Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review of Entering the House of Awe by Susanna Childress

[The review was first posted in Poetry Matters.]

New Issues Press

By the numbers
ISBN 978-1-936970-00-1
Publication: 2011
Total pages: 85
Number of poems: 43


I first met Susanna Childress in the spring of 2008 while I was attending the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary. A professor at Hope College, she had been brought in as a guest instructor to teach a poetry course in the Writing-as-Ministry track. Susanna’s influence, both as a teacher and through her poetry, is one of the main reasons why I am involved in poetry today. I was swept away by her first book Jagged With Love. A fan of her writing, I am no less in love with this, her second book, discussed below. I also had the opportunity to interview her. Click here for the interview and to read more about her. Nancy Chen Long

Susanna Childress’ second book of poetry Entering the House of Awe is no quick read. It is filled with richly-layered poems that invite the reader to stay a while, to come back again and again. The title itself is the reader’s first clue of the layered-ness that will be found in the poems: the
phrase “entering the house of awe” is taken from Psalm 5, “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house, I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you” (NRSV translation). Notice that in crafting the title, Childress deviates a bit from the passage. Whereas the psalmist, who in a state of awe, enters a physical house (“your holy temple”), the poet enters a house that is not physical, but emotional: the house being entered is awe itself. In this turning of the phrase, Childress conflates the emotional state of being in awe with that of being in the house of God.

In addition, Childress’ selection of the word ‘awe’ is telling. If she would have selected a different translation of that passage, such as that of the New American Standard Bible or the King James Version, she could have, instead, applied the word “reverence" or the word “fear” respectively. But Childress selected a translation that yielded the word “awe”—a wonderful word that can mean opposite things, running the gamut from its newer connotation of wondrous admiration to its older connotation of fearful dread. Through the title of the book, Childress signals that the poetry contained in it will be grappling with matters of faith from a primarily Judeo-Christian perspective. But it is not a Pollyanna faith in which everything is roses. No—the poems in Entering the House of Awe at times confront the reader with an honesty that borders on raw.

Before moving to specifics, I’d like to take a look at the book as whole, by first covering some of the overarching themes that bind the poems together, followed by some of the primary poetic characteristics of the book.

Themes. While the title suggests something otherworldly, the book is definitely rooted in this world. The overarching theme of the book is relationship, both familial and societal. Two other primary themes include witness and the body: the poems of witness, in which the speaker gives voice to violence that s/he has seen, heard, or experienced, do not shrink from discomfort; they are unwavering. The poems of the body include exploration of its frailty, e.g., “Everybody Must Pass Stones,” which touches on a father’s ailments in his later years (and which you can read here—it’s the second poem on the page). But the theme of body is not centered only on frailty and illness. The sensual is also front and center. It is the tender kiss on a lover’s shoulder (“The Boiled Clean Feel of Your Bones”). It is a first orgasm with a lover (“Of Course I Hit at the Moon”). It is the absurdity of having sex while sick (“In the Middle of a Long Illness”). Taken as a whole, what you will find in this book is what Frank Burch Brown calls an immanent transcendence—the sacred immersed in the fullness of human experience.

Poetic characteristics. One of the major characteristics of Childress’ poetry is her love affair with words, her gift for language. You can see it in the brimming good wordiness of the poems. You know it in the way she wields her impressive vocabulary, which, depending on the reader, can be candy or kryptonite. (Keep your dictionary handy as you read this book!) You can feel it in her well-crafted turns of phrase. Take for example the last poem of the book “Sweetly from the Tree,” first published in Books & Culture, in which the speaker begins the poem by addressing the stamen of a flowering tree about how surrender/endings can be beginnings, how their surrender to bees fills the honeycomb:

Listen,stamen: your surrender is just a beginning,
the spinous distance between desire and the quiet
clinch of satisfaction. Take the hexagon, how it
will fill, fanned with wings that mean to bring
April's nascent truths. …

