Divination with Human Heart Attached
Emily Stoddard
Game Over Books

Reviewer: Lee Rossi

Drawing on the arcana of early Christianity (but also the Brothers Grimm, Teresa of Avila, C.G. Jung, and other explorers of the human depths), poet Emily Stoddard offers her readers not the story of her life, but the myths that underlie that story. In “More & More,” for instance, we see her flirting with megalomania. “The trouble is,” she tells us, “everything calls to me,” and what she wants from life is “someone to believe / in the myth of [herself].”

A key persona throughout the book is the early Christian saint, Petronilla. An almost legendary figure, Petronilla is reputed to have been the daughter of St. Peter (he of the keys and the three denials), who, scandalized by his daughter’s great beauty, locked her in a tower (“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”). Christianity, its shadow side, is frequently invoked, sometimes in desperation, often with humor.

One senses that Stoddard herself has been locked in a tower, desiring nothing so much as escape. In “Revisionist History,” she aligns herself with the forces of resistance. Life, she insists, will find a way to express its necessary self. Like the emerald ash borer, “Truth  [is] a potent / pest.” And memory? “Memory is a willow, slice it clean / and still / the roots / regenerate.”

The Father (Patriarchus Americanus), of course, appreciates none of this. In “Petronilla tries to imagine her father’s prayer (II),” she notes that “The prayer he chose for me was not cruel—it was just the most he could imagine.” And what was the prayer? According to the Acts of Philip, one of the Gnostic gospels, Peter prayed to the Lord and his daughter was then paralyzed on one side of her body, not the worst thing that could happen to a girl, but certainly in those days a disqualifier for male interest. And what was her response? “When they told me, I crowed and crowed and crowed.” Her laughter transforms her into something beyond the father’s control, like a character in Ovid, a victim yet also triumphant.

Occasionally bits of biographia sneak into the book. “I might have been a botanist” is one such moment. Exiled from biology class by prudish parents, she becomes a poet (a poet!) with an unhealthy interest in the sex life of plants:

when I finally got to see the parts,
it was everything my parents feared—
I was seduced . . .

Tell me your name, I said
without the restraint of a scientist,

the garden was left to green harder
and harder—formed lush and private
in my mind, where there is never any drought

Wonderful how those privates become not just public but pubic.

Resistance to religious obfuscation abounds in this wonderful book. Poems like “Swoon Hypothesis,” “Magpie Says,” and “Gallows Humor” poke fun and holes in the desperate mythology of her upbringing. In “Gallows Humor,” for instance, one encounters lines like these:

Our mass is twice as long as the church on the next block.
Our gospel has more bread, our Friday more fish, and our Bingo has two extra free spaces,
Our Ave Maria is always dressed for the occasion, and the occasion is always grief.

Not only are they funny, but they’re also inspiration for recovering Christians to continue their recovery.

And yet, there’s a dark side to all this darkness. Peter wanted to save his daughter from men (or men from his daughter), to prevent embarrassment and scandal. And since this fairy tale is real, he gets his wish. In “Petronilla tries to imagine her father’s prayer (III),” we learn that the daughter is barren, unable to conceive. And the father, who whether he knows it or not, fears women, their fertility, even more than he fears God, prays to the Lord, his prayer a curse, “because of all the daughters [my] body carried inside of me.”

As so often happens, this denigration leads to self-harm, “Dreaming in the Dark Garden,” for instance, is replete with images of predation and self-maiming: “I cut away from my body, / again and again— // slice myself awake . . .  and still / too big to fit inside the church.”

Especially deft is the way this poet mingles farce with the gothic. In “Passion Play,” we witness her family’s involvement in the religious rituals of their church: her father, in fact, plays Jesus in the yearly reenactment of Christ’s passion and death, “every year, he carries a cross through the church, / trailed by the screams of parishioners: Crucify him! Crucify him!” And the daughter, designated makeup artist, considers the best recipe for the “blood” that will decorate his muscular back, “a mix of Karo syrup and red dye.” And yet her disgruntlement grows and grows: “Every year, I want more passion, less resurrection. / Every year, the slashes get wider.” This may be the funniest, most touching, most viscerally upsetting poem I’ve ever read, at least since I first read Kinnell’s “The Bear.”

This is an incredibly accomplished first book, with much to offer even the casual reader. But—there’s always a but—there is the occasional moment when the reader can only scratch his flaky scalp. The title poem is one such problematic moment. Why did Adam and Eve leave the garden? the poet asks, and answers cryptically, “Only because no animal can perfectly / avoid itself.” In the face of the inexplicable, she offers explanations which do not quite satisfy.

Although focused on family dysfunction, the book makes occasional glances at the larger world. “Rooster Litany” is a lament for the child victims of priestly sexual abuse. Similarly, “Hivemind Elegy” is wail of dismay—environmental degradation, the poet warns, IS a SPIRITUAL CATASTROPHE with social and political consequences: “Migration patterns soon / become escape routes.”

Every good book of poetry offers some sort of consolation, some words of wisdom. As Saul the Zealot reminds us, “Love is patient and kind . . . It does not insist on its own way.” Or, as Emily Stoddard, in “Here, amen is not amen,” would have us understand: “the only real love / is the kind that witnesses.”

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