Monthly Archives: September 2013

Review of A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith

God in the House cover

Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, eds. A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith. Tupelo Press, 2012. 291 pgs. $19.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith collects nineteen pieces in addition to the editors’ introduction; the approach both to topic and to format is unique. Contributing poets include those we might expect to hear from on matters of faith (Alicia Ostriker, Christian Wiman) as well as those whose work might first come to mind in other contexts (Carolyn Forché); they include well-known poets who have been publishing for decades (Gerald Stern, Grace Paley) and also younger poets closer to the beginning of their careers (Jericho Brown); and they include poets whose spiritual practices range from Christian (Marilyn Nelson) to Muslim (Kazim Ali) to Buddhist (Jane Hirschfield) to Pagan (Annie Finch). Each of the pieces originated as an interview by the editors, but because the editors have chosen not to include the actual questions, the pieces read like hybrids between interview and informal essay. This choice serves the collection well; straightforward interviews can become stilted on the page, and readers are often more interested in the answers than in the questions, for poets and other writers generally manage to say what they want to say regardless of the particular questions they’re asked. I found each contribution engaging, and I found something to ponder in each one, whether or not the contributor’s poetic or spiritual practice resembles my own. I was most pleased to see that each poet’s contribution concludes with a poem, often prompting me to pull one of their books from the shelf or to seek out their recent work.

Each piece begins with a quotation from the interview serving as an epigraph. One of the most intriguing comes from Kazim Ali: “Prayer is a form of panic, because in prayer you don’t really think you’re going to be answered.” Perhaps our poems become articulated answers to those prayers, the words we can hear once our panic subsides. Writing sometimes feels like that to me, a rhythmic breath settled into the heart of chaos—but that’s my experience, not one I want to imply is common to the poets included in A God in the House. Though maybe some would agree.

Ali’s contribution, “Doubt and Seeing” describes an experience shared by many writers I suspect, that of rethinking one’s aesthetic identity once readers begin to respond to one’s work. “To call oneself a spiritual or religious poet seems strange to me,” he says, “but once my first book came out, and I started doing readings, people would say to me, ‘You’re a religious poet.’ I decided to consciously explore the topic more in my second book, but I never planned to be a religious poet” (33). He suggests that his next book will be less overtly religious, but it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be at all religious. Of course, “religious poet” isn’t all that Ali is; it isn’t the entire identity of any of the contributors, but each contributor does seem to be consciously—maybe even intentionally—aware of the spiritual components of his or her being.

Several of the contributions foreground autobiographical experience. Occasionally this material will be known to readers who’ve already been immersed in the poet’s work, but often the material is more personal, more intimately honest than we will find in other sources. In “Not a Butler to the Soul,” G.C. Waldrep describes his experience with mainstream Protestant denominations as well as with Mennonites and Amish communities. His exterior life changed, almost against his will it seems, as his interior life shifted:  “one does not invite the Holy Spirit into one’s life and expect it to operate on one’s own terms…I gradually, quietly started making the cultural changes I had long dreaded, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t bear any longer not to make them” (187). Because it’s virtually impossible to separate one’s artistic vocation from one’s spiritual life, Waldrep experiences the two as conjoined but not identical: “The question I more often ask myself is not about the relationship between faith and poetry, but rather the relationship between prayer and poetry. They’re not the same…though there is some intrinsic relationship. Sometimes I speculate the two are like adjacent apartments in the same building: when you’re in one, you have no direct access to the other, but if you listen closely you can hear sounds—sometimes muffled, sometimes sharp—coming from the other side of the connecting wall” (181). His metaphor feels accurate to me, and much more satisfying than the frequent claim that poetry is prayer or that writing is praying, even if writing is for many of us a spiritual practice.

Eleanor Wilner, however, comes closer to describing poetry as prayer in “Natives of the Earth,” though what she actually says is that the act of writing poetry shares certain characteristics with the act of praying: “insofar as the poet must relinquish a certain kind of control, and attain a kind of self-forgetfulness; must, as the ancients had it, call in the Goddess, the Muse, the power of the imagination—that which must be invited and cannot be commanded—in that sense, in which prayer involves a humbling and earnest entreaty for vision, and a creative deepening of perception toward a kind of ease of being, then okay, the difference begins to fade” (223). The difference fades, as differences can fade between reading and thinking, between writing and being. Yet fading is not vanishing.

I would like to pursue conversations with each of these contributors. I would like to ask more questions. I would like to quote more of their remarks here. The trouble with commentary is that even in the near infinite space of the virtual world, one must eventually stop talking. I want to go on, but more, I want to return to the poems of these contributors. A God in the House is, ultimately, a book about community, one I am grateful to be among.