The word “spinous” to describe the distance between desire and satisfaction is slightly ambiguous. The primary meaning is “thorny” or filled with thorns—suggesting that to get from desire to satisfaction will be prickly and unpleasant. And at the same time, it also brings to mind the image of a spine, straight and narrow, a thin and easily traversed distance—suggesting that little distance stands between the desire and its satisfaction. Also, notice the word “nascent,” a beautiful word that refreshes the idea of beginnings mentioned in the first line, only to be followed by another meditation on surrender, the surrender that is winter, the surrender of the bees: “In winter, I will not ask / where the bees have gone. I will walk to the grove / in my old boots and give ear.” In the remainder of the poem, the speaker then turns to speak to the bees. Here are those remaining stanzas for you to enjoy:

                                       … . Littlest of lovers,
vested in pistil and comb, I speak now to you: dance

your tremble. Perhaps you of all, not drone but roamer, know
what purple means—given, some morning darker than

the human hymn of misgivings, you turn home
and make there what the orchid could not, alone.

Only your precision is a secret: prism of nectar, haven of gold—
I want what you want, and the stamen, and the sun.

Also related to language, another trademark characteristic of Childress’ current work is her penchant for long, expansive lines and complex syntax. As we’ll see later on, some sentences are parsed out over the course of five or more longer-lined stanzas.

A third major characteristic of the work in this particular book is the compelling formal variety. You’ll find a number of poems in the sonnet form. For example, there is a sonnet sequence in the book, and each of the four sections of the book ends in a sonnet. You’ll also find a few prose poems in the form of a block of solid text with flush right and left margins. There are free-verse poems written in standard stanzas, such as couplets and quatrains. And there are free-verse poems in what some might call an experimental form—shaped on the page. Childress is skilled in the use of white space to physically shape a poem in order to impact the pacing, to inject emotion, to signal emotional disruption, to effect tone. The look of these shaped poems on the page is compelling. But it isn’t only the free-verse poems that get shaped. She applies this skill to some of the sonnets and prose poems as well, which you will see later on.

Now that we’ve taken a brief look at the book as a whole, let’s delve into a bit more detail, starting with a short description of each of its four sections. In the first section, the primary motif is mother, and the poems range from poems about the speaker’s mother (e.g., “Mother as Water-Damaged Book”) to poems where a mother or mothers figure prominently (e.g. “The Wry World Shakes Its Head,” a mediation on Isaiah 40 in which Childress wryly presents a set of characters who would be the perfect guests on a Jerry Springer show), to those where mother is but a mention, an imprint (e.g., the ekphrastic poem “Serpentine,” which you can read here, published under the titled “After Andrei Rublev's The Savior of Zvenigorod, 15th C.”).

The second section turns towards the male, be it a father (e.g., “In the Pocket of Your Winter Coat”) or a husband-lover (e.g. “All Hallow Even”) or a friend (e.g., “Why Every Man Should Knit”) or a critic (“Sōlus Meets Ispe,” which is smart and entertaining retort) or a nationally-celebrated man, long dead (e.g., “A Note to Martin Luther King, Jr.Regarding the Use of Certain Transitive and Intransitive Verbs) or even an imaginary secret admirer (“Love, Anonymous”).

In the third section, the motif that binds it together is the frailty of the human body, for example “Dashed to Pieces like the Potter’s Vessel,” which you can read here, published under the title “Letter to King's Daughter Hospital, Room 244.” This third section also turns more solidly to the speaker’s father. For example, in the Italian sonnet “Gallimaufry of Love,” the epigraph and the first two-and-a-half stanzas are about the father’s heart surgery. The volta in the sestet turns the poem from the consideration of the father’s heart, to a quick nod to blood, and then to female circumcision: “You hero, heart! You hapless blood: exact bouillon of my father’s / myocardium and Mariama Barrie’s infibulated clitoris, blood from skin / of labium minora and majora cut away. She, too, recumbent … .” A poem that starts off as a poem about a father’s surgery ends up being about a number of other things as well, including the idea of that modification of the body is art—the art of surgery—as the poem ends on both the speaker's father and Mariama Barrie (at the age of her circumcision): “Surgeries / make art of the body: marvel this canvas, age sixty-two, another, ten.”

