Sunday, March 31, 2019

Our Purpose in Speaking Poems by William Orem

Our Purpose in Speaking
Poems by William Orem
Wheelbarrow Books, East Lansing, 2018. 77 pages.

Reviewed by Tom Daley

“One never fully leaves the Catholic dream,” admits the speaker of the first poem of William Orem’s poetry collection, Our Purpose in Speaking, and, indeed, throughout the book, the Catholic mythology and its impact is reconsidered, confronted, and honored, sometimes with respectful wonderment, sometimes with audacious, almost heretical re-imagining.

The earnest adherent to Christianity is always interrogating the authenticity of her or his faith. Orem’s speaker in “The Vinedresser” wonders if he has really understood Thomas Aquinas’s teaching, “To suffer ecstasy is the burden of this world.” “Did I only feel that meaning hidden in his words,” the speaker ponders, in a sensually adroit comparison, “the way a tomato gardener, fingers drifting // among scratchy bundles of leaves / feels instinctively the hanging weight?” In a less philosophical vein, we hear that the coins a speaker’s mother left “for saints to find her wandered keys” (“Sonnet: My Mother Refuses Mastectomy”) were eyed by the speaker as a boy, perhaps with another use in mind than that of bribing St. Anthony.

The humanization of the saints has been a project for writers almost since the first stories were assembled. In the poem “Handmaiden,” Orem’s Virgin Mary is depicted as a sexual being (certainly a taboo in some interpretations of Catholic doctrine). With “legs like cinnamon” and “breasts like almond skins,” she is subject to the propagandistic manipulations of an angel “who placed a finger on your womb / and said: here is my text.” In a bold-tongued assertion that might titillate the pubescent altar boy and scandalize the cautious curate, the speaker insists “You felt / something enter you like a man / I saw one like a son of man / something quite up past your thighs.” But the erotic transfers, splendidly, into the miraculous: that phenomenon (the Holy Spirit in Catholic teaching) is given as “passing into you over you the wings undid your sight / suspended you from threads / sun and moon, star and womb // and someone’s groaning shadow.”

If Leda in the Yeats poem “Leda and the Swan,” is “mastered by the brute blood of the air,” the god of “Handmaiden” overwhelms with a gentler, but still almost obliterating, touch. In the mind of the nubile Mary, with “eyes / already trained in looking down” but with the assertiveness of the pubescent teenage girl (“a face // clean as wheat, dark as thunder / when crossed (all girls are)”), the experience of the ravishing might just be a mixed blessing. Her final ejaculation (and the last line of the poem),“My Lord, you have eclipsed me,” may express the gracious submission of the handmaiden of God, or it may suggest the resentment of the young woman who had other ambitions for herself than to watch her only son submit to tortures endured by no one before or after him.
Elsewhere, the revision of hagiography doesn’t quite match the subtleties and inventiveness of “Handmaiden.” In “Sonnet: Francis to the Birds,” St. Francis wants to disabuse the birds of the notion that his followers have concocted that he “came to teach you songs of mine: / a canticle of suffering.” Given that promising reversal of the normal terms of endearment between Francis and the animals, I was hoping for something that would stake out a truly original position for Francis—some point on a circumference that arcs beyond the notion that he has entered into a colloquy to be taught by the birds (“I come to hear”), not preach to them. Perhaps the saint might have hinted that the mate-seducing birdsong magnifies the reflexes of his old prodigal joys—or that he finds the birds’ constant chirping about territorial control somewhat tiresome. Instead, the saint mimics Walt Whitman in revealing that he finds their “crying hopeful airs” “superior to prayer.” (In Whitman’s case the comparison is profoundly, comically idiosyncratic—it is the scent of his armpits that trumps supplication.)

Orem manages to transform the material of the Christian liturgy and calendar into epiphanies, even for the secular minded. In “Christmas Eve, North of Dolan, Indiana,” the speaker’s car has struck a doe. The sheriff he has summoned to blast the deer out of its misery readies for the kill and “leans over her belly, / away from her feet, which may kick.” After the lawman shoots, the speaker muses over the insignificance of individual human deeds in the vast array of phenomena:

The act we commit
brings an echo, then nothing—no following sigh

from the deep winter trees, from the hillsides
asleep in their swaddling of white.

Orem engages other themes (the troubled relationship with parents, for one) in the poems, but they all seem to rise, even if at times reluctantly, into awe for the numinous that pervades the universe. “I see You in the world,” says the poet and priest-activist Daniel Berrigan in his poem, “Immanence.” Likewise, Orem’s images confirm the charge of the supernatural presence, as in “The Phantom Hitcher,” in which a seemingly very real woman is drawn as dissolving into the ether:

she slips into the bucket seat

the springs don’t even crunch

A cigarette the driver smokes is “making lines of atmosphere.” But the woman “is home in smoke, sad smile of // that same ephemera, she seems / a creature in- / between.” By the time the car arrives home, it is empty, “blank, / as hollow as an eaten gourd.” The ride might just have delivered both the ghostly hitchhiker and her driver from their imprisonment in what William Blake called the “same dull round” of their “bounded” existence:

Imagine knowing decades of rain:
of disappointed nights,
of headlights drifting up the hill. Perhaps

this one contains
your freedom, love’s

long-sought deliverance: this one: this.

Whether he is writing in formal or free verse, Orem’s ear recapitulates its pleasures and advantages the reader with its sensitive reception. Very few of the poems do not present with some melodious, memorably well-turned phrasing. One finishes with these poems in quiet satisfaction with the surety of the image making, the sturdiness of the imagination, and the devotion to craft which is the hallmark of the genuine poet.

No comments:

Post a Comment