Bargaining for What We’re Worth: Jared Randall on The Raindrop’s Gospel by Maurya Simon


The Raindrop’s Gospel: The Trials of St. Jerome and St. Paula, Maurya Simon,Elixir Press

The Raindrop’s Gospel: The Trials of St. Jerome and St. Paula is a troubling read that continues Simon’s exploration of that place where the sacred and divine make war with sin and the profane world of human experience. Fair warning: some readers of this book may find themselves blindsided by at times nearly pornographic embellishments of sexuality, and these are easily matched by a near-sadistic though irresistible focus on the self-violence often imputed to ascetics like St. Jerome. The wise reader will find the book’s troublesome, unsettling atmosphere a beast to wrestle with rather than something to take at face value, while not a few will consider the book a mixture of partisan feminism and anti-paternalism to be either embraced or flatly denied, depending on one’s prior allegiances.

Self-described as a novel in verse, even the most lyrical of these poems contributes to an overall narrative of denial: the sacred’s denial of the profane and the profane’s denial of the sacred. Like oil and water, such binaries present an uneasy mixture in Simon’s fitful, sometimes coarse, and sometimes finely textured poems. The price of holiness is steep and all too visible, as in these first two stanzas from “The Miracle”:

Fainting dazes for two weeks: he’s suffered his severest fast;
his stomach’s shrunken down to the size of a child’s fist–
he feels skeletal, lighter than a willow leaf, almost vaporous–

His once porcelain teeth have turned a mottled gray; his nails
look like graphite; the skin on his hands grows loose, flaccid;
his eyes go blank, his mind hemmed in, paralyzed by prayer (22).

While the first section of the book relates a relatively standard (though highly eroticized) version of the “official” life of St. Jerome in poems such as this one, the rest of the book is based in the historically unknowable relationship of St. Jerome and St. Paula, the patrons of scholars and widows, respectively. We are encouraged to make a story out of the ensuing poems, to perceive a narrative taking shape, and to view the lives of the two Saints from a privileged place. It is an insider’s look, but unlike the candid interview with Barbara Walters designed to celebrate and/or save face even after some celebrity disgrace, this is raw footage–reality TV from a time before cameras. After learning of St. Jerome’s struggles to purge himself of worldliness, we are shown a relationship that challenges his goal of moral purity.

I write that the poems are based “in” and not “on” this relationship for good reason. The poet purports to take us inside of history, to places no self-respecting historian dares go, and to make definite pronouncements where learned scholars debate or shrug. This is the territory of a fictionalized account, and it reminds one of Dan Brown’s alternately lauded and derided series of novels with plots driven by religious conspiracy theories. Like Brown, Simon is counting on a deeper “truth” to come out of her work even though the scandal it suggests has only an indeterminate basis in material reality, if that. To be fair, her disclaimer in the book’s front matter explains as much:

Although I use historical facts detailed in various documents pertaining to their actual lives, I focus in this book primarily upon the relationship between Jerome and Paula, as I imagine it, rather than upon the former’s religious commentary and treatises.

Though Jerome is often castigated by feminist theologians and medievalists for his diatribes against marriage and sexual passion–as well as for upholding virginity as the ultimate feminine ideal–I reveal him here as a character at war within himself, a man whose public persona and religious writing are in opposition to his private desires (7).

Nevertheless, just as with Dan Brown’s novels, some readers will not perceive that Simon has taken liberties and that this book inhabits the wide open space of scandalous suggestion where verifiable history is silent. She sells her vision partly by using excerpts from St. Jerome’s letters, but these are taken out of context (I know, because I checked most of them) and, for those who are aware, serve an ironic role as the poetry subverts their original meanings.

If you don’t know the history of St. Jerome, you can easily catch up by a simple Google or Wikipedia search. For those who want more, a good library or a few books ordered from your favorite Internet bookseller will do the trick. Suffice it to say, Jerome spent years of harsh hermit living in the desert before working as an aid to the Pope in Rome. At that time, he began to gather a group of Roman widows around him and to act as their spiritual director and priest.

When Jerome’s patron, Pope Damasus I, died an old man, Jerome purportedly found himself under an extreme amount of pressure. He had attracted many enemies due to his strict interpretations and boisterous promotion of the hermetic lifestyle (especially by his preaching asceticism to the aforementioned widows, a presumably ready audience). This, along with his (for the time) radical preference for the older Hebrew scriptures over the relatively new Greek Old Testament (a very unpopular stance at the time and one that, according to historians, may have been the true reason for Jerome’s troubles), caused an untenable situation. Inevitably, there had been whispers about the nature of Jerome’s relationship to his congregation of widows, and after the Pope’s death these whispers turned into outright accusation. Jerome was “forced” to leave Rome on what would become a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a scandal-reduced group of widows in tow. Paula, with whom he had been accused of having improper relations, went with him and personally funded his subsequent studies and monastic endeavors.

