Sometimes I think that poetry is a kind of church. The church I’ve been looking for all my life, where nobody tries to sleuth out whether you’ve been sinning all week, and where the sermon comes from every direction, surprising you at every turn. Where you feel your skin bristling with delight because of the imagination and the courage and the genuine belief in something unspeakably holy.
All week long, day and night, poetry’s congregants are listening to something that comes from inside and above, from behind and beneath, from the great distances we don’t yet know how to name. They lean into lit screens tapping out prayer after prayer, and the rapture in that act is prayer’s answer.
The gospel is vast and grows constantly. The books whisper to one another.
When poets confess, it goes like this: I remember. I wish. I fear. I love. I have lost. I will lose. I am alive. I hunger. I don’t know.
Like any religion, the church of poetry is a finite metaphor. But it comes to mind because today I’ve been reading Rookery, by Traci Brimhall, and I’m struck by the devotion, the ecstasy, the kinds of belief, and the deep, inspired knowing in this book.
I also love Brimhall’s vocabulary, her rich real nouns and the metaphors they work together to build: rutabaga…rough with dirt, beau soleil oysters like gnarled music boxes, silverfish, My father’s heart is a jar of nails, death’s wet dress, A mouse bruxes behind the baseboards, a stain/on snow like blood in a dancer’s shoe.
The book is divided into three sections, each ushered in by a definition of the word rookery. Quickly, in what appears to be an effortless descent into its true meaning, each of these three definitions turns to narrative, opening up the imagined spaces through which Brimhall’s poems will wander. “1. (n) A colony of rooks,” begins:
Or ravens. Or crows. Related to the passerine order of birds. Family Corvidae. Kin to magpies and jays. Hatchlings fall onto bricks, and a woman buries them beneath the crocuses. She wonders why her husband doesn’t come home. Why his fingers curl into questions. Why his hips are as brief and hard as June thunder—
And suddenly we are inside of a life. The first section brings a brutal lyrical honesty to the description of romantic betrayal. I think that the poems in this section, about a topic so familiar it could easily dip into something more like gossip, are so consistently successful because they refuse to dwell on the surfaces of events. Instead, they move constantly toward meaning, toward images with implicit weight, toward the realm of answers—not just the answers to questions like “why?” or “what was it like?” but the ones we choke on constantly, privately, alone in the face of the sublime, of all that is bigger than ourselves and or kind.
“Aubade with a Broken Neck” is an example of what I mean here. And Brimhall is generous, moves back and forth in her own mythology, resurrecting this poem’s delightful image of a bird singing from inside a dog’s jaws, so that later, in “Aubade with a Panic of Hearts,” night itself becomes that dog: “Darkness is finally here/and there are birds in its mouth, and they’re singing.” How much more does one reader need in a single morning than to be reminded that a lone dog comes for us every night to hold us singing between its teeth?
Section Two turns its focus toward family and elegy, and God as a hinge between the two. And in the book’s closing section, the speaker steps into an even greater largeness, speaking from and to the broad planes of history and mythology, saying no to the promise of an ever after that might rip her away from the ravaged beauty of her here and now.
Thankfully this isn’t a book review; there’s too much more I’d feel obliged to say and do here if it were. But I do want to point to the poem “Prayer for Sunlight and Hunger” before I sign off. It begins,
On my birthday my grandmother announces the angels
are upstairs sharpening their wings,
preparing for war.
We must ready ourselves for the messiah’s return
when he will ride out of the sky in all
his terrible splendor
to destroy us. We must watch the moon, the pale
harbinger of resurrection, for signs.
She has warned us
since childhood, and the years passed and passed
and passed as the abacus slid beads
toward the apocalypse.
I admire the quiet violence of the vision, its reverence and pig-headedness, the portrait of a family it sketches for us in quick, clean lines.
And then the poem turns to let in the speaker’s answer to that vision:
But tonight we toast to salvation and pray for another year
of needs and mistakes. My lord, my heart
is insatiable. Leave me
here among the ordinary wonders.
The line breaks there are worth nodding quickly to. As if they give us a visual sense of what weighs what in the speaker’s world: “needs and mistakes” balancing up against “My lord, my heart” and insatiableness serving to usher in a command to God himself: “Leave me,” which itself suggests a desire for the opposite of the Old Testament’s promise “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”
The poem’s closing lines might serve as a second Ars Poetica (there is already a very fine poem by that title in Section Three):
…………………………………..I know there is a beauty
we must die to reach, but I have come
this far, and there are crumbs on the table and wine
in my glass. The moon is full, and tonight the sky
looks wide, wild and endless.
These lines do so much work in an already hard-working poem. They define an earthly aim for the speaker that counters the heavenly one of the grandmother. And with their crumbs and wine and vaguely pagan moon, they bear the markers of a secular rite of communion.
These lines, like so much else in this breathtaking book, read like a psalm or a hymn that might fill the air with whatever it is we go looking for when we turn to poetry in the first place. This book adds to the canon at the core of the Church of Poetry.