“O Holy Insurgency”

March 22, 2013

Mary Biddinger, Black Lawrence Press, 2013


There comes a time in the life of aspiration when the invisible must leave the body, or change the body. So it is with Ms. Biddinger’s poems. The reader is asked to regard the enjambed broken lines as gifts that once may have been whole, but now retain a synergy of fragmented beauty…a chipped china tea cup that may be capable of transporting a sip of soul, Crown Royal, or a broken egg with equal élan. Her poems portend to juggle bits of ideas as casually as a street performer tosses objects of unequal weight in the same orbit, but they are more nefarious in their intentions than clever distraction. They are poems of the deeper forms of conversion. Ones constructed not from the rituals of orthodoxy, but the darker mystical examinations that rarely appear in liturgies, but appear with puzzling surprise in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. It is the difference between holiness and “Your Holiness” (No offense intended.). These are poems, like a tabernacle, that braze an epistle of symbols over an invisible center.

Just because it moves doesn’t mean” [A Singularity]

Ms. Biddinger’s faith appropriates objects of worlds of disregard: minor miracles, slaughterhouses, glue-guns, tween fantasies and knots them with organized religion, philosophy and self-conscious epiphanious poetry. She doesn’t compose from a sense of self-disclosure, but personal reference as if the reader understands the referents in the code of line breaks, juxtaposing internal symbols and the milieu she writes in. There are many bad, pedantic, personal referent poems modern academic poetry has promoted; these are not those.

Reading “O Holy Insurgency” I am as attracted by the persona of the poet composing these calculated single voice dialogs as I must have been intrigued decades ago dating rebellious girls from Roman Catholic colleges. Ostensibly it was about enjoying a cheap dinner with an overly loquacious I-and-Other wearing a crew neck sweater. The intimate awkward that followed in the dark seemed both faux seductive and faux religious. But it was a semi-conscious dialectic that turned out to be just barely comprehensible to both bodies and their spiritual emanations… a mutual Purgatory of dutiful near delight. It was simultaneously false and true, but genuine. In Biddinger’s bohemian Purgatory bodies are deified in the otherness of corporeal desire, glimpsed in shadows of a catechism where flesh can only be partially restrained from transgression. But a deified thigh or wise breast, like a transgression, possess only that fragmentary temporality anticipating a fruition, fruits this poet deliberately harvests prematurely.  These are seductions without sex, divestitures, poetic images collected and strewn like the fallen props and fabrics of a photoplay featuring the redeemed Bettie Page:

plastic sombreros, onionskin, filaments, an apron, handkerchiefs, smocks, a winter coat, chainmail bra, a high collar, necklaces, skirt, pigtails, gunnysack, pantyhose, wrist tape, burlap, braids, feathers, fan dance, crinoline, golden sandals, somebody’s underpants, garter belts, unbuttoned dress, fibers, damp wool, red gingham, snarl of flannel, fastened two bricks to my chest, sequined fanny packs, shirt bloated with red embers, cables holding my bones, My cape and apron.

The reader is simultaneous presented with clever negotiations for transient violations and unfulfilled innocence; it is a stasis, not a process, they are forensic photographs, not pulp illustrations. This is the type of sexualization one finds in the behavior of victims of abuse (not that I would make that implication about the poet) exaggerated, consciously attractive yet unconsciously oppressive. The kinds of things it helps to be drunk to do. In these poems the body is not to be trusted, rather it exists between mendacity and mortification in order to allow the spirit to be broken enough to speak. The difference between humiliation and humility is only process and product, but the risks are disaster and abuse. “Get thee to a nunnery…” seems as apt advice for Ophelia as the persona of these poems. The volume is similarly casual with images of the poet threatened, bound and recounting failed struggles with an oblique sort of shared noir criminalities:

 ”Now I can’t bash in my own windshield/ without help… ” [Craftsman],

I held you still. Your innocence wrapped/ around us like electrical tape…”[Ode to Your Innocence] ,

across a stove. My winter/ coat became a strangler.” [Heresy],

“…They’d chain me/ to the sewer grate…”[Prelude to Our Escape].

 “We both took turns holding me down.”[Disturbance Near an Unnamed Creek].

As a reader I also have the additional sense that these hard lessons are not entirely metaphorical or voluntary. Beneath the salvation there is genuine danger. Threat is relentless as landscape. The landscape is prole-Beat as the room for rent above an empty store front.

Ms. Biddinger is part of the vibrant Rust Belt literary Renaissance and currently on the poetry faculty of NEO MFA at the University Akron. Her familiarity with living consciously amid the stereotypical truncated landscape of loss, abandon, remnants and shifting memory is heightened by her sense of religion. As a reader one comes to appreciate not the doctrinaire Catholicism she references, but rather a religion of intimate extensions into the persona of the volume. In a certain poetic sensibility the actual Rust Belt has become increasingly spiritual, biblical, surreal and medieval. In an unexpected way it has devolved into a fragmented dreamscape of tedious violence and its remnants where buildings disappear, families can be lost to decades of Sun Belt wandering, family homes are abandoned and reinhabited as cracked houses by ghost gangs with genuine guns. It’s here the poet points her make-up mirror at threats and terrors that are both real and projected. The sense of forced complacency to the intimate constancy of violence is presented with understated irony,

Underwater, as two bodies weighted/ and bubbling…”[Collections],

 “before handing grenades/ to the goblins?” [An Incarnation],

Sometimes a pocket is not meant/ for explosives…”[A Proclamation],

or the title “Where You Store the Gun at Night”.

Her linguistic collisions with violence are exaggerated bravado, but in spite of the skilled and nuanced constructions, there is a genuine under-spoken fear. The poems are conscious of the possibility of needing to escape genuine day to day evils, as they resolve more abstract salvation. Nonetheless the poems express a near veneration of existence within rupture and exalt isolation in intimacy,

You wanted an archipelago”[A Heresy],

The newspapers moaned on/ about a town in ruins.” O Holy Insurgency.

They don’t seek a transcendent wholeness but an inadequate assemblage, a continent like Oceania constructed of thousands of individual islands. Salvation is always awkward travel and never complete. What can one do with any island of experience, but ignore it or transform it? It is difficult not to see this poetry as imagistic confessional filtered in the mode of a fragmentary sacrament that becomes not an disclosure, but a perceptual illusion that with instruction reveals a second image composed of those details that had previously been impenetrable events. In this kind of transformational reconstruction both poetry and religious thought share parallel paradigms of metaphorical meaning and the utility of silence. Poetry and religion both require what the poet Christian Wiman refers to as “nimble believing”. With more blind faith than heurism the volume proceeds from Anno Domini, the beginning of the Christian Era, to Ave Verum Corpus, (Hail True Body), Mozart’s hymn for the veneration of the Eucharist.

We were cut from the same cloth/of awesomeness. Our glory./” [A Genesis]

Ms. Biddinger, as any writer must, writes from a position of faith. Her faith belies orthodoxy with its scope, but demands communion for its survival. The volume allows for possibilities of salvation, but not directions, not an examination of conscience, but an examination of consciousness that must unconsciously shatter to reveal the true body.

At the time I had no belief/ in my own insurrection. “ [O Holy Insurgency]