Again, it is important to note that those partisans who claim that Jerome was guilty of sexual doings with Paula are short on proof. Indeed, anything we might say about it is sheer speculation. And though it may be fashionable to assume in today’s secular discourse that Jerome could not have been other than guilty, and while it may serve as rhetoric against celibacy, religion in general, and the priesthood, we do not know that Jerome and Paula were guilty of the accusation. Thus, Simon’s eroticization of the story of St. Jerome and St. Paula is–from a historical perspective–hyperbole at best, conspiracy theory at the worst. In fact, there is no historical material to indicate the true nature of their relationship one way or the other.

So how are we to explore The Raindrop’s Gospel in a nuanced way? It is fatuous to claim that, as he was later declared a Saint, Jerome must never have done a wrong thing in his life and was incapable of a lustful thought. I think we are quite beyond that in our understanding of what sainthood entails, as a general rule. And so I think Simon justified to some extent in presenting Jerome as struggling with lustful thoughts and desires. All the same, some will be horrified to read this book. Its eroticism often borders on the pornographic. Its embodiment of scandal threatens to overwhelm the idea of a saint struggling with private and conflicting desires:

He leaned against an aromatic balm of Gilead,

its evergreen needles musty, damp with dew,
and his lungs swelled with a verdant serenity.

And then they came: a band of naked maidens
slipped down from its branches, encircling him,

their hands clasped, their long hair loose, unruly–
strung with cornflowers and cockleshells–

their roseate breasts firm as gourds, crowned
with pebble-taut nipples, their varicolored pubes

thrusting inward toward him as the women
danced in circles dizzyingly, their laughter

orchestral and defiant, their mouths open–
oh the torment of their flushed, distended lips–

their voluptuous bodies sawing in serpentine
motions, their smooth bellies grazing him as

they closed in, and their humid breath washing
over him in waves of cinnamon and clove;

then one virgin pulled him toward her,
while another cupped her slender hands

around his genitals, unfasten his surplice,
coaxed his member into her velvet mouth…(27-28)

The scene doesn’t end there. All in all, I am not sure I would personally get away with these lines without drawing a few guffaws from female readers who would no doubt see it as indulgent. In fact, I fondly recall getting some chuckles and the kind advice to go easy with such matters after including a line about “thousands of women bathing” in one of my graduate workshop poems. Simon gets away with it, if she does, by the fact of her gender, which is perhaps a suspect position for a poet. Or if not suspect, it is at least ironic–a woman writer placing lustful thoughts in the mind of a male character known for his supposed purity.

I am not sure about heretical, as Chris Abani characterizes the book in its afterword (107), but it certainly is scandalous. And as with all scandals, which by definition contain elements of the unknown or the what-if, it is possible to suppose a lot of things: Jerome might have been guilty as charged. Perhaps he left Rome with his elicit mistress, the widow Paula, tagging along behind him as a sort of punishment that nevertheless kept things quiet in Rome. But also, Jerome might have been blackmailed as the hagiographies testify, and he might never have had an untoward relationship with Paula or any of the widows and other young women who followed him, apparently quite willingly, for years and decades to the ends of their lives. Only cynicism, however justified by personal experience, says that Jerome must have been just as bad as we can imagine him.

There are certainly ways to support either point of view. It was, after all, Paula’s money that paid for Jerome’s books by which he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin–the first time such had been done. Her fortune also paid for the monastery and convent in Jerusalem where they lived out their lives. However, this does not mean (except in Hollywood films) that they therefore must have had a romantic attraction, much less an elicit sexual relationship. It could just as easily indicate the opposite. Indeed, if the historical Paula truly experienced the perverse sexual practices common in Rome of that time and as recounted in this book, it would not at all be surprising for her to later choose a celibate lifestyle and never look back. Once bitten, twice shy and all that.

Similarly, one could spend a lifetime listening to tales of the celebrity scandals that regularly reach the public ear. I would have to be living on another planet not to have heard at least the headlines of stories coming out about Tiger Woods and his various affairs, for instance. But how am I to know the truth of these stories? If I choose to listen, am I not more interested in the scandal, the gossip, the titillating sizzle of what might have occurred, than the truth? This does not lessen the guilt of a Tiger Woods nor of his mistresses. Rather, it adds their guilt to my own by my taking pleasure in their admittedly wrong actions. It is enough for me to know that they did what they ought not to have done and to leave it at that.

