Fingers Through Sweat-Curled Hair
Biddinger’s repeated returns to haptic perception as a legitimized approach to the divine, or a sense of peace or benediction, amounts to an aesthetic necessity, alongside the necessity of putting iconicity and holy writ in relationship with narrative, reality, and the arbitrary nature of violence, accident, and error.
The principal muse of Saint Monica is none other than Saint Monica, patron saint of, among other persons, abuse victims, alcoholics, difficult marriages, widows, and wives. Monica is also the mother of St. Augustine, perhaps best known in that context for her long-suffering and unremitting prayers of intercession while Augustine lived a life of happy profligacy in Carthage. Biddinger’s take on this figure is to imagine a present-day figure Monica and to follow her through adolescence and young adulthood, christening her along the way with attributes that more resemble those of Augustine than Monica—which is to say, more resemble a “real person” with her share of failed dreams, tragedies, and a healthy dose of impenitence despite the outer façade of domestic saintliness and the rancor such appearances incite (“Years later, they would hate/ Monica for the brilliance of her peonies,/ the straightness of her children’s bangs./ For the way she did it all, and still baked/ the best cherry walnut cobbler on the block”). Many of the book’s questions demand reframing: “Is the correct answer to a word/ ever another word, or is it a cool palm/ on the forehead, a half-hush,/ fingers through sweat-curled hair?” Biddinger’s repeated returns to haptic perception as a legitimized approach to the divine, or a sense of peace or benediction, amounts to an aesthetic necessity, alongside the necessity of putting iconicity and holy writ in relationship with narrative, reality, and the arbitrary nature of violence, accident, and error.
This latter element pervades the closing poem in Saint Monica (“Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star”), a poem of quiet gravity whose carefully arranged sestets superimpose chance upon hope, with harrowing—because chronological-time-defying—results, among others, wherein superstition is linked with prayer, and the emergence of selfhood, with a rejection (or exhaustion) of both: “Somewhere she heard: kiss all four walls/ if you want to return. She won’t be kissing/ any of these walls tonight . . . ”
While veering toward the ecstatic (“Would she have to wait for the flush/ of blood, or would the transformation// be instantaneous?”), the speaker never abandons grim realities (“If your fiancé slams you against a wall/ and you suffer a concussion upon impact . . . keep marching to the bathroom with a bottle of Windex and a roll/ of paper towels and make that crooked mirror shine”), and throughout, the speaker delights in moments of “revelation” that insist not upon worldly transcendence but a firm commitment to the real, with all the horror and innocence it contains (“When Kevin McMillan/ winked at her, Monica unbuttoned her shirt, showed the hot pink/ swimsuit underneath”). Believers who insist the Virgin Mary appeared to them in a swirl of diesel in Cheyenne aside, the speaker enacts a brand of materially substantiated faith that transcends doctrine and at times, even hope.
Most of the poems speak to rites of passage common to all, such as “Saint Monica Gives it Up” and “Saint Monica’s Sweet Sixteen”; among the book’s other outstanding poems are the densely layered narrative prose poems, including “Saint Monica Composes a Five-Paragraph Essay on Girard’s Theory of Triangular Desire.” If Girard was right, and all desire, mimetic or not, is at its root metaphysical (“all desire is a desire to be”), Monica’s growing awareness of self amid a backdrop of indoctrination is indeed a feat of imagination on behalf of her author, no more so than when she encounters the other—both in the sense of shared tribulations and the joy of coexistence: “It takes her seven minutes/ to realize that she is not alone.”