William Reichard, Sin Eater, Midlist Press
William Reichard’s fourth book of poetry, Sin Eater, published by Midlist Press, completes a pairing started with This Brightness on the theme of lightness and darkness. Organized in four sections, Sin Eater descends from paradise to limbo into purgatory and finally hell, but each level of existence is permeable and uncertain. Goodness can be evil: Reichard’s angels in the poem “God’s Monkeys” resemble the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, and fables end in loss, murder, or unbearable pain in “Three Fairy Tales.”
Reichard outlines from the first poem there is no true paradise in his cosmology. The book opens with a menacing poem about childhood: “The whole house shook with anger some days./ I felt myself dwindling…/ I wanted to escape, but lacked a plan.” Happiness is fleeting and occurs in small moments, such as washing dishes and anticipating the evening return of one’s partner (“Three Gifts”). Threatened by the possibility of separation and dissolution, the dreaming speaker in “A Constellation” chooses to be unhappy–“I thought it was better to stay,/discontent as I was”– rather than to risk loss. In “Clara’s Vision,” the speaker, searching for inner peace, states,
…Since I met you,
I’d only wondered, more and more,
how one can come to be saved,
I mean truly saved, not the
to-be-forgiven saved, but the kind
where we come to know ourselves
–radiance and repulsion aside–
just simply knowing ourselves.
I thought you’d found that
and I wanted it too.
The poem concludes with the line “I didn’t know then what heaven was, but I wanted to believe you did.” There is no indication, however, that the lover returning home will bring happiness, or the friend knows heaven. The search for salvation, for paradise, in the self and others, is never fruitful.
In these poems, true happiness, or at least contentedness, comes not from God, love, or self, but nature. In “Motion (Slow),” the untamed garden the place of redemption: “There’s nothing I’d trade for this dappled light/ scent of lilac/curve of crimson.” But even in paradise “everything is equal, but nothing is fair” (“Soul in Paradise”), the garden is filled with hurt and misfit plants, “seedlings that may not survive” (“A Kind of Heaven”). Death is always lurking at the edges of even the most common domestic idyl.
Reichard does not razzle-dazzle the reader with obscure language or unnecessary word play, nor does he weigh the reader down copious footnotes and research. His is a sure-footed Midwestern voice, almost always quiet, contemplative, building the book slowly to its crescendo.
In the final segment, the reader is greeted by the mawing sin eater, a character from Welsh mythology who eats the sins of the dead:
The dead one goes to heaven
and the sin eater goes mad,
filled as he is with
someone else’s sorrows.
This motif of consumption turns sexual in the book’s most aggressive, muscular and Whitmanesque poem “Soul in Hell (1)”:
I want a hundred soldiers in my bed.
I want to stop the world as it spins.
To stretch my hungry lips up to kiss
the drowsy face of God.
The descent ironically becomes an ascent with “Soul in Hell (2),” where hell is pictured as an airplane ride, heavenly hosts hogging the good seats up front, the speaker buckled in near the toilets contemplating eternity:
Such a strange word: forever.
Like a gift or a curse. A promise made to
a frightened child when he asks his mother,
How long will I live?
In the end, the book does not answer that eternal question, but instead speculates on the absence of affirmation in “Quick Psalm”:
These poems are often spare, but not thin; the voice is consistent, clear, and strong. Form and rhyme are quietly and carefully employed. The devil here is not a flashy blues guitarist or red-horned garish cartoon; he is the uncertainty we hold within our questioning hearts, the sins we consume and cannot purge, the innate fragility of our delicately constructed lives.
Kathryn Kysar is the author of Dark Lake and editor of Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers. Her new book, Pretend the World, will be published by Holy Cow! Press in 2011. Kysar serves on the board of directors for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and teaches at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and the Loft Literary Center. http://www.kysar.com.