If I’m genuinely interested in the truth of such matters, I realize after a few moments of reflection that I’m never going to get it from my living room couch. It’s a scandal, and the whole mess is the personal business of other people whose personal lives, frankly, have no direct affect on me. What I can apprehend, to some degree, is that their public lives and triumphs and struggles have had an effect on the world, and this is what we celebrate and sometimes criticize in a Tiger Woods or a St. Jerome or a St. Paula. Still, it is one thing to know of a person’s struggles and to appreciate them, a whole different thing to pretend one has seen into the hidden shadows of another human being.

Yet this is what a novelist does, and this is the terrain Simon commands, not as historian, but as thought-experimenter. In essence, she asks: Though we know we shouldn’t honor those areas of darkness in the people we uphold as saints and role models, should we therefore expose their darkness? And what happens to them (and to us) when we do expose their dark undersides? What happens when we dwell in that darkness or linger too long? Do we realize their darkness is not that different from our own? And what humility does this give to us?

In poems written in third person and then zooming in to the first person, she imagines the inner lives of the two saints and turns their lives inside-out. One way to think of the book is a prolonged attempt by Simon to channel the long-dead ghosts of the saints, and in this she is to be congratulated, as they are believable characters. They do indeed shimmer for a moment before our eyes, take shape, utter words fraught with human hope and weakness, before fading back into silence. Here, Paula describes the first blush of her conversion experience:

We’ve eschewed the decadence of the feasting table,
renounced our lavish stola, our gold-embroidered pallium
used for encloaking ourselves like peacocks in silken veils;

we’ve removed diadem, earrings, bracelets, anklets, rings,
and put aside forever our lanolin creams, earthen rouges,
antimony mascara, our eyes’ glittering hematite shades.

Among these barefaced ladies, I’m richly clothed in faith;
my shy-lipped daughters shimmer as my brightest rubies.
We pray together, sing Hebrew songs that Hieronymus [Jerome]

intones in his deep baritone, his beard’s sable tip dipping
to punctuate the verses in a way that my Eustochium and
Blessilla find humorous–though they stifle their grins (46).

The question is, with what are we left when the characters of Simon’s imagination have faded? I, for one, am left with Simon behind a keyboard just finishing up the last edit, for these are not and cannot be the two saints as they were, but are, admittedly enough, Simon’s imagined version of them. In that case, to what purpose?

For Simon is not without purpose in her writing. I went back to her work that I was familiar with, to her 1995 release The Golden Labyrinth, and was struck by a similar focus on the world of details, the presence of scenes and people, the sheer physicality Simon is able to convey with mere words. Just as she brings the historical Roman world to life in Raindrop’s, in Labyrinth she brings the troubled streets of India into near-touchable focus in ‘Street Scene’ :

A boy wags his tongue stump at me,
holding up his “official” paper:
“Please compensate my speak loss.”
I give nothing, knowing some “uncle”
long ago cut it off for future profit.

A crippled man on his wooden pallet
holds up his poorly bandaged hand.
I drop a single rupee in his cup;
he rolls off towar Kasturbai Street.

A pai-dog chews at her festered flesh.
Stepping over her, I land in a pool
of freshly spewed betel juice.
My prints bleed exclamation points.

A lime peddler squats beside a stoop
in front of Higganbotham’s Books.
Her tiny child fists a cigarette butt.
“Amma,” the mother pleads. I buy two.

I survey the quaint or ancient coins
a worn Tibetan woman has arranged
on a dirty handkerchief upon the curb:
there’s one of Queen Victoria, and
one that bears the turning wheel of life.
“Too much,” I say, and move on (9).

In sections labeled Power of the Visible, Travels with Rao, and Power of the Invisible, Simon would have us know that the force of poetry is in the world of real things swirling about. She reveals herself as a poet in touch with the raw stuff of life, the detritus, the shaming truth of all that we throw in garbage heaps and all that we treasure, the people we are and those we despise or ignore. Reporting on her travels in India, she reveals that the unmentionable is something undeniable because it is actual–as far as it is apprehended as real and not made-up or embellished to be what it is not, like the coins the woman “has arranged.” We thus understand, along with the poet and through her words, the essential paradox that is the human marketplace: those it helps, those it hurts while helping, and our own conspiracy with and complacency within the system.

