May 12, 2010

Here's a paper I gave a few summers ago at the West Chester Poetry Festival.

A review of Marjorie Maddox's WEEKNIGHTS AT THE CATHEDRAL

In George Walton Williams' introduction to his 1970 edition of THE COMPLETE POETRY OF RICHARD CRASHAW, he begins with a startling sentence: "Richard Crashaw may be considered the most un-english of all the English poets." And later on in that same paragraph he points out that Eliot, still something of a cultural force at that time, similarly found Crashaw's style "fundamentally foreign to the spirit of English poetry." I bring up these observations for two reasons. Firstly, I think Crashaw's "A Hymn to Sainte Teresa" may well be the most exquisite mystical poem in our language, not a good sign than if it is un-English and, perhaps by extension, un-American; that is, if it is something we cannot of simply choose not to do--write mystical sacramental poetry which actually includes the body. And secondly, I think those sentences and what follows in this review will help me to demonstrate that the largely incestuous American literary Christian party generally speaking simply will not embrace poetry which actually points out that God has a pretty traditional notion of sin, nor that he makes serious demands on His people.
Marjorie Maddox's latest book, WEEKNIGHTS AT THE CATHEDRAL, is in many ways a tonic for this kind of religious block-headedness. She offers up a poetry which moves in the direction of the body, a poetry which stands up for the whole truth of the gospel. As a result, though, as a Catholic now--she has just converted, she will probably never get invited to "Prairie Home Companion," "Fresh Air," or "All Things Considered," nor will her faithful work ever get published by "The Atlantic," "Poetry," Norton, or HarperCollins, she will have the gratitude of many earnest and genuine pilgrims. (WordTech editions, a smaller, bolder press gets the credit here.)
Crashaw's poetry, my primary example, includes the body--in spades; it is profoundly and authentically Catholic in that regard. In fact, it finds its most exalted mystical utterance when speaking from a place where mind and body are, in fact, one. Great overt American Protestant verse, generally speaking, while it can be very good--think of religious poets as diverse as Richard Wilbur and Luci Shaw's--seems to spring from a cultural sensibility which reveals itself more through both an exalted, disembodied intellect and a concern for blessed perserverence-of-the-saints conduct than it does through a contemplation of mysticism wich is centered in the body.
And just to give you two other more extreme example of that sensibility which places a very high value on disembodies intellect and blessed conduct, though neither have to do with poetry directly, allow me to point out David L. Edwards' narrative voice in JOHN DONNE, MAN OF FLESH AND SPIRIT and the main preacher character in GILEAD, Marilyn Robinson's justly-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel (in this latter case versus say Greene's THE POWER AND THE GLORY). Both speakers are as moral as God, or darned close: admirable, people you would like your children to grow up and be like in many ways, and yet, as I read the books, I couldn't imagine actually having a beer with either person. One would have to run out of the bar. Each lives so far above the body, in a place so full of "coulds" and "shoulds" that it might prove exhausting just to try and get a belly laugh out of either.
And if one were to compare those largely admirable sensibilities to someone truly embodied, radically sacramentalized like, say, St. Benedict Labre, he'd have to scratch his head, ask: where would this flea-bitten saint, this Christian loser come down on the conduct scale? Would he pass the "We are blessed" test" I don't think so. And neither would St. Theresa of Avila come to think of it. She was an odd bird as well: an introvert, a contemplative; she longed for martyrdom even as a child, actually marched away to find the Moors. She'd be under McCarthy-like suspicion in literary America, I think: she just didn't behave in a socially acceptable liberal, Christian or secular, way. And yet, as we look at Teresa's life, at these lines in Crashaw's poem about her, we see someone who was much MORE human than most of us are, someone who had been truly set apart, but always within a feeling, important body:
Blest powers forbid, Thy tender life
Should bleed upon a barborous knife;
Or some base hand have power to race
Thy Brest's cabinet, and uncase
A soul kept there so sweet o no'
Wise heaven will never have it so.
Thou are love's victim; and must dy
A death more mystical and high.
Into love's armes thou shalt let fall
A still-surviving funeral.