Review of When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

Diaz cover

Natalie Diaz. When My Brother Was an Aztec. Copper Canyon Press, 2012. 103 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

If you’re like me, you were introduced to the work of Natalie Diaz when she read a poem on PBS NewsHour; you can watch the video here. I found that poem and her reading of it compelling, energetic, and fresh. So I ordered the book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, her first collection. Since then, Diaz has won some prestigious awards, and her book has been reviewed in some pretty notable places. So When My Brother Was an Aztec might not need another review here, but I have wanted to reread it with the kind of attention preparing a review requires. I suspect other readers of this collection have also returned to read it again. It’s a book that intrigues me because whenever I think I understand what she’s doing, I realize that no, I almost understand it. Almost understanding is so much more pleasurable than actually understanding—for almost understanding holds out the promise of more, and then more.

The book opens with the title poem as prologue. The Aztecs, of course, are most frequently remembered for their practices of human sacrifice, often of children, often by tearing out the beating heart of the sacrificial victim. The poem opens with an ironic reference to that practice; the speaker’s brother “lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning.”  Through several poems, especially those in the center second section, the book explores the effects on the speaker’s family as her brother plunges into addiction and their parents become both willing and unwilling victims of his activity. The title poem concludes with a sentence that also functions as one of the book’s thematic statements: “My parents gathered / / what he’d left of their bodies, trying to stand without legs, / trying to defend his blows with missing arms, searching for their fingers / to pray, to climb out of whatever dark belly my brother, the Aztec, / their son, had fed them to.”  This final line break is crucial, for the brother isn’t only a brother or metaphorical Aztec; he is her parents’ son, and this detail of his identity intensifies their heartbreak. The pause between “Aztec” and “their son” created by the line break increases the emphasis on “their son,” so that readers must pause too, considering the sorrow of such a relationship.

The opening poem warns us that this collection won’t be an emotionally easy read. Many of the most powerful poems examine the brother’s addiction, including “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs,” and “Formication.” “No More Cakes Here,” the final poem in the center section, imagines a party celebrating the brother’s death. The party is full of balloons, clowns, a magician, a mariachi band—it’s a hyperbolic vision of festivity, too manic to be real. When the brother shows up, the speaker must examine her hope: “The worst part he said was / he was still alive. The worst part he said was / he wasn’t even dead. I think he’s right, but maybe / the worst part is that I’m still imagining the party, maybe / the worst part is that I can still taste the cake.” This poem is honest in a way we seldom permit.

Poems in the other two sections are stylistically consistent with those in this second section, but their range of topics and references is wider. Poems in the first section most directly address Native American experience (Diaz is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community) and sometimes tend toward sly and irreverent humor. Here we have an Indian Eve thinking about ribs and an Indian Mary who misses Gabriel’s visit because she’s collecting commodity food. Here we have a Mojave Barbie, a doll that initially seems like something Mattel would market: “Wired to her display box were a pair of one-size-fits-all-Indians stiletto moccasins, faux turquoise earrings, a dream catcher…” But Mattel would not include “erasable markers for chin and forehead tattoos, and two six-packs of mini magic beer bottles.” Diaz continues satirizing pop culture’s multicultural impulses, as Mojave Barbie injects insulin and argues about the Bering Land Bridge theory. Ken and Skipper show up, as well as Barbie’s Dream House and various other accessories. The plot that features Mojave Barbie, however, is not one that will ever be promoted on a Saturday morning television commercial.

“The Last Mojave Indian Barbie” is a prose poem, as are several others in the collection. Diaz writes most often, though, in a loose long-lined free verse, though the book also includes a ghazal, a series of triolets, and an abecedarian. Diaz can take on just about any form, it seems, and adapt it to her own purpose; when she writes in a received form, she handles it subtly and creatively. One of my favorites is an homage and challenge to Whitman, “Reservation Grass,” in which she repeats and revises the sixth section of Leaves of Grass. Another is “Dome Riddle” in which she creates an extended series of metaphors for skull, including “this jawbone of an ass, smiling sliver of smite, David’s rock striking the Goliath of my body, / this Library of Babel, homegrown Golgotha, nostalgia menagerie, melon festival, / this language mausoleum…” And including “French kiss sweatshop” and “commodity cranium cupboard.” The metaphors in this poem are often unexpected and the language is rollicking. It’s fun to read.

Diaz’ voice is distinctive. She is a poet who has something to say and both the skill and the will to say it.