But the story does not turn the same way with The Raindrop’s Gospel. Though Simon seems to be attempting a similar move in Raindrop’s, the rhetorical working out is different because she is no longer presenting what is presumably the actual world of her experience in order to reveal the unmentionable that we would rather not notice. Instead, she is building up an imagined world around that which is itself merely supposed–the scandalous, the merely possible, the hidden and unknowable relationship of St. Paula and St. Jerome.

It may seem only a subtle difference, but the effect by the time the work has spiraled into completion is quite large and jarring. The success of Raindrop’s is correspondingly debatable. An implosion of meaning takes place, the force of the unknown now revealed and yet still hidden, and all of this turns simply to more confusion, the continuation of a centuries-old debate, like scrolling through an Internet forum where arch-creationists are fighting an eternal pitched battle with arch-evolutionists, spouting inanities and unprovable theorems–on both sides!

Gone is the simple stating of that which may be honestly said. The undeniable observation of The Golden Labyrinth is here replaced by supposition. For me this was cause to mourn and a substantial change of literary purpose. Instead of being forced to reckon with realities I am unable to dismiss, I am instead left to debate the veracity of a rejuvenated scandal and its dubious bearing on current events, only to conclude that it cannot, in actuality, have more than a cursory bearing on current events because it is unprovable in any direction of inquiry.

To be fair, Simon seems to leave her own answer to this conundrum in the last section of the book. However, it is hard to pick out at first, since she also hits us with the most definitive and final blast of scandalous revelation at the same time–the tabloid moment we have been waiting for and to which the entire tale-in-verse has been building; the before-now hidden “proof” of the just soul’s actual sinfulness.

These last are the only poems in the book not written from a perspective centered on Jerome and Paula. They are instead written as letters from various other figures connected to the two saints. For instance, one letter represents an ongoing relationship between star-crossed lovers who have been separated by the institution of celibacy. Other letters express opposing views of Jerome and Paula (and, by extension, of the practice of celibacy) as given by Paula’s daughters, Rufina and Eustochium.

Historically, Eustochium became abbess of the convent in Jerusalem where Paula lived out her life, and she gives us something of a hymn to celibacy (in nevertheless very corporeal terms–the age-old, bittersweet yearning expressed by St. Therese, among others). Eustochium follows her hymn with a letter eulogizing Paula and Jerome after their passing away:

They are both gone now. Our earthly mother, my spiritual father.
          How I miss them! Their devout & feverish ways.
               In her dwindling hours, our devoted Paula grew
                    clairvoyant–somehow knowing

that Jerome would survive her lingering death
          by these long years, would carry on as if in exile.
               Our tormenting debt to Christ
                    they wove into a flaming cord of love (98).

This indirectly responds to Rufina, who in a previous letter written to Paula before her death expresses an open dislike of both Jerome and his effect on Paula, Rufina’s mother. As well, Rufina expresses her intention to stay in Rome and eat of the fruit of sensual living. She openly defies any thought of turning back to the Christian religion, despite the attempts of her celibate family members to encourage her in that direction:

Dear Paula, my good mother–
I will answer your questions truthfully—

Yes, I blame him [Jerome] for my sister Eusto’s marriage
to Christ, and for Blesilla’s awful mortification

of her flesh, her severe fasting–her early nuptial
to death. He’ll never claim little Paulina!

Nor me (92).

After the differing opinions of Paula’s children regarding Jerome have been revealed, things take the final turn for which we have waited. The apparent partisan and sisterly debate between Eustochium and Rufina is quickly displaced by a final letter, ostensibly written years later by Paula the Younger, the elder Paula’s grand-daughter, who assumed the role of abbess after Eustochium. The younger Paula has discovered the supposed secret diaries of St. Jerome (of which there are none, that we know about, historically). These reveal among other things that her grandmother and Jerome had indeed shared sexual relations, Paula having served as Jerome’s “agapeta,” or “priestly mistress” (100).

While the book had previously given us glimpses of these secret diaries and of Jerome’s struggle against lustful thoughts, these glimpses were either of the mind and inconclusive of actual indiscretion or else showed us the indiscretion of Jerome’s youth. If we as readers had hoped that the fictional Jerome’s fantasies were only the fantasies of youth, later thrown away, that he had somehow contained them and that they thus possessed an inert quality, here we have fictional “proof” of the otherwise. The Younger Paula’s judgment of Jerome is swift, yet not without a certain air of mercy:

We thought we knew the man: we did not.
Could not have. So much within our hearts howls for forgiveness,
withers us, while Lucifer stands ever ready to entice us,
to harvest our sins. Jerome’s private pen stuttered and
raged self-calumny, even as his public letters proved him righteous.

