, or on an academic campus, lasting community is often what builds resiliency and regular practice post-MFA, through writer’s block, after childbirth, through unexplained infertility, and so on.
In today’s vast sea of writing contests, agents, and awards, one inspiring and surprising example of community is the press behind poet Sarah Green’s debut collection Earth Science. To find new authors, 421 Atlanta sent out a call for “secret book scouts” to nominate writing they believed in. By empowering “lay readers,” they have created a joyful and generous constellation in what can otherwise seem like an overwhelmingly bleak and rigged galaxy.
Settings and players familiar to the contemporary life of letters surface throughout Green’s collection, as do Christian figures. Activists, nuns, mourners, and pilgrims make appearances as the poems lead us through classrooms and famous author readings, past student centers and into bars and cathedrals, even across international borders. But these poems also ask us to stand still while we’re searching, whether through travel or dating or housesitting. They say, Look into the faces and windows in your own neighborhood with a freshly widened pair of eyes.
Green ponders the ancient, double-headed question of how to be alone well and how to be devoted to a beloved. Mostly, this collection examines how often we are “not yet”—not yet together, not yet forgotten, or not yet quite what we imagined. The ordinary becomes holy, then the holy becomes ordinary. More than melancholy, the poems enact a kind of homesickness. (This is often how I describe faith, too.)
The experience of reading this collection feels like a pilgrimage. Flecked with silvery humor, Green’s poems often take on subjects from her native Boston, including a family that’s weathered divorce and life in a post-September 11 nation. She reveals the rituals we practice to get us through other rituals. For example, at a Lenten fish fry, a War on Terror veteran shares how, in basic training, new cadets had to ask permission to speak in the first person—and that many seek a kind of transformative community even there:
There’s someone shouting
in their face all day You’re nothing,
but it makes them feel, you know,
they are something,
surviving it. That there’s some place
inside of them.
Inside us—look, no matter what
we lose, we have to make the loss
into a place. A holy place.
(“The Marines’ Ex-Priest, Across from Me at the Lenten Fish Fry”)
The man offers this stunning statement while he sits with strangers, uses extra tartar sauce, and before he admits that “time won’t heal” some, like the mother of the three-month-old whose eulogy he just performed.
In “Assembly,” Green’s speaker details living in the same neighborhood as the Tsarnaev brothers, better known as the Boston Marathon bombers. She re-envisions men some have called homegrown terrorists as part of her daily world by imagining what their days held during a time when “The / bombers were not bombers // yet, just brothers, both younger than me, wrestling.” She dares us to see them—keep them—as brothers, too. The poem focuses on the summer before the violence, and Green gracefully rebuilds their everyday lives, made weightier and stranger by what we know:
When the bombers were playing basketball
or smoking weed and powering up a level on Xbox, I was falling a
—-little out of my tube top
down the street from them at Christina’s Ice Cream, dropping my
—-sunglasses, trying free
spoonfuls: rose, cucumber, chocolate, green tea
It’s a surprise, this juxtaposition of sensuality and dorky innocence in the middle of such a charged drama. The second part of the poem begins to divide the neighborhood by gender. The speaker’s female friends face health scares and long for motherhood, while the speaker celebrates and mourns with them. And all the while, we feel the tension begin to breathe on the backs of our necks:
—-We were all very alive—
all of us and the brothers. Who cares? the bombers began to say, I
—-guess, and then believe.
The poem leaves me asking what builds a person who builds a bomb, but it also challenges me not to see these men as strangers. It’s also that final line break, which highlights the brothers’ choice to sever themselves from community—“the bombers began to say, I”—that lingers so powerfully.
There are various ways to move away from each other. Transiency—a reality many writers today can relate to, whether taking yet another visiting professorship or moving from one artist’s residency to the next—shows up through the collection, which includes titles like “Hotel Winter,” “Sunday Afternoon, Spain,” and “My Lease.”
In “Towels,” Green uses a question-and-answer structure, a form that echoes a conversation between a parent and a small child, but also at times conveys the friction and vulnerability of a confession:
Why were there never enough towels
in the guesthouse run by Benedictine nuns in Italy?
Because the nuns wanted to save water.
Why did the nuns want to save water?
Because they were poor and also wanted to save soap
and electricity consumed by tourists blow-drying their hair
and spilling self-tanner on the bedspread.
Why were we blow-drying our hair? To look hot.
Why were they poor? Because they took a vow of poverty.
Why did they take a vow of poverty? Why are people poor?
Why did Jesus say, “The poor you will always have with you”?
They took a vow to live in solidarity with poor people
who there will always be as long as you and I
take vows of wealth […]
As a reader, I hear Green inviting me into a kind of liturgy, and I trust her. There’s a cyclical rhythm to her collection that leaves me feeling like I’ve attended matins, then vespers, and back again.
