Frequent readers will know that I'm a huge fan of Traci Brimhall's work and recently became her friend as well. Bias revealed.
Traci's second book, Our Lady of the Ruins, which won the Barnard Women Poets Prize, has been my most anticipated read for 2012. Today, with a cup of coffee and Yo-Yo Ma's recording of the Bach cello suites as accompaniment, I dove into the book. As the contest winning book is published by W.W. Norton, I wasn't surprised by the high quality cover and the quality of the paper for the pages. (Yes, this still matters to me, although I'm not opposed to e-books. However, when I read a traditional book, I want the object itself to be worthy of the content. In this case, it is!)
This book is a startling excavation of a war-torn world through the eyes of a group of women in search of health, peace, and a religion that makes sense in this nearly post-apocalyptic environment. The book does not point to any specific war, and while the references to religion do contain many elements of Christianity, there is a more universal quest here. The poems in the book take several approaches in terms of speaker. There is the choral "we" of the group of women; there is the "I" of one specific woman; and from time to time there is a more distant, third-person telling in terms of describing some other group, a "they." I find this fascinating. The majority of the poems move between the "we" and the "I," with the long poem in the middle "Hysteria: A Requiem" providing both. In that poem, the "we" speaks in lines with staggered breaks and deep indents on the top 3/4 of the page, while the "I" speaks in prose poems on the bottom 1/4 of the page. Very cool. By weaving the choral voice with the singular speaker, Traci provides an insight into how women as a group are ravaged by war or plague or being the less empowered of the two genders, along with how one particular speaker survives her specific sufferings. Yet, this is not necessarily an anti-male book. Rather, it is an anti-patriarchy book, and both war and religion have long been the bastions of patriarchy, with women and children's voices often unheard.
In this book there are repeated images of fire/burning/branding/embers, failed motherhood, death by violence, new religious rites, the ocean, the forest, and the plains. There are birds and foxes, wolves and whales, and there is a lion threading through, a constant threat/challenge. There are dead children, plagues, curses, and litanies to any god who might listen. There are also two key themes of opposition. The first is the idea of nostalgia battling it out with the desire to purge the past and make a new beginning. The second is the main theme of the book: faith versus doubt in a world wounded and scarred.
Here's a taste from "Sans Terre."
We navigate the dunes by stars and sidewinders.
It's not the grail we want, but to journey toward
our longing. We want to find the tomb empty.
And this from "Pilgrimage."
The grass repeats its eternal rumor
that everything which dies grows
a new body. We are faithful pilgrims
seeking your unfaithful hand, trying
to journey farther than our doubt,
Finally, here's the ending from "Late Novena," one of the single speaker poems. In the poem, the speaker is listing the things she could tell the dead. I'm picking up in the midst of a list, so imagine the phrase "I can..." before this bit.
..., or tell you the force tugging
planets toward a star is called longing. A black hole
is called beautiful. I tell you a word's sharp edge
can split the stitches binding your unrepentant lips.
Come back. Tell us what you've seen. Tell us
you met a god so reckless, so lonely, it will love us all.
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Our Lady of the Ruins
W. W. Norton, 2012