Mary Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency is filled with pristine couplets, tercets, and quatrains. But within these received literary forms, she presents us with a compelling revision of the wisdom we’ve inherited from previous generations. The familiar hierarchies associated with knowledge, language, and the world around us collapse before the reader’s eyes. Although maintaining the semblance of order through her compelling formal choices, Biddinger questions the very foundations of existing systems of knowledge. It is through this provocative matching of form and content that she asks the reader to reconsider what is possible within these established frameworks for understanding the world around us, and to embrace a more expansive definition of “knowledge.”
With that in mind, Biddinger’s use of couplets proves impressive as the book unfolds. By presenting us with carefully orchestrated chaos within these formal constraints, she suggests that established systems of knowledge—whether academic, scientific, or legal—serve only to conceal the unruliness of the world around us. Biddinger’s use of subtle stylistic choices to convey meaning is one of the great strengths of this stunning collection. Consider “Collections,” in which she writes,
It was only me on a borrowed dirt bike
outside the gas station, impatient for you
to be born. In the meantime shoplifting
every new glass tumbler they issued.
Sometimes I would make a fist and slip
my entire hand inside. It looked like
a specimen… (15)
Here Biddinger creates an expectation of orderliness within the poem, namely through her careful choice of form and the visual appearance of the piece. As the speaker “shoplifts” and wreaks havoc on a “borrowed dirt bike,” however, Biddinger prompts the reader to reconsider their definition of “order.” She suggests that chaos and order can coexist within the same narrative space, that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. O Holy Insurgency is filled with poems like this one, in which style and technique serve to complicate the poem’s content, adding to the possibilities for interpretation on the part of the reader.
As the book unfolds, Biddinger alludes to various received literary constructs, then adeptly undermines the readerly expectations that accompany them. Literary tradition is no longer static. Rather, Biddinger envisions our literary past as inherently changeable, and subject to constant revision. Approached with these ideas in mind, her titles are especially well-chosen. Filled with words like “Bildungsroman,” “Prelude,” “Proclamation,” the titles conjure various associations that complicate the pieces themselves. She explains in “Bildungsroman,”
shimmied across the floor of the cafeteria
and all the women ripped their pantyhose
in anticipation. We commandeered both
microphones and I sang to you the ballad
of my haunted eyelid… (31)
By calling the piece “Bindungsroman,” Biddinger calls up a host of well-established literary conventions, suggesting that the work will adhere to them. The poem itself retains a nonsensical quality, particularly as Biddinger describes “the ballad/of a haunted eyelid” and women “ripping their pantyhose.” It is this nonsensical, even surreal, choice of imagery that complicates the title of the poem, asking us to reconsider our definition of a coming of age story. For Biddinger, the conventions associated with this literary genre, and many others, are not meant to be reproduced exactly. Rather, they are part of a conversation, in which each participant must make an original contribution, often by recasting what came before. The book is filled with carefully crafted poems like this one, in which tradition and innovation, chaos and order, and even “Michael Bolton” coexist gracefully within the same rhetorical space. In short, a wonderful collection from a gifted poet.