Crashaw then drives the message physically, painfully home.
O how oft shalt thou complain
Of a sweet and subtle Pain.
Of intolerable joyes;
Of a Death, in which who dyes
Loves his death, and dyes again.
And would fo ever so be slain.
And lives, and dyes; and knows not why
To live, but that he thus may never leave to dy.
How kindly will thy gentle heart
Kiss the sweetly-killing dart!
The saint longed for the excruciating experience, because, as Catherine Doherty has put, pain, rightly understood, is the kiss of Christ. Teresa understood that. Most of us don't. She was an embodied person who would've agreed with Doherty's exhortation that each Christian needs to learn to "fold the wings of his intellect," to experience life holistically, sacramentally. Or, to put that idea into the words the larger scope and goal of St. Theophane the Recluse: "The principal thing is to stand before God, with your mind in your heart, day and night, until the end of your life." (No one of "Fresh Air" or "prairie Home Companion" does this.)
Crashaw achieves this in these great lines. His character lives and breathes where she thinks. there is no "dissociation of sensibility" in the words of Eliot--something he himself could not avoid, brilliant though his work is.
And that brings us to Maddox, a fine Christian poet whose overtly religious work seems to occupy a position part way home. (As I say, she became A Catholic shortly after this book was published.) The poetry in this book is marvelously metaphysical, both as far as technique and sensibility goes. She places a great deal of stock in the embodied spiritual life, too, mostly when she's feeling joy and repentance--though, thankfully she doesn't limit herself to those. And even if she doesn't examine deeply-rooted, embodied sin or a mysticism which includes the body to the degree we might want, still, we should remember that it is not yet her rhetorical project to do so. She writes to bring the light of the Absolute Christ to the literary masses, and has justly had much success in doing so. Her poems are often very funny, too, revealing as they do a profound knowledge of the human condition; they hit squarely home because she knows who and what we are, and she knows who and how God is--what He demands from us.
The conduct part, no surprise, is very much in evidence here as well: she is well-behaved, has a healthy psyche and well-directed will--it would be silly to speak of such thing in a negative light. She may, in fact, be as close as our Contemporary Puritanically-soaked American culture and publishing world (secular or sacred) can get to offering a fully embodied Christian voice, one that recognizes both sides of the Christian experience: on the one hand, justice issues and the moral nuances involved in any healthy relationship, and on the other, the awe-ful holiness of the living God, the black-and-white demands He makes on his people. To her immense credit, she realizes that the real trick in pilgrimage is not to find a place for God within a secular perspective, but rather, to attempt to turn our self-serving perspectives into Christ-centered spiritual ones.
This takes courage. After all, will the more powerful literary world ever accept a vision which in any way indicts it? Probably not. Still, she stays her admirable course: she never neglects the absolute holiness and demands of God--as so many horizontally-obsessed Christian poets seem to do.
The first section of this book is wonderfully direct in revealing what it's up to In fact, her whole project is nicely summed up in the title of the first offering: "How to fit God into a Poem." Here she's at her comic and metaphysical best, doing what she can to take the reality of Jesus and church to a very dim world. Part I begins with this stanza:
Read him
Break him into stanzas.
Give him a pet albatross
and a bon voyage party.
Glue achetypes on his wings with Elmers,
or watch as he soars part the Slough of Despond
in a DC-lO.
The approach is very typical, canny. We get Coleridge, Jung, and Bunyon, all alluded to in a very funny stanza. What secular person could object: the thing is so absurdly apt. Imagine: God, in the present postmodern age! He does not fit--but wait. He's never fit before either. Bunyon wrote his poem in jail, and Coleridge, Christian though he was, could only struggle to formulate a way to get Christ into his life, or was that his life into Christ? The Jung reference serves a slightly different purpose. It demonstrates to the reader that this in no knee-jerk fundamentalist Christian poet. Depth psychology is embraced, as is the contemporary world, including postmodern poetic concerns: "Break him into stanzas." Clearly Maddox's goal her is to move as far away from Stevens' "high-toned Christian woman" as she can, and in doing so, away from what any editor might ruefully expect in the way of cliche Christianity. She turns the expected on its head, and does so with metaphysical humor, regularity. What other poet, after all, would yoke "the Rime of the Ancient Mariner" with a "bon voyage party," Bunyon's "Slough of Despond" with a jet?