The fourth section is shorter than the other sections, being comprised of three poems. The motif of beginnings and endings ties these three poems together, such as “Listen stamen: your surrender is just a beginning,” the first line of “Sweetly from the Tree,” which was discussed earlier. In addition, nature, while peppered throughout this book, figures prominently here. For example, “You Look across the Earth and See”—a poem in which the speaker addresses W. B. Yeats and weaves in lines and allusions to some his poems—begins with the wind: “Tell me you’ve found the wind to help hear all things loud and beautiful.” The poem then brings in pigeons, swans, ending with the sky, bees: “… tell me Unleash the Brigand God, held cold / and endless as the sky, as cold and restless as ourselves, all we who seek // the bee-loud glade: it does us good—doesn’t it?—to sleep, to old, to gray.”

With the overview of the sections under our belt, I’d like to take a look at “What’s Done,” which is the first poem of the book, and spend some time there because it embodies a good number of the major characteristics of the book.

You might recall that Psalm 5 is the inspiration for the title of book—it is a supplication addressed to God. And likewise the first poem of the book is also a supplication addressed to God. In addition, “What’s Done” also incorporates the elements of “mother” and “witness,” being a nine-stanza poem about mothers who abuse their children. The poem opens with the speaker addressing God:

Lord       about the women who pummel their children
in public                                Sweet Jesus
both you and I been angry enough to shake a baby to turn over tables    Lady

at the airport flinging her spatula of a girl again              and again
into a chair      SIT   loud enough to render an ocean still only
she isn’t     she wails   You saw

the one in the grocery store dangle her son by an ankle       drop him
head-first into her cart    Like Peter he stayed upside down
squalling and I swear                           I was a pillar of salt in the aisle

In the above stanzas, the speaker recounts in jagged spurts what she has seen, while in the third line she includes both herself and “Sweet Jesus” in the group of abusers. Throughout the poem, Childress skillfully juxtaposes the speaker’s witness of abuse with that of violence in the bible, e.g., a son dangling by an ankle upside down juxtaposed with Peter dangling from a cross upside down.

This first poem of the book also demonstrates Childress’ lean towards a longer, expansive line. Sometimes those long lines spill smoothly across the page, water from a pail. And sometimes, as is the case here, they fracture and sputter as Childress shapes the broken text to mirror human brokenness.

The above three-stanza snippet also shows Childress’ inventive formal use of spacing to shape the poem on the page. There are no sentences in this poem, only fragments, utterances sharp with emotion. Seven of the nine stanzas are like the three shown above, words parsed out over three lines per stanza. However, the remaining two stanzas consist of only one line each, both extremely short in contrast with the rest of the poem. This noticeable difference makes the lines stand out—they scream be read together: “The problem   Almighty // you.”

In addition, another characteristic of this first poem is the number of biblical references and allusions, which are braided throughout the stanzas. The final stanza of the first poem demonstrates how Childress weaves allusions into these poems such that knowledge of the allusion is not necessary in order to appreciate the poem:

spell out our own failings Holy One           about the women
who have not shame                              Split open the hazelnut under
our ribs               Let there be enough to go around                   and around

Here, the stanza stands on its own, with “the hazelnut under / our ribs” as a possible reference to the heart, and speaker therefore prays that there may be enough love-forgiveness-grace “to go around.” And the hazelnut could also be an allusion to the fourteenth-century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich and her Revelations of Divine Love, which stress compassion, and include her famous vision of the hazelnut placed in the palm of her hand: in a nutshell, God in all things; therefore, all will be well. Such a muted proclamation dangles uncomfortably after the fractured litany of witness, leaving the reader with perhaps a feeling of hope, perhaps a feeling of despair-abandonment, perhaps both.

