When it comes to reading poetry, I tend to stick with the classic epic poems like Beowulf and The Odyssey or more contemporary YA poetry-as-novel (The Poet X, Brown Girl Dreaming). I can’t remember a time outside of a classroom when I read a poetry collection. So for the CBR book exchange last December, one of my suggestions for whomever was buying for me was a book of poems, and Cannonballer Bonnie sent me this slim but stunning and provocative collection by contemporary award-winning poet Traci Brimhall. I feel somewhat at a loss as to how to review poems, but I will say that the imagery here is powerful, sometimes brutal, yet also deeply spiritual in ways that I found surprising. Reading Our Lady of the Ruins challenged me both as reader and as a woman living in a world that is violent, unfair and dangerous for so many.
Brimhall’s poems deal with the world in the throes of destruction and death, plague and apocalypse. They feature the voices of women who not only witness but themselves experience the trauma of birth, death and rebirth, and whose faith is shaken for it. For me some of the most powerful and unnerving poems dealt with the loss of children, particularly daughters. “Inheritance,” “Hysteria: A Requiem,” and “Somniloquy” do not describe the deaths, but begin with the fact of childhood death or stillbirth and move on to show how the survivors — the mothers — manage that loss, that grief, that crisis of faith in whatever gods one relied on before the apocalypse. In fact, many of the poems (eg. “Prayer to the Deaf Madonna,” “Pilgrimage,” and “Gnostic Fugue”) use the language and imagery of religion. Grappling with faith, with the loss of it, runs throughout the poems. In “Pilgrimage”:
The grass repeats its eternal rumor
that everything which dies grows
a new body. We are faithful pilgrims
seeking your unfaithful hand, trying
to journey farther than our doubt
to return to you the way all light
wants to return to fire rather than
travel from it.
And in “Gnostic Fugue”:
The awful quiet in your heart
is not the peace you were promised,
not the trembling hush before a revelation,
not a prelude to an earthquake,
not God’s silence, but his breathlessness.
Given the destruction of the world as it once was, the death of children, the inability to go back to the way things once were, the women who survive must figure out how to move forward.
From “Late Novena”:
Come back. Tell us what you’ve seen. Tell us
you met a god so reckless, so lonely, it will love us all.
It would be tempting to say that the message of Our Lady of the Ruins is that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Whatever doesn’t kill you has to be acknowledged as having almost killed you, as having deeply harmed you and changed you. As Brimhall writes in “The New World”:
We heal whether we want to or not.
Some people might become stronger. Certainly what doesn’t kill you makes you different and that must be acknowledged and confronted, particularly in our world today where people of color, women and minorities face trauma and death regularly. After finishing this book, I went back in repeatedly to reread many of these poems and I expect I will revisit them for some time to come. Thanks, Bonnie, for this outstanding book of poetry.