Back in April, when some of us wrote a poem a day and others of us committed to ramping up our poetry reading, Nic Sebastian started writing prayers and charms. She posted them to her blog for about a week before she realized she was creating something deep and special. Months later, lucky readers receive this collection of 15 poems in a chapbook Dark And Like A Web: Brief Notes On and To the Divine.
With that subtitle, it should surprise no one that these poems circle around religious themes. I love what she does with prayer beads, for example (“containing prayer beads and Bangkok,” “containing prayer beads and Villa de Leyva,” and “containing prayer beads and Muscat”). Before reading these poems, I’m not sure I realized how many religious traditions use prayer beads. She uses prayer beads not only to explore issues surrounding God, but also to explore romantic relationships and family relationships.
As I discussed yesterday, I approached this collection via many different mediums. When I heard Sebastian read the end of “containing prayer beads and Villa de Leyva,” I saw the poem differently. The last three lines give us the prayer beads around the wrist of the speaker “twisted tight red and beautiful / glint in sinking sun”—it wasn’t until I heard Sebastian read these lines that I saw them as threatening in some way. Her voice made me consider the twisting, the violence that seems inherent in the lines, but only once I heard them.
Variations of the color red filter through this collection along with many other colors, among them silver, gold and amber, black and charcoal. With her rich and varied use of color, her work becomes visual.
Sebastian uses a variety of images, some of them religious (like the prayer beads), but many of them not. Even some of the more overtly religious images aren’t used in a way that most of us would find offensive or offputting. For example, in “on escaping your toils,” Sebastian envisions life as a church bell:
I would hang high and be tuned for tenor
to ring birth death danger
It’s an interesting image, the church bell high above the landscape below, punctuating the lives lived.
As I read through the book, and reread it while listening to Sebastian read, I came away with different meanings. For example, until I heard Sebastian’s interpretation, I didn’t even think about the different ways that these lines could be read:
the girl watches deeply
under constant sun, never feels
she is alone
When I read it, I thought the girl never felt alone. When I heard Sebastian read it, the lines feel foreboding, the girl abandoned.
These poems wrestle with all sorts of issues of abandonment, which again makes sense, considering the subtitle of the collection Our days rush by, our lovers zoom in and out of our lives, yet we continue to be yanked by those we have loved, as if they’re a hook or a moon pulling, pulling, pulling (images found in "on the face of loneliness"). What does it all mean? Does it do any good to light our candles?
The last poem, “when you come to me in the dark of night,” gives a sense of hope, but not definitive answer. This poem promises reunion, and the collection closes this way, “I rise whole from the pool at sunrise / and step onto you as onto a straight road / lined with cypress trees and warbler song.” I like the ambiguity of the lines. Is the speaker talking to a lover? To God? Is the speaker God?
The poem works on all these levels, and makes me want to go back to reread the whole collection some more, even though I’ve read it several times. Will I discover other submerged religious possibilities? Perhaps the hours in “the girl and the hours” refers to the practice of praying on a regular basis? Perhaps the breath in “the names of my breath” has a larger significance than I first thought? My brain whirls with the vision of the God of Christian tradition, the God who creates by breathing, the God who comes in the form of the Holy Spirit through a huge exhale of sorts (the rushing wind of Pentecost).
Am I making too much of these connections? Is my inner English major self winning a battle she shouldn’t be fighting? Is my inner theology student self seeing connections that aren't there? Happily, there’s plenty in this collection for all sorts of readers. Those of us who like to take analysis to new heights will be richly rewarded. Those of us who like to let the words wash over us will find many delights, especially if we let Sebastian read to us. This collection offers many delights, and since you have so many ways to access it, most of them free if you go here, you shouldn’t miss it.
The Summer of Reading
2 days ago