There is too much mystery in man,
as in the Eternal. Too great a hydra, this person to whom
our grandmother wed her life and her soul. In them both, earthly love–
that euphoria, that dread which ravishes–vied with divine love.
I grew up in the humid greenhouse of their devotion.

[…]

We struggle like flies to escape this vortex of sins.
We live in exile from our physical bodies.
Slumbering bears, we hibernate inside our deaths,
dreamless, waiting to be reborn again.
We stand facing God, our mouths agape.

[…]

A rebel angel he was, Cousin.
Bless Jerome’s bones. Bless Paula’s long-dried tears (100-1).

In the end, we are left with the aftertaste of this revelation and the title of the book as we close its cover: The Raindrop’s Gospel.

I blanch at that title. I feel instinctively, and all rational thought seems to back it up, that this particular figure has not earned its place as the title for this particular book. The book is hardly a proper gospel, first of all, for it does not set out to proclaim a clear message that is to be either accepted or rejected. It might better be described as a shadow of the letters of St. Paul, what with its focus on Jerome’s letters (however ironically they are quoted) and as it includes a fair number of epistolary poems and a fair amount of wrestling with the nature of grace. But it does not seem to fit the literary model of apocryphal gospel. It does not resemble, say, the Gospel of Mary Magdalen, though I suppose its “hero” does die in the end, in reputation as well as in body, and with unclear recourse to resurrection.

Beyond that, the figures of the raindrop or of water in any form are hardly ubiquitous. Quite the opposite. One has to search hard and long for such mentions, whereas images of the desert and dryness, of cracked lips and thirst, abound. To be thorough, water is most prevalent and noticeable in yet another eroticized poem where Jerome imagines Paula bathing:

…stationed behind her bathing screen, hidden
from Paula’s view, he witnessed an intimate ritual:

saw how she slipped her robes down her torso,
so they puddled around her narrow feet; saw

her maid undrape voile stoles from her shoulders,
so she could step naked into the sunken, marble bath,

her thighs slightly rippling the azure waters
as she sunk down to immerse her whole body;

he saw how her brown breasts shivered tautly
as her maid poured rivulets down her lithe nape…(25).

On waking, Jerome punishes himself:

His body still shuddered under the dream’s grip,
and he cursed Eve’s treachery, despising all women

for enslaving men to lust, and hating himself
most for his abiding hunger for forbidden gifts.

He would whip and lash himself ruthlessly then,
scoring his body with ridged seams, red stripes

flayed open and re-torn into awful ribboned ruts.
One night, exhausted, he palms slick with blood,

he swore an oath to God: tomorrow he’d advise
the widows on the virtues of going without baths (26).

Obviously, there is more than a note of misogyny being expressed on Jerome’s behalf, and this is one area where his historical letters might support the charge. But as frequently as misogynistic sentiments appear in the fictionalized mind of St. Jerome, the figure of the raindrop only shows up once in what would be a stray thought if not for the book’s title. This from Paula’s perspective as she complains to herself of Jerome’s severity:

Years ago I starved myself for him, anointed
my limbs with mustard oil and myrrh, bathed

my words in holy water, steeped my feral desires
in lime and terror, schooled my mind in saints:
a time when I lashed myself with briars, and slept
naked in a cave, where only bats heard my prayers.

I’m an ascetic to him, not a scholar, although
I, too, plow the white fields, plant seeds, reap
a great bounty from those verses he translates.
My presences holds no volume for him, no odor,

no vibration of sound, no scale nor weight.
I’m bland as chalk, ephemeral as a dust cloud.
But my heart beats on flamboyantly; my lips
may crack and bleed, but they still sweeten air.

I’m like a sphere of amber, a life distilled
within a life: a spider caught in ambient sap.
I turn to wild nature now, a disciple of grass:
slowly I’m learning the raindrop’s gospel (59).

So this poem answers the typical male misogynistic complaint with an equally typical female complaint: “I slave, I labor, I do everything for you, and you ignore me. You curse me because I am beautiful. When I make myself less beautiful, you ignore me anyway. I have no life of my own within the limits you place on me.” In this way, the two sides of the relational equation fit together believably, if a little cliche, and the raindrop figure is certainly Paula’s answer to how she has learned to deal with Jerome’s attitude toward her.

The next closest references to water are a passing mention of a well and another dream of St. Jerome in which he suckles milk, not water, from the roughly-used breast of an apparently abused woman. He is both aroused and sickened by the imaginary experience–again, his misogyny is overt.

