The Patron Saint of Bad Marriages and Atomic Bombs in Peace Time
Reese’s poems…often bless the patience and attention of the reader by not demanding it.
Early in Rita Mae Reese’s first book, The Alphabet Conspiracy, comes a short poem called “Waiting for Lightning”:
Who I am begins here:
just outside the open door,
my aunt vanishing—
her thick hair a black
nimbus over features
fading in the sunlight,
legs gone in the tangle
of dogs leaping
around her feet, face
translucent as vodka.
The first line tells us that we’ll learn something essential about the speaker. The writing that follows is figurative, sometimes self-consciously so (“her thick hair a black / nimbus”; “legs gone in the tangle / of dogs”); at other times, it approaches a kind of poetic boilerplate, as in the simile of “face / translucent as vodka.” All this is arranged in lines of roughly equal length. In other words, it’s “poetry” if not yet poetry—in the ineffable, taking-the-top-of-your-head-off sense. We get a skillfully told story that we’re told has great meaning for the speaker/poet, of an instant of her aunt’s “vanishing,” and it’s lovely and all, but not until the ending does the force of meaning, by some mysterious something-or-other, get transferred from poet to audience:
I was four and craved
what she was beyond
inside of her breaking.
The subtle energy of those lines, prolonged by the enjambment, “beyond / enduring,” reminds us that lineation is always an act of meaning. The fragmentation of the poem’s last phrase (leaving “the light” to dangle, externally, before being resituated, in the last line, within her aunt), enacts the enchanting breaking (out) the title promises. If the preceding lines don’t (for me) have the beauty and mystery of the conclusion, it might be that I’m apprehensive about getting a schematic, and merely pleasant, answer to the implied question of the opening. But I don’t get it. Instead, ending the poem on the falling cadence of “her breaking”—rhyming, almost, with “enduring”—brings a suspended conclusion, to be continued in the being of the person telling us the poem, in her poetry.
Like “Waiting for Lightning,” many of the poems here proceed somewhat flatly before something remarkable happens. Take “Saint Rita.” Named after the patron saint of impossible cases, on account of keeping her faith despite a pretty miserable life, the speaker tells us,
I went to bed as Gilda
and woke up me again,
still the patron saint
of bad marriages
and atomic bombs
in peace time, still dancing
in black and white.
This is fine writing—it’s fine!—but the poem becomes in its second half something mildly wondrous and true, especially as considered in the voice of one who has suffered much:
There are cows dying
of old age in the pasture
and calves with faces of young boys,
steady and self-contained
living out awed lives
in fields of green sway.
They never think of me
and for this I bless them.
Reese’s poems, like the livestock described here, often bless the patience and attention of the reader by not demanding it.
Of course, one’s patience and attention can be taxed, and not all of Reese’s work pays on the reader’s investment. This is most commonly the case in poems directly addressing the conspiracy of the book’s title, which suggests that language’s tendency to aggregate meanings and power beyond our own intentions or agency is some sort of plot. It’s consequences are especially treacherous, the book tells us, when it comes to describing those great abstractions we stake our commitments to: Love, for example, or God.
Look at the poem “A Key to Pronunciation: /SÄLM/.” Addressed to the pronunciation key of the title, and using the cadences and constructions of the 23rd Psalm—the one that famously begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd”—the speaker tells us,
Yea, though I talk through the valley
of the Great Vowel Shift, I fear no
suprasegmentals. Thy virgules
and thy stress marks, they comfort me.
Despite being mildly amusing, both its slight self-satisfaction and its imprecision (can a single syllable word contain a stress mark?) make for a poem more interesting in idea than in fact. What seems to animate Reese’s investigations into how words have been (ab)used throughout history is a desire to uncover those situations where words, like bondmaid or brothel, box people into identities not chosen of themselves.
This is admirable, at times stirring (as in “The Whore’s Guide to Etymology”), but too often the poems in this mode feel like exercises, expressing outrages of the intellect and not of the heart. For example, the opening poem of the book, “Intercession,” marches through the alphabet to give us an alliterative list of various saints and their patronages; under “c”: “For cancer patients, pastry chefs and good confessions. / For country girls and criminals. / Against cold.” At their worst, Reese’s poems don’t seem to struggle against language’s restrictions. They seem to paint by its numbers. But at their best, they speak in deceptively straightforward, accessible language, without aiming to impart lessons to the reader. That’s not to say they’re facile. It takes skill, craft, effort, and—most of all—attention to make poems as successful as Reese’s best poems.
Perhaps unfashionably, these often derive from personal recollection, whether the narrator recalls, from her childhood, collecting rocks (“The Opposite of Falling Stars, 1978”) or nearly drowning (“Staying Under”). Or when they locate etymological curiosity within actual human relationship. The poem “Smite, Smitten” begins by observing how words, even when defined by an authority (in this case, a dictionary), contain multiple, often contradictory meanings:
My dictionary lists fourteen entries
for the verb quit, enough for a sonnet
on unrequited love. Most are rare, e.g.,
“to use one’s hands effectively” or “to let
go (something held).” Whatever else they meant
(to put in quiet, set free, absolve), quit,
quite & requite all carried this sentiment:
To pay back, to return the favor. Smit-
ten, I would strike you back, if I
The change in the poem’s subject, from the expository to the personal, is what journalists call “burying the lede,” and it shows that all investigation is investment. That may be especially true when eros is involved, where violence and affection, at least in the language we use to conceive them, are thinly divided. By making the poem a sonnet, Reese acknowledges that poetic forms, like the words we inherit, may be restrictive, but these restrictions also free us to know our motivations and our limitations. And they allow us to know each other.