Julian of Norwich is not the only historical woman-writer that inspires Childress. English noblewoman Mary Sidney, contemporary of Shakespeare and celebrated poet, also moves Childress to verse. The poem “The Hyssop Tub,” an ekphrastic poem comprised of seven sonnets, is a response-exploration of one of the psalms in the Sidney Psalter, which is a series of poems based on the Psalms and co-authored by Mary Sidney. “The Hyssop Tub” is a beautiful poem—and an ambitious one because of the layered-ness of its ekphrasis:

Firstly, it is a meditation and exploration on Sidney’s “Psalm 51, Miserer mei Deus,” the fourth stanza of which serves as the epigraph to Childress’ sonnet sequence. Hyssop is a biblical herb used in cleansing and purification rituals and each sonnet explores purging, clarifying, cleaning, in some way, whether metaphorically, such as in the first sonnet in which the speaker tells of purging her very being—“I’ll erase myself if you want me to”—to literally, such as in the last sonnet in which the speaker is standing in a rainstorm.

Secondly, some of the sonnets are mediations on other works of art, such as the second sonnet in the sequence. Here we have the speaker talking to Degas’ about his painting Le Tub:

 Let them have their dancers. I’m in love with the woman in Le Tub,
her russet sponge and russet hair. Russet jar delicate as a teapot, filled,
I want to imagine, with the oils of gardenia, some flowers from the family
of Rubiaceae, not the bitter leaves of Labiatae. She is a careful
woman, russet yarn between her needles on the counter. You, too,
loved her, I can tell. It would have been easy with each hatchmark to deliquesce
her body with water but you did not give a glistening—you gave the tub,
simple iron sphere, opening up and out, and the sempiternal
turning of her head, her body dry, ginger-ashen, like someone crouching
to a kiss a new land, say Praise be, saying I believed, and the crepuscular small
of her back knows how what is poured over her shoulders from the mouth
of splotched pitcher will rivulet. I see the hairbrush within reach, the towel.
Later, semi-submerged in bronze she practices the Portuguese she knows,
grips an instep, the tub’s rim, O Degas. She asks over and again Como ser limpo?

While the speaker begins the sonnet sequence with an offer to erase herself, and in this second sonnet asks how to be clean?, the four sonnets that follow present different artistic reflections to answer the question how to be clean? After flowing through these four reflections of cleansing, purification, and grace, we find in the last sonnet that the speaker herself has become an agent of cleansing: “I am not the blue jay / at all / I am / the rain.” This movement through the sonnet sequence, the poem’s careful language, its smart and ambitious engagement with visual and literary art, and so much more, make “The Hyssop Tub” an exceptional poem.

Cleansing and water are not uncommon elements in the Entering the House of Awe. The idea is introduced in a literal sense in the second poem of the book, “The Green Spider,” in which the speaker is small green spider that a woman sees while she’s taking a shower. This poem is a witness poem. The spider, who through its presence intends to distract the woman from things she might be thinking of, were she not distracted by a spider. The spider lists such thoughts for the reader, for example:

… the seven children
in Madagascar whose parents were taken with no
explanation, the children walking each day
past the prison until one them lobbed
a stolen fish through the bars for his mother, for which
he was shot: once in the hip and once in the ear. …

“The Green Spider” is also an example of the unusual point-of-view found in a good number of the poems in the book: the second-person point of view, in which the “you” is not explicitly identified, drives most poems in the first section, as well as a few poems in the other sections. In the above poem, as well as in most of the other poems that employ this point-of-view ( e.g., “Halfway to the Jesse James Wax Museum” and “Architecture of an Apology,” which is printed in its entirety at the end of this post), it’s safe to assume that the “you” is the speaker speaking to herself either directly, or in the case of “The Green Spider,” through the voice of spider. A prolonged stay in the second person, poem after poem, is difficult to pull off without the poems feeling forced or coming across as self-conscious. That Childress is able to do so successfully is to her credit.