So I ask again, does “the raindrop’s gospel” elucidate a clear answer to the overall problem of the book? In answer, and despite all of my remarks against it, I realize that its lack of suitability is exactly what makes this title work. That it is Paula’s quiet answer to Jerome, and by extension Woman’s answer to Man, sensuality’s answer to asceticism, and sexuality’s answer to celibacy, is clear. Water is the rare and life-giving absence found at the heart of these poems, in Jerome’s life, and in Paula’s life as defined by her association with Jerome. But perhaps there is more to it? For the raindrop cannot be held in the hand. It sops into the clothes and only the barest dregs can be wrung out for any good. The ground drinks it thirstily but only gives back a portion of what it takes. It floods rivers one year and a decade later sees a land turned to desert.

Even so, the gospel that Simon would have us take with us is one that elusive. We all have to live with these bodies in which we struggle for a lifetime. For all our unknown and famous and infamous words and actions, we all end up in the position of Paula and Jerome, survived by those few or many who know (or think they know) enough about us to judge our lives. What is left may be hardly enough to wring a life-giving sip. Others may look on and debate our worth, but what we have left behind is nothing more and nothing less than a raindrop that only maintains its shape while falling–that is, during our lives–and then dissipates into its surroundings.

In this case, who are we to judge another? The partisans who may want to use this book as a weapon against male misogyny are perhaps wrong in the uptake. Simon herself, in the book’s already-quoted front matter, describes these poems as a corrective to feminist criticism of Jerome. The true message of the book, then, is one of humility–the realization of our shattered selves and temporariness, of our inability to know another person from the inside, and of the soul’s problematic bond with the flesh.

Simon has hit this note at least once before, in her poem “Mothers of Invention” from The Golden Labyrinth:

The beggar-woman near the Muslim cemetery
makes her own green shade out of a plantain leaf.

She is selling all she has left of hope: a dirge
frail as the wildflowers trembling in the heat.

She is no less lovely than the spangled movie star
stepping down heavily from a limousine across the street;

but she is braver and wiser, I think, for such singing
that defies her terrible hunger, this heartless weather.

What do I know of a need that brings a woman down
to her knees, punished by the world’s failures?

I can’t chronicle her pain in the name of truth, nor
sing alongside her with my tawdry cache of griefs.

I can’t know her words, lacquered by sweat and tears;
I don’t possess her dignity, that humbler of speech. (5)

How ironic that the same poet in Raindrop’s has done just what she said she could not do in Labyrinth–she has taken on herself the unknowable inner lives of a long-dead pair of saints, tried to “chronicle [their] pain in the name of truth.” This effort consists not in the materiality of lived experience but in the supposed, the merely possible, the titillating and fantastic, in an unprovable scandal.

And I wonder, does she succeed? Could not the point have been made without going to near-pornographic extremes? Perhaps not. Perhaps we need these extremes to jar us loose from our prejudices and mystifying self-concepts. At the same time, it seems to me the point would have been made more strongly if there had remained some question about the nature of Jerome’s and Paula’s relationship. In that case, is the poet herself guilty of having cast off humility by engaging in supposition? Moreover, can any poet embrace humility and still write a single word?

We are left with questions, and that spells a success of sorts. So I give the last word to Simon, from “Russell Market” in The Golden Labyrinth:

The world is an illusory marketplace where I
must bargain hardest for what I hope I’m worth… (6)

References

Simon, M. 2010. The Raindrop’s Gospel: The Trials of St. Jerome and St. Paula. Denver: Elixir Press.

——-. 1995. The Golden Labyrinth. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press.

*

Jared Randall earned his MFA degree at the University of Notre Dame where he also worked for a variety of print publications. He was a nominee for both the 2009 AWP Intro Journals Award and the 2009 Best New Poets Anthology, and his writing has appeared in Controlled Burn, Crucible, and online journals such as Bull: Men’s Fiction and Subtle Tea. His debut book of poetry, Apocryphal Road Code, is due out from Salt Publishing in December 2010. Randall teaches as an adjunct professor in southwest Michigan where urban sprawl cramps old farmhouses. He also works as a freelancer and writes the occasional blog at http://wanderingstiff.com/mainstem.