Maddox's method is clear: present Jesus in a way that says yes to what we are, stopping the reader in his tracks as she does so by insisting that these Christian poems resist the cliche. Other examples can be found throughout the poem: most people might expect the traditionally religious poet to be conservative, a formalist. But Maddox will have none of that. Speaking of God, she derisively says, "Cram him into iambic pentameter"; and then to show us she is not literary snob: "publish him annually/in the new yorker"! (In the next poem she brings in Richard Simmons! Remember that guy!)
God plays trick or treat, hide-and-go-seek in these poems. He goes fishing, He walks a tightrope. And why wouldn't he? She's clearly having fun, but her mind is always engaged as she's doing so, snackling with noise, like it's charged with static electricity. Near the end of the section, for example, she shifts gears a bit on her reader. She moves from talking about God to talking about angels. and for a very good reason--because any attempt to put in a box must necessarily fail. This shift emphasizes this point because these angels are not theologically correct angels. They are, rather, her very self-consciously produced, slightly oddball poetic creations. They are, to put it another way, quite literally, he imagination, her self on the page. In fact, she comically merges with them, presenting a world of imperfect praise because that is all the language will finally allow her to do. (In smaller letters, she co-creates the world and finds it good!)
And the angels are delighted to find this imperfection. consider one of them wo ends up in the women's section of a department store.
You try on a bra that's too big and charge it.
Shaking hands with girdle-clad mannequins,
you saunter from aisle to aisle,
dressing room to dressing room.
Naked, you stand before mirrors
searching for stretch mark.
You press pale hands against breasts and smile.
Since the angels here are so obviously products of her imagination, they give her part of the stage: the two of them, angel and woman poet, are one created fictional person. And by moving in this way to angels/herself, again, she accomplishes two things: firstly, she has necessarily distanced herself from any claim to absolute theological accuracy and perception, and secondly, she has emphasized the process itself. All this writing is an exercise in searching as well as finding after all.
I once heard an Archbishop say that the angels must envy us because they cannot love a God who is invisible to them. they cannot offer Him that gift. And so though we may be a lower order, Maddox is emphasizing, too, that ours is a good (if fallen) one. Our sad and imperfect bodies are beautiful for the same reason that our lives are. We are imperfect, but we are a created order, just like the angels, though unlike them we have an advantage in that we can migrate toward God! So here Maddox, a mother herself, rejoices in her journey, her own flawed body, the once she begins to thoroughly inhabit, stretch marks and all.
The second section is big fun as well. It is composed of mostly personal poems which then slide into overtly metaphysical ones about the high Protestant sacramental life. In the first poem of the section, entitled "Weeknights at the Cathedral," the name she's given to the whole collection, she gathers us, the body of Christ, into the text. The characters in this particular narrative are a soprano boy who can't sing, a priest who suffers through every minute of that, and a beggar woman in the fourth pew. Which are you? Which is Christ? All of them of course. And this is a note she sounds often in the collection. We are where we start with our charity: "love your neighbors as yourselves." And who is every beggar we ever meet by Christ, a Christ who is also miraculously present in an absolute, palpable way in us, in His Mystical body, in the now. All all of this is delivered with the earnestness of a believer who realizes the extent of her/our need. This isn't Sunday at the cathedral, after all, it's "weeknights."
In the second poems of the section, she delightfully moves against Stein (Gertrude, not Edith) in her praise of a comma, here found in the "Apostle's Creed": "of all that is, seen and not seen." It's a very nice poem. Like Paul, we know that "we walk by faith and not by sight." And we know too that to hurry anywhere is a mistake in the spiritual life; we need to live in God's infused contemplative presence. The first step in any spiritual wealk, after all, is always learning how to stand, and still.
Maddox is still strongly Protestant, too here, in a good way. Her poems reveal the strong will of a healthy person, a sense of decorum too. These poems have good posture. And she's a nice, almost equal mix of the two sensibilities: the intellectual Protestant and the contemplative Catholic.
