Used well, the collective perspective affords the poet a wider voice, a surer sense. The reader feels present in these moments of ruin, trusting even the more fantastical occurrences.
The world is nearly dead, so “we steal an hour from the future and burn / all the books so history begins with us.” Our Lady of the Ruins, Traci Brimhall’s second collection of poetry, considers such a world. The genesis of this destruction varies between a plague, war, and revolution, but the result is consistent: a group of women “put away our lamentation, / our children’s cradles, / and dance with all the required ecstasy.” Brimhall offers an original, near-apocalyptic vision presented through a collective voice.
“Music from a Burning Piano” begins the book, asking the reader to “imagine half the world ends,” and “a piano lit on fire and pushed off a roof. / Music falls past windows, but it never meets its shadow.” Brimhall makes such imagination easy. Most of the poems in Our Lady of the Ruins are narrated by “we:” women struggling to survive some unnamed catastrophe. Used well, the collective perspective affords the poet a wider voice, a surer sense. The reader feels present in these moments of ruin, trusting even the more fantastical occurrences: “We tell frostbitten grass about girls who traded their bodies to soldiers for bread;” “A pregnant woman drowns herself in a well. No one drinks from it now.”
The collective voice is used for more than mere observation: these women respond to the surrounding destruction through action. When “old soldiers prophesy the new war,” the community “build[s] the wall higher. We lock the gates.” In “Our Bodies Break Light,” “we crawl through the tall grass and idle light, / our chests against the earth so we can hear the river / underground.” Elsewhere “we meet a priest who pulls a rope / of thorns through his tongue to make his mind / pure enough for a vision.”
The narrators of Our Lady of the Ruins struggle to document such a newly destroyed world, but not from any inability on the part of the poet. Rather, Brimhall crafts such fragmentary with skill, and her choice is appropriate to a thematic concern of the collection. Our Lady of the Ruins is God-full, though the mysterious divine is both capitalized and not. These women frame a new Gospel, one feminine-centered, and their collective voice has the trappings of an amoebic religious community. Like any new community arising from the remnants of the old, these narrators affix imperfect flesh to the skeleton of tried belief. Brimhall is firmly aware of her Judeo-Christian typology, yet her book refigures these “old secrets.” Perhaps it is better to consider her work apocrypha, a text in the Gnostic tradition. The talking cross of the Gospel of Peter would be well at home in Brimhall’s canon.
Many of Brimhall’s allusions do double work: shaping a docetic vision while also documenting a new synoptic religious text. Old phrases are made new in “Pilgrimage”: “we recite from the book where it is written / that you so loved the world you disguised / yourself as a hawk and also as the arrow / in its breast.” “Hysteria: A Requiem,” formally presented with indented lines on each page followed by a responsorial prose section at the bottom, represents the inherent struggle between belief and body. Here Brimhall follows in Ron Hansen’s tradition of Mariette in Ecstasy: the visceral intersection of female sexuality and faith.
Through female-focused, men are not absent from Our Lady of the Ruins. Often narrators keep their distance from untrustworthy priests, and one particular line feels emblematic: “never forgive a man who wants to save you.” Curiously, Brimhall saves unnamed monks for the best representation of men. These monks “follow us with brooms, barefoot.” They are gentle, and “won’t speak / because they cannot bear the way sound travels / and returns.” These monks, though, only provide temporary guidance, and cannot truly provide the answers these women seek. One comfortably docetic poem, “The Shepherd of Lesser Gods,” is a testament to the necessity of doubt, and an example of how these women create meaning internally. Each day they “wake to a new god and devour / an old vision.” They are jaded by ruin, so
Nothing surprises us, not even our own salvation.
Not even waking to a weeping Madonna by our beds
lamenting that god is chained to the men who made him.
Jaded, but not hopeless. Though sometimes “ a missing body is still mistaken for a miracle,” the narrators pledge: “We look for you.” They find fragments: “thorns in our hair, but never / a shroud.” They hear that their savior is buying icons “of yourself” at a market, but only find “the dead hunting for their ashes.”
The theme of collective spiritual seeking returns in “The Labyrinth,” where the women “pay to walk” and “be changed.” They “rehearse the story to resurrect / the truth” through humming “unwritten hymns.” Here “madonnas shiver in the nascent dark / of their robes.” A haunting setting is created, but Brimhall is clear that “the abyss isn’t infinite” because “a half-light lurks.” The narrators “swear to be good, to love / our mothers, but even when we lie to God / he listens.” The poem cleverly returns to the larger, fractured world in the final lines: “The walls whistle their low warning. / Wind sings through bullet holes in the windows.”
Appropriate to the title, Our Lady of the Ruins offers a fresh patron saint to the pained and lost. The entire book carries the weight of a poet intensely concerned with a world beyond this apocalyptic present: “Is it luckier to have a redeemer / who will kill for you? One who will die for you?” Our Lady of the Ruins dramatizes the aftermath of destruction and revolution, a world where the collective narrator pleads: “Don’t tell us we’re too late. / We swear we’re not saved.” That same narrator wonders if “there is no paradise / waiting for us, so why ask for miracles?” Brimhall’s poems convince the reader to ponder similar questions, yet to do so armed with a freeing poetic skepticism.