Review of In Thailand It Is Night by Ira Sukrungruang

Sukrungruant Cover

Ira Sukrungruang. In Thailand It Is Night. University of Tampa Press, 2013. 75 pgs. $14.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

In Thailand It Is Night, Ira Sukrungruang’s first collection of poetry, is organized into four sections, each responding to a character from Buddhist mythology. They are “Garuda (Bird Creature of Buddhist Mythology),” “Phra Narai (Creator and destroyer of all living things),” “Nang Uma-devi (Mother Goddess),” and “Hunaman (God-king of the Apes).” The poems are not directly about those characters, however, but rather use them as sources of interpretation for contemporary life. This organizational scheme suggests to readers that the significance of each poem exceeds the particular words on any given page, for each poem is mythically linked to a greater universal story. There’s a liveliness to the collection due to its arrangement that would be missing (or at least reduced) otherwise. 

In the opening section, nearly every poem relies on a bird or birds as a controlling image or originating impulse. The subjects of the poems, though, often extend far beyond these birds into realms of the spiritual, the philosophical, the imaginative. Sukrungruang’s rationale for grouping these poems together quickly becomes apparent to the reader, but there’s more than just logic at work here—because the poems connect through imagery rather than subject, their relationships are as much intuitive as rational. The first poem, “An Attempt to Explain Reincarnation,” is an excellent illustration of how poets explore ideas—through specific examples, via concrete images. The explanation in this poem is figurative and cumulative. It begins with an epigraph from Dean Young: “You’ve got to be a bird to understand any of this…,” and then the epigraph segues into the poem, not quite identified as a first line but functioning as the first line nevertheless, the way an overheard bit of dialogue can deflect our thinking toward destinations we might not have considered. “You’ve got to be a bird to understand any of this…,” and then Sukrungruang continues with the first couplet: “…and you’ve got to be the meadow to understand dusk, / and the growing grass to know yearning, and the heart to know waning light.” Throughout this poem, Sukrungruang manipulates his form—couplets of preponderantly long lines, sentences each beginning “You’ve got to”—by varying the lengths of his sentences and the relationship of the sentence to the stanza, so that the form is both stable and surprising. The content also is surprising. A Midwesterner, for example, will understand “that the space / between stars is less mysterious than a pasture.” Attention to the local facilitates greater transcendence than those distant objects we assume signify transcendence. My favorite line occurs a little later: “You’ve got to be born a turtle to understand time.” I would have thought that those who live quickly and die young would understand time’s flight, but no—it is the one who moves slowly and lives long who understands time’s unrolling. The poem’s conclusion returns to its original prompt, for in describing time and space, we’ve been pondering reincarnation: “You’ve got to die happily, just once, to remember all your lives.” Just once—die happily, an encouragement, a challenge.

Several of the poems in this collection are written in sections, and these poems often best illustrate Sukrungruang’s ability with form, for the section breaks frequently occur unexpectedly—in the midst of a sentence, for example—yet they consistently expand the poem’s meaning. In “Drawing Buddha,” the thirteen sections range from one to five lines each, and the lines range from two to fourteen syllables. In this poem, Sukrungruang uses line and section breaks to influence meaning, as we would expect, and also to effect turns in meaning. The poem consists of a series of instructions for drawing the Buddha, and it also illustrates the essence of meditative practice. “Start with meditating hands because the hands hold / suffering” section five begins. Section eight, the longest, encapsulates mindfulness: “Then the eyes; so much has been made of the eyes. Wide open, / the world is translucent. Half, we question waking life. Closed, / what dreams circulate / the mind? Think hard, / but do not still your hand.”

On the rare occasions when Sukrungruang writes in received forms, he adapts them to his own purposes. “Sestina” does rely on six repeated words, and it does consist of six sestets and one near tercet—it’s three full lines and then the final word of the poem, “somewhere,” on a line of its own. But the sestets are further organized into three separate sections, the first consisting of one stanza, the second of two, and the third of three. The lines themselves are extraordinarily irregular in length. So the poem calls itself “Sestina,” and it resembles many sestinas; yet it also taunts the form. It plays a joke on the form, as the opening stanza calls our attention to a standard joke: “Begin / with a joke / about the yellow / man who crossed the road / and the chicken that stood / in devouring grass.” The poem develops into an exploration of race and fatherhood and location and the ultimate worry that accepting certain cultural ideals means the joke’s on us.

Along with the first poem, “An Attempt to Explain Reincarnation,” another of my favorites is the last poem in the collection, “What I Want to Remember in the Next Life,” a prose poem which returns us imagistically and thematically to the beginning. This poem concludes: “That time never moves backwards but memory does and what was lost could be found again; that if you whisper remember, remember, you will find what it is you are looking for, like the gecko that clings desperately to the tree in a storm, trusting it won’t blow away but climb from this life to the next and to the next.” This poem, like the first, confirms that poets understand the abstract through the concrete. With its promise of more and then more, it is a fitting conclusion to this collection.