“The Green Spider” is also another example of Childress’ inventiveness with form, with all lines flush to the right. In addition to the free-verse forms illustrated by “The Green Spider” and “What’s Done,” and the sonnet form mentioned earlier, Childress works in the form of prose poems as well. One example is “Chloé Phones after Three Weeks Working at the Home.” It is another witness poem, a telephone conversation between the speaker and a woman name Chloé about Chloé’s job at “the home.” Here is a snippet from the middle of the poem, in which Chloé is speaking right up until the last line displayed below, when the “I” then becomes ambiguous. It could still be Chloé speaking, but it could also be the speaker:

                                                                … Madison who can’t bathe by herself
having been raped by her stepfather    How about  “That’s nuts”    No      no good
“Insane”  Worse    “Whacky”  Well    then scalded in a bath    when  he  panicked
scrubbing at the spread of blood between her legs     I’ve  got  it        “That’s wild”
Another Maddy-ism  she says  is I already did a shitloaf of spelling words     and
There’s a shitloaf of dishes   ain’t there  That’s wild  she tries   that’s wild      It’ll
work  she says but isn’t satisfied  I can tell   It’s the way she laughs    hot   stippled

But not all is heavy with witness in this volume of poetry. There is some levity too, such as “Love, Anonymous,” a narrative poem about a teenager sending love notes to herself under the guise of a secret admirer. Another example of a lighter poem, also narrative, is “All Hallow Even,” in which the speaker is speaking to her lover about the night he first told her he loved her. They were at a Halloween party:

The night most of America snapped on
black capes and gauzy era-imitation dresses, our hostess
bearing her torso-length cleavage in a jumpsuit the color

of spinach tortilla, you tell me you love me. …

The poem continues with forays into humor, such as when the speaker sees her lover dance for the first time:

—but when you danced,

sharper than Brando in the only suit you owned, it was the outlandish

waggle of your neck, your eyes snapping open

like bean pods,your palms shimmying up as if to request

what you cannot sound out perdón, pelo, pequeñina

As you can see, the above snippet starts in the middle of a sentence and goes on for four lines and doesn’t end—still, we’re in that same sentence. Childress is a master of extended syntax. The sentence that contains the above line spans over 6 stanzas, with punctuation and well-crafted phrases keeping the reader on track. Another example of her use of complex sentence structure is the narrative poem “After Your Father’s Fallen from the Roof and Not Broken a Thing:” 

After Your Father’s Fallen from the Roof and Not Broken a Thing 

He received the book you sent about Gettysburg and though he does not
tell you this you know he'll read most of it before bedtime and on the phone

he is grateful, he recalls the family trip to Antietam and how you,
nine years old, dropped your ice cream cone on someone's grave,

but it's your mother who tells you he's forgotten what to feed the hummingbirds
and all week long he's called your sister by your name though this

is not the worst of it: the doctor says it's like a bruise on the brain
and while the aphasia and disorientation will diminish,some things

may be lost forever. What's great, your father tells you, is that he can't
remember what's lost. It's that old bliss they tell you about, he says,

not knowing what you don't know you knew. After you hang up, you do not
cry like you thought you might, instead you get tangled in something

like prayer: what may be gone from him is last summer's drive to Tennessee,
hiking through white pine to the top of a mist-hung hill or perhaps

the paddy in Vietnam where a bullet struck his hip and flares smoked red
over the coming boats or perhaps the first time he touched your mother, or Hebrew,

or the color wheel, Star Wars, your brother's birth, the day he pulled
the mower over his foot, stuck in a gopher hole, toes-up. If last week God

held your father's body those twelve unconscious feet, you figure it's your job
to ask which things are shucked from his mind: your mouth, however,

has become a wide place, your tongue a useless oar, and looking down you see
your hands are the real supplicants, palms up, as if holding cantaloupe on your lap,

and when you fall asleep you dream a stretch of dandelions, some
whispering out thistle-tops in a pattern like rain, some smudging

across your skin that dewy, ocher language you cannot decipher.

"Your Father’s Fallen from the Roof and Not Broken a Thing” first published in IMAGE.