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Winner of the 2009 Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Award


LET ME OPEN YOU A SWAN

Winner of the 2009 Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Award

Judge Michele Mitchell-Foust: “Deborah Bogen is the real thing, and she knows the power of beautiful language to stir and hypnotize, to get to the heart of the matter, but also to confuse the issue, to send the reader dreaming, so she slows her beauty down, roughs it up, breaths air into it, so the reader never dreams through the good parts…. What we have in Deborah Bogen’s LET ME OPEN YOU A SWAN is sublime poetry, the rare gift of a terrifying look into the shaping of a warrior poet and her work.”

Deborah Bogen’s poems and reviews appear widely. Her first full-length collection, Landscape with Silos, won the 2005 XJ Kennedy Poetry Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 2006. Recent poetry can be found in Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review, Field, Margie, and Poetry International. Her chapbook, Living by the Children’s Cemetery, was selected by Edward Hirsch as winner of the 2002 ByLine Press Chapbook Competition. She now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she runs free fiction and poetry workshops.

Purchase Let Me Open You A Swan

Powerfully Commendable: David Appelbaum on Katie Cappello’s Perpetual Care


perpetual care

Perpetual Care, Katie Cappello, Elixir Press

Before abstinence come the rituals of excess. There is the indulgence in flesh (carne) before the long Lent. Only after is resurrection from the grave possible. What if the flesh one eats is one’s own body? What if, ‘devouring myself bit by bit,’ as Katie Cappello writes in ‘When We Get to Coachella’ in her graphic collection, ‘[t]here are fingers in my stomach/holding there. I cannot leave.’ [‘Lament for a Blood Clot’] Then the carnival is perpetual and the care becomes a testimony to dance of death. It is a danse macabre.

The special eroticism of death is vivid and arresting, and the multitude of forms a proof of the libido’s power of command. The great researchers into the human soul have found this to be true. Little of the senses escapes its enticing scrutiny. In the text, it is after Hurricane Katrina, a political nadir and a wreck of culture. Abstinence has been brought by an act of God coupled with human incompetence. The city of New Orleans, still in its Lent, looks at its watery grave and begins its business of cleanup. Cappella’s eye is keen for details of the dance, for instance, ‘the mechanized claw of the garbage truck/struggled, leaking dog out into the street.’ [‘How to Drive Through Texas’] The scene calls Heraclitus to mind, where in hell one perceives by smells. The matter of ‘how the dead become smell/settling into membranes’ occupies her mind. [‘A Changing Spell’] Impressions are as fleeting as smoke and she confesses, ‘I can’t find a dream to hold on to.’ [‘Summer Wedding Dream’] The cityscape grows apparitional. Perpetual Care is filled with ghosts, ghost stories, lovers who are ghosts. One can love the dead but who are they? They leave signs, ‘a blue ring in the tub, an empty/toilet paper roll, back mold/misted on old sponges,’ more telling evidence of an absence, and by the time we turn to take a closer look, ‘what is left of me is coming loose.’ [‘A Ghost Abandons the Haunted’]

Perhaps abstinence morphs into apocalypse Old lore returns in the form of strange, unnatural marriages. There is the girl who is wed to a snake and dies for it. Death in fact has become lovely, luscious, trying to outdo itself by seizing the realm of the inanimate—‘this room squirms/a living thing.’ [‘Room 203’] In fact, there is the constant morphing of one thing into another, in excess, suggesting that our usual demarcations—eros, thanatos, presence, absence—have been superceded by the calamitous upsurge. It remains a question that repeats in different voices, or as the voice of one lament of Cappello’s asks: ‘Was I struck, dying, in the new spring night?’ [‘Lament for White Lions’]

In such a time (now?), language too dies and comes alive, like the ‘old drunk [who] says he can change a tire in three minutes.’ [‘Hilary Street Cemetery, New Orleans’] Or come alive and dies, flat, misplaced, overused. Words from the old world, which moves ghost-like behind the yards and porches, the Grateful Dead shirt fluttering on a clothesline, the men drinking Dixie beer, like Cappello’s grandmother’s vickravatz: ‘a word like forearms/trembling on porcelain.’ [‘Inheritance’] The language is beautiful the way it struts across the line, showing itself off, against all odds a survivor. Perhaps that is what it takes to make poetry. It is powerfully commendable, a hammer:

And you are a hammer knocking on the gate, the tongue
swinging joyfully in the cave of a bell. [‘Room 203’]

The Brands of Immortality Offered: Al Maginnes on Diann Blakely’s Cities of Flesh and the Dead


cities-of-flesh-and-the-dead

Cities of Flesh and the Dead, Diann Blakely, Elixir Press

This has been a difficult review to write. Some poets and some poems are so simply themselves there is little a critic can do to illuminate the poems other than say, “Read these.” One thinks of Donald Justice or Philip Larkin. To this list, I would add Diann Blakely and her wonderful new collection Cities of Flesh and the Dead. This is not to say that there is nothing to praise in Blakely’s new book. Readers can point to the brilliant textures of her language, her supple ease with forms, or the relentless questioning of her poems. Yet, the poems are so complete that critical commentary doesn’t add much.

