Margo Swiss’ anthology and the poems by Elizabeth Philips and Mona Fertig share a preoccupation with devotion. For the poems in Poetry as Liturgy, this is not a surprise: if liturgy is service to a Christian God, then various treatments of love of the divine as (in)constant are to be expected. In Philips’ Torch River, however, one also finds devotion in the cyclical return to a wintery riverside path, as though movement along this particular trail is the constant by which the author grounds her self-explorations. In Fertig’s Invoking the Moon, one expects, if one believes the jacket blurbs, devotion to the erotic, but gets instead a much more complex rendering of the author’s evolution from ages 18 to 35, her coming to terms with the frightening devotions that keep her tied to gardens, oceans and people she loves and her steadiest commitment of all: to writing itself.
In her introductory essay to Poetry as Liturgy, Swiss gives a detailed exegesis of “liturgy,” emphasizing that writing poetry is itself a liturgy. It’s an interesting emphasis given that the poems in the collection, including those by Swiss herself, seem to use poetry as a medium (lyrical, as church liturgy would be) to dwell instead on how acts, objects, plants or animals that do not seem to be in the service of God or community wind up, in fact, to be so. Indeed, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco writes humorously, “How are poems liturgies? They are not.”
Di Cicco is one of several poets in this fourteen-author collection (nine of whom have previously published with St. Thomas) who writes the kind of verse that shears the husk off your brain so that you understand the world more vividly. Leif Vaage, with his Donne-like use of an impassioned first person, is another:
Stir up, O Lord,
This unstirring. I am
Held by outrage, as a mother
Holds her first-born
Manchild to her pointed
Breast, to give him
Suck, who sucks and does
Not find, and flings
His head he knows not where
The freefall ends
Suzanne Collins writes perhaps the most singularly liturgical poem in the collection in “Raking hard ground,” a chronicle of the ritual of raking, “plain, simple work.” Of note are poems by Swiss herself, Alice Major, John Terpstra and John and David Reibetanz (father and son). David Reibetanz’s work is the least Christian of the collection, but compelling in making the act of writing a liturgy in service of the community (as in the devastating, and politically charged “elegy for a tree”); in this regard his poems are truest to Swiss’ introductory emphasis.
The themes of Philips’ Torch River would seem to have little in common with Swiss’ collection: the embodiment of gender, lesbianism, erotic love and (puzzlingly) fatherhood. This last in an 11-page poem that left me full of questions: is the “he” here an embodiment of a woman as father, on the heels of a girl wanting to be a boy (as in the three “Jackknife” poems), and preceding the women lovers in “Sunday”? Philips captures alarming images (the father makes a sandwich while his wife is in labor, folding the bread into a violent “fist” in the midst of gentle lilac-perfumed air) as well as space on the page:
the night is felted
with hands, his
However, I like her writing best in the winter landscape poems that intersperse the collection, and the devotion to a particular place and season they express. Philips looks for the trailhead as if she’s looking for a lover, for a vagina, or for what she herself might be
White sky, white road. How difficult
to locate the known, the desired
as the storm inhales through your spine
In collecting poems chronologically from age 18 to 35, Fertig’s Invoking the Moon invites a reader to see her evolution as poet, as well as her maturation as a woman. At 18 she is reliant on mythology as a shortcut to grander passions likely still not actually experienced. By 22 though, her use of form (repetition and non-sequitur especially) and eros are shockingly good:
Lips plum red
lips plum red
She begins to interject nouns to narrative, as if your eye catches glimpse of an object en route to something else (“Garden . . . I am alive within / a one-tree pulse cats / and those tough as shoe roots”). Innovations like these proliferate in the years that follow. By 25, she writes her own mythologies. At 27 and 29, her words make apt and obvious images that one should have always seen but didn’t (“and the road is / through my hair graying”).
Alongside the development of Fertig’s style is her growth from moxy teen, to young woman, to lover, to wife and to mother. This development brings with it fulfillments and love. But what astonishes me is the clarity—never cliché—of Fertig’s anxieties within her happinesses. Even the common trope of love for/servitude to children is here fabulous, fabulist and unique:
At the kitchen sink she pivots neatly
at the waist. In time to the dishwasher’s cycle. Microwave oven.
Wash. Rinse. Ding. Dry. Cook. Ding. Reheat. She unloads while
balancing a baby on her hip. Broken eggshells, breadcrumbs, stick
to her fingers. Her face is as blank as a dinner plate. Porcelain
flowers bloom on her cheeks. She grows branches. Tender leaves
Fertig writes a devotion to human connections that, like the gardens and seas throughout her collection, root, drown and, amazingly, liberate. Her biggest devotion, however, is to the imagination threaded through all of these conflicting emotions. As she concludes: “Do not be afraid / of losing yourself there. For the growing back exceeds / the sacrifice. Tenthousandfold. Tap it.”