Notice that the first sentence spans over four stanzas, and is smartly followed by two relatively-shorter sentences. The above poem revels in language and narrative. As with most of Childress’ poems, the reader is propelled through the poem via these longer lines and the energy of the sentence—its extended syntax. Through the “you” of the poem and the vivid, specific details, we are given an intimate look into the speaker, the father, their relationship with one another, that relationship a gateway to our relationship with them.

And such things are hallmarks of Childress’ poetry. The whole of Entering the House of Awe is nothing if it is not about relationship—honest engagement, a clear-eyed look at what it means to be human, which has encapsulated within it the need for forgiveness. Childress crafts poems with effective and exact language, layered meaning, and innovative form. When it comes to the form of the poem—the look of it on the page—Childress is adept in the use of white space, indentation, the arrangement of words and the absence of words. Indeed, the book opens with an emotional stuttering embodied in the form, the jagged heaving that results from extended cry, with the speaker addressing God about physical abuse and uncontrolled anger, a yearning for grace. And the book ends in a controlled sonnet form, grace unfolding in language, image, metaphor, beginnings found in surrender, with the speaker addressing cohabitants in Nature—stamen and bees—what I imagine Childress would call “fellow residents” in this house of awe.


[a poem from Entering the House of Awe]

Architecture of an Apology

When you see each other again                              this time under the pretext
of an apology he wants to make     in a hallway       after the plenary speaker

his wife stands there trying not to look uncomfortable            which at the moment is
impossible and gets you  feeling sorrier for her than for yourself            a particular
accomplishment            considering inside your coat pocket     two fingers

pinch a  balled-up gum wrapper like it's your  cherry stone of a brain  and this means
you're each sorry for something now      you      for her and she for him and he for

what?                mislabeling love is what you're guessing though in the actual air his
           Sorry     doesn't carry like you'd imagined    the lam of a beefy helicopter
and of course      now that you're standing here and now that he's said his apology

you can't for the life of you figure how to respond     this gulch between your mouth
and the long tunnel      to his ticker           Me too isn't what you mean at all

and  I  forgive you       also sounds  wrong  though  it's closer to what    belongs
in the space he's cleared     between you                          What  you manage
         is Thank  you          the one thing left on that short  list of possibilities

but when he says I'm  just tired    of being  pissed off      it's not hard  to fill in
at you    and  you could gasp      like you'd been smacked but he     with more curls

and  paunch  than  you remember      is the one gathering  up a raw breath as though
            it feels right to say these things to the woman  he          didn't  marry
for which you have shouted  at the moon—God's good eye—so  many

thanks         and for whatever  reason       the whole sweet speech you prepared
this morning    as you brushed  your teeth      has started  to slip away

Words  just      drop  their napkins  on their plates    and saunter  out the house
so all you can do is nod dumbly  that      Certainly       Being pissed off is a waste
of energy                  What  it seems         is that  his apology  has made a strange

shape   of your throat    you're  guessing a triangle  with too much       susurration
say    Isosceles        and  now the tiny pellet of gum wrapper has lodged itself beneath

a fingernail     like the hard angles of your youthful  mistakes    his      and  yours
each    of us      so ridiculous     we thought the house we built of cones     would stand
in the forest forever and by now    you're  ready to leave but can't  quite  make it

happen     unsure  how  to construct     a salutation for him or his wife       who was also
     your  friend  once         and  who    this whole time  has been inspecting the wiry flex
of her wrist       one  hand  rotating  back and forth like the smallest       nodding head

“Architecture of an Apology” first published in the Tampa Review


All poems printed or quoted in this post © Susanna Childress Entering the House of Awe (New Issues Press, 2011)

Nancy Chen Long works at Indiana University and lives with her woodsman husband and blue-eyed dog in a small cedar cabin in the forested hills of south-central Indiana. At this time (September 2012), you'll find her recent and forthcoming work in Noctua Review, RHINO, Imitation Fruit, The Louisville Review, The Golden Key, Roanoke Review, and Adanna Literary Journal.

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