Synapses Erupt Like Sparrows

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In Sancta, divinity irradiates. The afterlife approaches nuclear, dangerous and fascinating, a mysterium tremendum fascinans that can kill you with overexposure.

Since Andrew Grace’s Sancta is a book about death, you might expect to hear that it is a “dark” book. In fact, it is a light book. Death illuminates life to excess: “There is so much light we can’t keep it out of our eyes.” All through Western history, God and angels are luminous, radiant; the divine radiates. But in Sancta, divinity irradiates. The afterlife approaches nuclear, dangerous and fascinating, a mysterium tremendum fascinans that can kill you with overexposure: “…the sky is all cinders and oil. The ribs of heaven clutch its disc of sulfur…”

For Grace, the death of his father has cataclysmically washed over experience, creating a wasteland of a familiar landscape: his father’s lakeside cabin. Over the retreat hangs a “white sky” that resembles what he imagines “the mind to look like: expectant screen onto which synapses erupt like sparrows.” (I think of the opening to William Gibson’s post-apocalyptic Neuromancer: “the sky was the color of television.”) Like the forest around Chernobyl, seemingly natural, pricked with bird songs and busy mammals, this landscape is endangered and dangerous: “There are objects along the shore so undone we can only call them remnants. Deathless matter. There is joy in this, the resilience of what’s left. The hypodermic needle’s glint, archipelago of Coke. The bones that will crowd out the lake. Flesh devout as junk.”

These poems each contain seventy words. In his author’s statement available on Ahsahta Press’s website, he admits that this is unusual and somewhat arbitrary: “The natural question is: why 70 words? I have no insightful answer – it all stems from that first poem I wrote just to keep my fingers moving. The strict word count taught me how to move a poem along quickly, something I had struggled with before.” The choice to write in word-count form lead to a book with tidy, consistently appearing pages and sometimes to a compressed syntax and diction in, for example, compound phrases like “dream-sites,” “rain-soaked,” “sick-on-a-journey blues,” and “sodium-flare.” He also favors Hemingway or Salter-esque sentence fragments, as in “A penultimate fall, only aware of itself by what it spills. (Flour and hair.) Only articulated in burnt grammar. (Sorry and ash.)”

But the eyes, not the ear, are the organs in charge of this book. The tongue “needs conditioning” (58) and “description is a filibuster against emotion.” Instead, the “Look, is all. The cabin. Look. The lake” (79). The eye swells taking in, taking over. The light overworks Grace’s eyes: “At times, the eye seems charnel house of the known and can only be slaked by novelty… But tonight the eye seems instrument only, stunned as a lighthouse strobe.” Sensation takes over, and he wonders, “Have I become my senses, all else gone?” In the end, it’s “not the darkness we die of” but overexposure to this world. He tries to master through perception, to “win victories over the ordinary eye.” In the end he says he “learned: the light will never end if I don’t let it.”

At the close of the book, Grace specifies his theology implied through the text: “When I say God I mean any way of navigating the radiant aftermath of loss. And what I mean by radiance is what the lake is doing, marbled by the moonlight and shaking like a lost man.” Saints “refuse” him, but he respects them. After all he’s suffered, he says he still can “almost believe God cannot be unkind to us,” implying that God is either actively unkind or a-kind, without kindness the way the wind is without morality even when it knocks down our houses. So reduced by grief, Grace finds himself a child again but without a caretaker, looking at a world that is neutral to the point of hostility. This God blesses the dead, not the living, though Grace heretically challenges him: “Blessed are the risen. May the risen-from also be blessed.”

You have to be willing to listen to someone suffering to finish this book. You have to be willing to stay with that single theme, page after page, seventy-word poem after concise prose poem. That can test your patience, can feel like a battery the same way the light batters Grace. But many moments of illumination that validate the repetition. Jewels like this stand out: “Don’t you ever feel like description is a filibuster against emotion?” Yes, yes, I do! I thought. At the same time, the sheer honesty of his descriptions and their fidelity to concrete details compelled me on.

Although this book contains many metaphors and similes, most attempt to convey the concrete details of the lakeside setting, not death itself. Perhaps this is because “life after death” is not metaphorical or supernatural for Grace: this is his life, after the passing of his father. Death is, without comparison; his father’s passing is not like anything else or a symbol for anything else. Grace – the poet and the divine gift – tears back the curtain in front of the sanctum sanctorum and gives you that inner place with scrupulous realism.

Kascha Semonovitch’s poems have or will appear in Zyzzyva, The Colorado Review, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, The Crab Creek Review and other journals. She holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College and a doctorate in philosophy from Boston College. She has also co-edited two books of philosophical essays on twentieth century European thought. She lives in Seattle where she writes about art and culture. More from this author →