Throughout the collection, two things remain constant: Maddox is an orthodox Christian, and she knows how to write outside the expected Christian box. She usually does so, as I have noted earlier, employing humor, but not always. there are other edges as well. Look at the two poems about abortion. These are entitled "Dread Is the Language by Which We Disguise Our Deeds" and "The Third Day of Christmas." Both poems are written from contemporary woman's point of view--something of a surprise in itself (Doesn't she ever want to win a Pulitzer?)--and take on society's sick and pressing need to divest itself of its children.
In the first poem "Dread" may be a typo for "Dead"--or it may not. It's no secret that we have to kill language in most instances before we kill innocent people (or savages):
. . . the two dead children alive
again for the ten seconds it takes to read
in newsprint the absence of their breath

a mistake of transposition
A Down's Syndrome child is mistakenly identified, and her "healthy" twin is aborted first. the correction, happy day, is made, and now everybody can be normal again:
. . . the mis-filed, the not-
chosen, the-accidentally-left--
for, inconveniently worded, dead.
The anger is just, and the pome accurate in its way--since the actual dead have been so for some time, walking around like that, trying to have perfect children.
How can one be too angry here? As the father of a lovely Down's boy, I can't express the extent of cultural sickness completely enough. If you want to know joy, have a Down's child. You can take that sweet and wide chubby hand in yours, cross the street for many, many years if you're lucky.
To Maddox's credit, she's fierce here. And she doesn't stop with the elimination of "imperfect" children. She bemoans the act itself, for any reason:
In Rama there is weeping,
in Charleston, in Bismark,
in Portland, in Trenton,
in Pittsburgh, in New Orleans,
in Santa Rose, in the thin sac that holds us
from heaven. . . .
This is very bold, and welcome--especially gratifying from someone who's so set on reaching the popular culture.
Maddox knows there is only one way to be saved: "the icons waiting" as she says at the end of "The Episcopal Priest Cleans Out His Office." We know the truth and must wait of It, live a life of self-sacrifice which is love. This is what we are all called to do; this is the nature of love, both human and divine.
I must say, again as well, that I really enjoyed Maddox's healthy Protestant sense of self, will in these poems. they brought sister's Wendy's painting videos to mind. At the beginning of the one of the Renaissance, the good nun tells us that the period really begin with Masaccio. And as she looks at his picture of Adam and Eve being turned out of Eden, or rather, turning themselves out, she tells us that here is the Renaissance: "Humanity, as upright, suffering but responsible." That's Maddox. she asserts, has a will to believe. A short poem, "The Existence of," demonstrates as much:
It has nothing to do with moon.
Even a sliver of night punched out
is you looking through
from something not-quite day.
A slow blink. A slice of sleep.
An opening into Eden. A closing.
It lasts as long as the earth
drips from your fingertips,
was once said to be good
by you. What it is
not is the line that divides,
the wrong edge of belief,
the thread of horizon I wake to
when everything is gray.
The poems have a strong Protestant feel, though they are too lively, technically interesting and body-centered to be boring. Look at the striking metaphysical imagery in "Substantiation":
Such swallowing of limbs,
ingestion of veins, begins again in us
his resurrection, the rough
rock of our unworthiness
rolled away
on the red carpet
of tongue.
Or "Concomitance":
Nailed now in our throats,
miracle and man stirred
into morsel and sip,
his Lama Sabachthani's flatten
the bricks of our teeth,
rend in twain our tongues,
commission our lips to leave
bleeding for more.

And of course there is always the humor. Christ eclipses all our sorry expectations. You can get a sense of that just by looking at some of the titles in the third section: "Fiacra, Patron Saint of Cab Drivers," "Patron Saints of Baseball," "Vitus, Patron Saint of Comedians," "Nicholas of Myra, Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers."
This is where we live, in a Nazareth where we find our lives--inside our good and fallen bodies; in the ordinary, yes, but in a world which also offers us enough joy, humor and chances at repentance to make the days "abundant," exquisitely worthwhile. After all, that IS why Dante called this crazed pilgrimage THE COMEDY.