Mary Biddinger is one of those poets who seems always to have been with me. I could not tell you when I first came across her name or her work, whether it was from reading a poem or seeing her name as editor. She is one of those amazing multi-talented people who seems to do it all: raise her beautiful children, write amazing books of poetry, edit the journal Barn Owl Review, direct the NEOMFA program, and teach at the University of Akron.
I'm pretty sure she's a superhero.
I know she's a superhero poet. For full disclosure, I reviewed her first book, Prairie Fever, here.
Saint Monica is a chapbook, recently released (as in, I can still smell the glue on the binding and the ink setting on the page) by Black Lawrence Press. Weighing in at 18 poems of one or two pages each, this is a mighty chapbook, and I suspect that the poems may be composed of the theoretical dark matter; they drag me in and weigh heavy on my heart. They are a black hole in the best possible sense.
(If you are a scientist and I screwed up those metaphors, I beg your forgiveness. Feel free to leave a comment of explanation!)
As I mentioned in my review of Lee Ann Roripaugh's On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, I admire the well-used epigraph. Biddinger offers us the entry for Saint Monica from the Patron Saint Index, and in doing so, sets the tone for the book and prepares us for some of the more difficult content to come. Aside from the biographic details, we learn that Saint Monica is the patron of such people as: abuse victims, alcoholics, disappointing children, housewives, victims of adultery, wives, &etc.
Each poem title begins with "Saint Monica..." For example, we have "Saint Monica of the Gauze," "Saint Monica Gives It Up," and "Saint Monica and the Itch." Each poem is a persona poem featuring Monica, a girl of working-class heritage, and we see her progress from childhood to a difficult adulthood. Several poems weave an alternate life for Monica, a life in which she chose a different man, a better man. These are narrative poems written in a well-balanced variety of forms. There are couplets and tercets and longer stanzas, and there are several prose poems.
One of the things I admire most about Biddinger's work is her ability to write narrative poems without losing the music of the well-chosen word. Here are a few excerpts of "Saint Monica of the Gauze," the first poem in the book, as example.
The room is red with iodine. Her ears stop
and her thighs slacken against
the bed. The owls would like to unwrap
her, as owls do, always looking
for the next loose shutter ... .
...They say that she will get out.
There will be time and muscle
enough for hanging wet towels on a line.
Listen again to "slacken against" butting up against "unwrap" and the way "next loose shutter" sounds like a stutter. Then, at the end, hear how "line" echoes "time" and "muscle" works with "wet towels" to give us that sense of a girl wrung out by life. The whole book is filled with this kind of subtle music building a dirge for Monica.
Perhaps the most blatantly heartbreaking poem in the book is a prose poem, "Saint Monica Stays the Course." It is too lengthy to quote in its entirety here, but we get the overview of Monica's life very early in the book. The poem begins with Monica as a girl having been granted the privilege of walking in the May Crowning procession and receiving instruction on what to do in case someone passes out or gets her period or pukes along the way: "whatever happens, do not stop marching." Variations of this phrase "keep marching" are repeated throughout the poem (and throughout Monica's life), providing a key poetic element in the prose form. Later the refrain is lengthened to include "proceed as planned," and the setting moves to Monica grown up, now with a job as a cocktail waitress and an abusive man in her life. The poem ends with a description of physical abuse and then this:
If he appears above you in the middle of the night, reeking of Wild Turkey and Kools, do not push him away. Proceed as planned. You have done this before.
Ah, sweet Monica, you are so like many of the girls/women I've known, both personally in my youth and now in my job as a community college instructor, these women who become trapped in a brutal life because they were told from their childhood that this was their fate, that they are to blame for their own bad choices and must take whatever comes as a consequence, that they will always be doing penance with no hope for redemption.
Towards the end of the book, we do find some joy in Monica's life, some hope for the future, in her son. Biddinger writes in "Saint Monica and the Babe":
Since the day he was born he was never
quite real. Monica keeps him in
her bed at night, won't share him
with the crib rails or midnight creaks.
She wonders if she should pray to him,
ask him questions nobody could answer.
The poem is bittersweet, as Monica seems to be placing an unbearable burden on her son, but for a moment there is tenderness and love there.
Throughout the book, Catholicism lingers in the background. While the poems do not judge the Church and its rites, they do ask the reader to question the relationship between Catholicism and the working-class characters in the book, especially the women who seem to take on suffering like a shroud.
Support a Poet / Poetry
Buy or Borrow a Copy of This Book TodaySaint Monica
Black Lawrence Press, 2011
***Remember that if you buy directly from the press, they make a ton more money and will be more likely to stay in business. If not the press, consider buying from Better World Books, which offers discounts comparable to those of the major chains and uses its profits to promote literacy in the US and abroad.