Of course, anyone who’s actually lived in an intentional community will admit that it’s also difficult work. When reading Brad Aaron Modlin’s first collection of poems, winner of the Cowles Poetry Prize, I kept thinking about the imperfections of communities—both those we choose and those we’re born into. Grace or idealism gets some members of intentional communities through the harder parts, like constantly overruling your ego, chore charts, and lack of privacy.
For Modlin, humor is key for transformative community, even within a biological family. The title of the book—Everyone at This Party Has Two Names—taps into a truth that we’re all complex and, depending on the situation, painfully awkward animals. (If you’ve ever been in a room of writers forced to mingle, you know what I mean.) Modlin reminds us that humans house secrets, doubts, and regrets, and that in the end we are all glorified guests, even in our own lives.
In a witty, cinematic, and often hilarious series of prose poems that riff on the book’s title, Modlin captures, among other things, the crescendo of emotions that can result from trying to “be community.” For instance, “Everyone at This Party Remembers We Were Once Babies,” narrates this scene:
The realization blooms like a lotus blossom in a pond we all drink from.
We didn’t even have teeth then! an astonished man says.
We may be imperfect people, everyone agrees, smiling, but look how far
we’ve all come. We’ve learned how to walk, how to apologize even when
it hurts our pride, and how to keep records of our income taxes. I pat the
back of the stranger next to me.
Then the host sets out a plate of salmon polenta canapés—fewer portions
than there are guests—and the competition and fear begin again.
How many writers need only remember their first workshop experience to sober up and nod? Other poems in this series include “Everyone at This Party Is a Priest,” “Everyone at This Party Has Trendy Political Concerns,” and “Everyone at This Party Is an Amateur Children’s Book Author.” It’s true that these poems take a risk: a pattern of snark or quirkiness does not always result in a sustainable and quality family of poems. But for Modlin, the opposite seems true, partly because readers will quickly recognize our own vulnerability and blush-worthy stumblings in his speakers’ predicaments.
By the time we get to poems like “Day Nine,” about a lost and starving traveler whose companion at sea is a talking walrus, we’re ready to accept any scenario Modlin throws at us, knowing we might end up belly-laughing or watery-eyed by the last line. One thing we know for sure is that the speakers will most likely peel back the human need for control and composure like layers from a big, fat onion. They will show us that we’re all a little ridiculous—a very good thing.
In a recent Superstition Review guest blog post titled “Writing with Lettuce between Your Teeth,” Modlin unabashedly owns this willingness to “go there” in his writing. “We often hide from potential embarrassment, but everything new is embarrassing,” he says. “Every poem, essay, or story draft is gangly before it outgrows adolescence. And taking a risk gives others permission to do the same.”
Given Modlin’s talent for surprising us with speakers who do joyful but foolish things, even after great sorrow, it’s not surprising that the name and spirit of Saint Francis—nicknamed God’s fool—surface in this collection, as they do in “Cubism”:
For Lent I vowed to give up being so angry—to be patient, to remember
that there was a world and real people outside the car I was living in.
To stop screaming in the cab at slow pedestrians, and acknowledge that
store hours and snowstorms were not scheduled around me. I wore a
medal of Saint Francis, which I fingered when quoting, Make me a
channel of your peace.
Months after losing the medal, I am cursing at red lights.
If the word holy has etymological connections to whole, then what are
we to assume?
Like Saint Francis, Christian New Monastics seek to “live simply so that others may simply live,” basing their actions on the teachings and storytelling of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers the crowd a description of what a God-inspired upside-down kingdom might look like: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…the persecuted…the peacemakers….” The poems in Everyone at This Party Has Two Names could offer up a contemporary list of the blessed.
For example, in “Apology to the Twitchy Woman Who Yells to Herself at the Bakery and Chants to Her Croissants and Coffee, I’m Gonna Eat Ya, Eachya, Dunk Ya, Dunk Ya All,” Modlin’s speaker begins by situating us in a community that, decades later, some of us might still shudder to recall: elementary gym class. To make things worse, the speaker has a “sudden four-inch bald patch above [his] ear,” and instead of kindness, faces ridicule at the hands of someone in power:
The day I began to hate
my second-grade gym teacher, he said,
Let’s play a game,
and tossed us red blindfolds.
The goal is to move around the gymnasium blindfolded, attempting to find others making the same animal call—but, as the teacher cruelly plans, the speaker is “the only jackass.”
The poem then interrupts itself—another regular Modlin move—shifting to a recent interaction in a local bakery:
When I saw you by the window table this morning,
when you shouted, Dunk ya all!
bout the croissant in your hand, when I laughed
at you above my coffee cup, I didn’t think
you’d turn around
and make me face what I was doing.
For a minute, I’d forgotten
that the donkey’s bray
is a swinging, loud-and-soft, metallic sound
like my deaf nephew crying in my driveway
after two neighbor boys throw rocks at his back
and his parents aren’t there
and I can’t sign a single word.
For all its magical realism and awkward glee, this collection also “make[s] me face what I was doing” in the many communities I must—and get to—call home.