Review of Lacemakers by Claire McQuerry

McQuerry cover

Claire McQuerry. Lacemakers. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. 77 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Claire McQuerry’s poems ask lots of questions, like this one, which opens “The Incorruptibles”: “Who would do that, / paint a pigeon and let it go?” Or this one, from “Your Father Takes Me Gliding above the Columbia River”: “What fault sent your life in its stuttering, / a slipped nickel’s elliptic?” Or this one, from “Miles Away”: “What did I know / about woundedness, how to carry it?” The poems don’t answer these questions so much as consider them. The reader follows McQuerry’s thinking, slowly, pleasurably, wondering at both the questions themselves and at how the speaker has come to ask them. This is a book that rewards contemplative attention.

Winner of the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award, Lacemakers reads as if it had been written much later in the poet’s career, for the poems are self-assured and stylistically adept yet also subtle. Engagingly varied in form, the collection establishes its unity through voice and motif. Several of the poems explore unsatisfying or unfulfilled relationships; many others examine spirituality and mysticism, often through allusions to traditional religious ideas. It is a book of longing, and of restlessness, and of occasional improbable contentment.

“Book of Hours,” a dramatic monologue in the voice of a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript, expresses every writer’s desire: “I’d like to believe / that these, my marks, will last, / beyond mildew and the gentle / feeding of silverfish.” The poem describes art and prayer and the art of prayer; it attends to the inner world and to the world beyond us and to the “near and nearly transparent” space between. This poem illustrates several of McQuerry’s strengths. It begins with a startling image: “Christ, the pelican, bends to blood,…” Within the next couple of lines, however, readers know how to situate themselves: “Christ, the pelican, bends to blood, / vermilion, finest strokes on lead / white. I turn from candlelight.” In medieval bestiaries, the pelican symbolized Christ because according to a 3rd-century Greek text, an angry pelican kills its young, then resurrects them by tearing at its own breast and feeding them its own blood. By the third line of this poem, we know that the monk has painted strands of vermilion across the white pelican. We want to read further, though, not only because of the compelling content, but because of McQuerry’s language. These lines contain some light alliteration and assonance as well as internal rhyme (white, light) which also forms a near rhyme with the opening potent word.  These examples are typical of McQuerry’s attention to the pleasure of English sounds. In the next stanza we read “mussel shells of milled silver— / in the ring of my lit taper. Illuminate.” And in the fourth stanza: “I will give it a kneeling Saint Michael / with silver spear and slain dragon. / For the spray work, calyx, / cusp, and sheaf.” I have devoted so much space to this poem not because Lacemakers is filled with dramatic monologues—it isn’t—but because “Book of Hours” is representative of McQuerry’s care with language, its music and its meaning. I would like to discuss it further, for I haven’t even mentioned the corpse of the calf the monk had found, how its skin has become the pages on which he writes, how its odor has seeped into his own hands—how, in other words, the work of incarnation infuses this collection. But I want to take a look at a couple of other poems too.

Although Lacemakers contains at least half a dozen other poems I’d like to discuss at length, I’ll limit myself to “Votive,” which opens the book, and “St. Margaret’s Well,” which closes it. “Votive” consists of spare couplets contrasting the effect of modern electric candles     with our more traditional expectations, flame and its residue. Electric candles are too precise to commemorate the flesh; they leave behind only “blue // on the dark globes / of your eyelids.” Yet the poem isn’t a critique of technology or of the way we live now so much as it is a recognition that the way we live now still relishes imperfection: “Some // things in life are not meant / for such precision—the snug // dovetail of your joined hands; / the bent maple outside.” Again, McQuerry explores complex themes—if life has meaning, where does it reside?—through her attention to concrete language and unique imagery. The poem is interesting to read because the speaker thinks interesting thoughts and the poet writes interesting words. 

“St. Margaret’s Well” fittingly concludes the collection. It describes a particular experience—a visit to a literal English well—in order to have a final word on what has turned out to be the book’s primary theme, the relationship between the ordinary and the miraculous and the necessity of enfleshed miracles. A couple, two “pilgrims” arrive at the well, touching its stones just as a blind woman had touched its stones nearly eight centuries earlier. After she “drank from the chalice of her own hands, / …light poured in clearly through the trees.” What’s important about the story, of course, isn’t its factual reliability, but the believers’ desire to believe: “there is something about belief’s / persistence, even when myth has become / only myth.” Myths are true not because their content can be verified but because they provide us with meaning.

Lacemakers is a book saturated with meaning. I am looking forward to more of Claire McQuerry’s work.