In Bad Blood, the collection’s opening poem, Blakely begins with the image of a woman who stares “wild eyed” when “death/ That black winged angel/ Appears without warning.” A few lines later, we realize that the woman staring in horror is Janet Leigh in the movie Psycho. Thus, the opening lines of the book present concerns with which the entire collection will wrestle. The collection, Blakely’s third in just under two decades, juxtaposes the mortality of flesh with the brands of immortality offered by art wondering what consolation art can offer us as we busy ourselves with dying. This answer varies from reader to reader and probably from day to day; Blakely is too canny a poet to venture a prescription (“Take two Modiglianis and call me in the morning”). What she does is provide us with a clutch of beautiful and excoriating poems that force us to confront the fact of mortality even as we revel in the beauty of these well-made and crucial poems.

This is tricky territory, and it is also poetry’s oldest battleground. Thoroughly contemporary, these poems align themselves with tradition by utilizing form and meter so craftily that it never calls attention to itself and through a reverence for those already departed. Many of the departed are poets: there are elegies in this book for poets William Matthews and Lynda Hull (both of whom Blakely knew) and remembrances of or dedications to Lorca, Anthony Hecht, Herbert Morris, and Philip Larkin. These deaths are important not only for the way in which they remember and honor the dead but for the way they turn the speaker and the reader of these poems back upon his or her own life. “What is mid-life,” Blakely asks in Itinerary, one of a group of sonnets dedicated to the lavishly talented Lynda Hull, who died in 1994 (readers would do well to seek out a copy of Hull’s Collected Poems, recently published by Graywolf), “when every long distance call/ And letter seems to shriek sad news or loss.”

If poetry is one of the art forms providing some consolation for the writer of these poems, then the others are cinema and music. This is as it should be; most poets of Blakely’s (and my) generation have logged far more time in front of the stereo and the movie screen than seated in opera houses or wandering through art galleries. Thus, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Tina Turner, the anonymous music makers of Memphis and Nashville, and even Pee Wee Herman appear in these pages. But art alone is no consolation; Blakely finds solace in the lives of artists who last. While she calls out to and cries for the ones who died young—the Lynda Hulls and Kurt Cobains—another part of her soul is sustained by the example of artists who last and remain productive. A lovely and harrowing sequence of poems in the voice of Mary Jane Kelly, the last known victim of Jack the Ripper, is dedicated to Anthony Hecht, a poet who remained active and productive until his death. A sonnet about the film Pretty Baby is dedicated to Jerry Wexler, the legendary record producer whose career spanned decades. Even the long life and odd career of Leni Riefenstahl, best known for her films glorifying the Third Reich, provide some hope.

There is more going on here than musings on art and tributes to and thoughts of fallen friends and heroes. At every turn, Blakely’s poems confront what it finally means to be alive. The making of art, of things meant to last beyond the artist’s lifetime, must confront a world that simply does not mean for things to last. In Before the Flood: A Solo from New Orleans, a day trip to that city teeters between disillusionment when confronted by “heat already swathing the narrow smelly streets, their beer joints/ and souvenir shops selling masks half price after Mardi Gras.” Yet the speaker, uneasy among “strippers in round the clock bars” and a man kneeling on a street corner “begging for mercy,” finds a footing when a young mother “dealt tarot cards and told my life story so truly I tipped/ her ten dollars with hands/ that shook, then walked smack into two men swapping envelopes.” If this mix of beauty and danger is typical of New Orleans, it is also emblematic of our lives in the early twenty first century. “How can we belong anywhere except by peeling shrimp/ And drinking cheap beer/ Before divining our way back to our hotels, blurred copies/ of Baudelaire’s poems?” the poet asks. The answer to the dilemma of mortality is to ignore our approaching deaths, of course, to immerse ourselves in the pleasures afforded by strange cities, but beer and poems and whatever works of art bring us pleasure.

Blakely has always been a scrupulous poet, one who works at her own pace, and that craft is rewarded in the fine poems that make up Cities of Flesh and the Dead (it is worth noting that the entire book is a very handsome production). The blend of high and pop art in these poems, the attention to craft, the sheer exuberance and precision of the language make this a book that places Blakely alongside some of the masters she names and pays homage to.