Maybe, like me, you have never been completely comfortable embracing or forgiving an important home—your female body—partly because of that pesky body/spirit divide or Eve-blaming preached from many pulpits. In her second collection, winner of the James Laughlin Award, Kathryn Nuernberger serves up a bold belief-doubt in science, medicine, and religion, mostly from the perspective of a woman—a daughter, wife, mother, target of drunken catcalls—and someone who clearly thinks research is a holy act.
The End of Pink reminds us in its labyrinth of speakers and close studies that even the systems, rituals, and stories we believe in most have had their fair share of failings and foolishness. Failure and doubt teach us how to keep reaching. In an interview with BOA Editions, Nuernberger wholeheartedly admits that her speakers “don’t seem to know what they are talking about, but talk about it beautifully. After all, my goal as a writer is to describe what I don’t know in a beautiful way, too.”
This is a poet who leans into the glittering weirdness of both the natural world and the human experience, perches us beside elves and owls, a boy raised by wolves, and caged circus mermaids. We are all an experiment, they seem to say. We all have machines for bodies that will one day be out of fashion, stop working. We are all conjuring and conjurers, part of a bigger myth. And heavens, we don’t stop the wild within just by moving into a suburb or becoming parents!
If you’ve ever studied the desert fathers or mothers, you might recognize a similar cadence in the poem “Rituals of the Bacabs as the Strange Case of Kate Abbot.” The speaker pours over actual doctor’s notes on a patient (named Kate, like the poet) who’s suspected of swallowing needles, whose bleeding is worth crying over in a library, worth weaving into a poem centuries later. After dense stanzas of unworldly suffering:
Eleven years passed unnoted, then this: Saw K. Abbott today
in the marketplace. Inexplicably well, mother to two. Shall I tell you now
about my beautiful child? Shall I tell you how she’s going to live forever?
Poems that read as essay-like in their details about physical pain and emotional suffering are studded with these flashes of resiliency and, some might say, mystery. In “Property Lines,” the speaker recalls the emotional strain of leaving a home where her first child, a girl “miscarried at 16 weeks” is buried under a volunteer azalea bush. “She was so real and unreal I came to / believe she was a breath now, running her fingers through the ironweed.” The poem reveals a second, living daughter, but the first lives on as metaphor in a gorgeous series of poems about the speaker’s first “peacock.” This peacock is white and translucent, “a fantail of wasn’ts” that often interrupts the speaker and “curl[s] behind [her] ear / in a question mark.” Throughout the series, flowers are also tucked behind ears, in a place “where we keep what we cherish , / where we don’t name it / anything but cherished, strange / beauty sent up from the field.”
In another poem in this series, “My Peacock Among the Phantasmagoria,” the speaker converses with this first daughter:
There are questions I would like to ask
back—When you passed
into peacock, did it hurt?
Did you cry?—
but my peacock won’t hear
through that veil of plumes.
Saints—real, imaginary, and flawed—also appear like totems in this collection. The entire second section is made up of a nine-poem series where “the saint girl” lives with her demons:
The saint girl remains careful not to want, to keep the heat low and drink
uncaffeinated tea with her mittens on. Even when the tiny, infesting
devils hurtle their pitchforks across her kitchen counter. To peel a peach
is a violence she grieves in a small flame of devil-whipping silence. They
grieve nothing, especially not ascetic middle age or perpetual girlhood or
self-imposed naiveté. Without shame they skip, sopping wet and dripping
peach, all over the piano keys, spark their nervy little tails in sockets,
fornicate in cereal bowls. Adult and handsome devils, ram-faced with
pearlescent horns, graze past her mailbox to scratch their thorn-tipped
tails along her letters like a match.
(“The Saint Girl’s Sweetest Tortures”)
Nuernberger’s collection is a gem of a read for believers and doubters—and posits that the two camps blend. If there were such a thing as an artist residency for contemporary anchoresses (women like Julian of Norwich who had themselves walled into cells by cathedrals in order to search for God), my hunch is that Nuernberger would be first to apply. And the poems? They’d be glorious.
The longer I work at building my own version of the writing life—another phrase I’ve picked up as a grateful but recovering creative-writing degree collector—the more I realize the importance of intentional community to a lifestyle associated with isolation and eccentricity.
Our chosen poverty may be school-related or because we work part-time in order to write, and our “submission” may be the poem we send into the world, but New Monasticism can find sparks in contemporary writing communities. By picking up a poetry collection today, I continue my search for lasting community—in the poems themselves, yes, but also with the poets and presses. Happy discipline, working towards a kingdom yet to be, and a family that calls me by name: I choose you, again and again, and the scriptorium we’ll keep building together. Our collective work, our making in the midst of chaos and war and loneliness, will be our illuminated manuscript. We can write our home into being. Like these three collections, which each echo Saint Francis in their own way, “where there is doubt, [we can sow] faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”