Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Week Readings of "Mercy Island" by Ren Powell

Dave Bonta is reading a book of poems every day for the month of April and blogging about it--what a great way to celebrate National Poetry Month.  I proposed that some of us join him by reading one pre-determined book each week; you can see details here.  This week's book was Mercy Island by Ren Powell.

My life often presents me interesting juxtapositions.  When we made the reading list, I hadn't read Mercy Island, and I didn't think about the fact that we'd be reading as Holy Week progressed and Easter came towards us.  But of the four books we chose, we couldn't have chosen a better one for the Easter/Spring season.  This book positively drips with fecundity.  "Inner Space Qasidah" asserts, "I know the human body is too fluid / I hold these truths to be self-evident."

And the book explores the many ways that the human body drips:  sex and blood and dreams that leave us soaking wet.  The book takes the wider view too, looking at ways that all of creation is dripping and oozy, with birth and death and everything in between.  There are bloody poems about birth, including the ways that birth can go wrong.  Eggs of all sorts make their way throughout this book.

Of course, not all of the fertility will come to fruition.

One of the poems that has stayed with me longest is "Spinster's Shroud," with its central image of a woman stitching herself a dress out of egg shells.  She wears "An undergarment of ivy / woven to lift the dry shells /from her naked collarbones."  These images of dress and trim and undergarments would be intriguing on their own, but look at the last stanzas:

     She saves for the last
           to tie the knot.

     Breaking the thread with her teeth
     sliding the needle into the cushion
     leaving open the door
           to the coop.

I've puzzled over this poem for over a week now.  On the surface, it seems simple.  But that word, "shroud," in the title suggests that this poem isn't a joyous acceptance of singlehood.  It also reminds me of Thomas Hood's, "The Song of the Shirt," a British Victorian poem that laments the status of poor seamstresses who must do piece work.  Hmmm.  Could she have known that poem?  Could this poem really be referencing that one?  Or is it just my strange brain, that font of mostly useless wisdom, hard at work?

As I re-read the book, I remembered that autumn stalks these poems as well.  "Mercy Island" presents autumn as almost human:  "Already autumn stakes its claim / unclenching fists of purple heather."  The poem roots itself in summer images, "the rowboat filled with peaches / like tender cheeks like swollen words / the fruit we'd picked throughout the week."  But this poem, and others in the book, knows that winter will come.

And yet, the almost final poem, "Eventide," in the collection reminds us that even winter will leave.  It's a lovely, calm final poem, and its title reminds me of the word "Evensong," an old term that refers to an evening worship/prayer service.  And as I've spent my evenings this week shuttling back and forth between work and home and church, I've come back to these poems again and again, startled by their images, intrigued by the connections that Ren Powell makes, and comforted by the idea that even though life leads us to bloody/gory places, we can survive and perhaps even find redemption in the suffering.  That's one of the central messages of Holy Week and Easter too, and it's been wonderful reading her poems with the various Holy Week liturgies also singing in my head.


Kathleen said...

What a wonderful coincidence, the timing of this reading. Loved reading about it at this time, too!

ren powell said...

Thank you for this, Kristin. It is wonderful to know people are reading the book with such care! (And it was great talking to you and Dave today.)

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

The pleasure was all mine. Thanks for reading along!