by Brenda Yates

…as for the title poem, it, too, keeps to itself. In fact, nothing is known of “I” at the outset (perhaps expected by now of this author). Strangely, nothing is revealed in its course, an oddity offset only by a growing sense of narrator presence. What are we to make of fragmented references to Pessoa, Dylan, Rushdie, Wallace Stevens, Borges, Unamuno, T. S. Eliot and the Oxford English Dictionary?  But let’s begin with the title. Call up a famous song by arguably one of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters, and already a reader is alert or perhaps even slightly hostile; imitation so often breeds weakness.

The second notable choice is no better—an epigraph from Fernando Pessoa: Am I thinking about everything,/Or has everything forgotten me? It is worth noting that Pessoa wrote a lot about identity and, in fact, created several. None were mere pseudonyms inasmuch as they wrote in different styles, critiqued or reviewed one another’s work, and had entirely separate biographies.

When venturing into Pessoa territory, witticisms spring to mind, such as: “The self-division of the I is a common phenomenon in cases of masturbation.” Or “the more I worked on The Book of Disquiet, the more unfinished it became.” Or that language was a scalpel to cut to the heart of truth, which he did not believe in, and to the heart of himself, which he also did not believe in. He did, however, consider himself animated by various ideas not the subject of this review.

Yates seems haunted by a concern that one’s angst may be sophomorically self-indulgent. (Don’t forget Dylan’s classic line “you got no faith to lose and you know it.”) The speaker, like Pessoa, has “lost all respect for the past,” and aspires to “factless autobiography”— demonstrated by a self-aware beginning that exists only to set up the recursive mechanisms in play throughout.  First, the strategy steeps the body of the poem in religious allusion. “Faith,” “God,” “anoint,” join images of shroud, rain, roses, fisherman-like spiders, a heavenward-leaping worm, as language slips back to its sacred-seeming origins.  Speaking in meditative fragments, the “I” moves through its cruxes in the form of an inclusive, indirect discourse, an effect used to draw the reader in.

We become “I” knowing, for instance, that faith, a gift, can never be an act of will,  that some of the most powerful tragedies in western literature concern its loss. We get inklings of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday;” of Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno: Martir,” of Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” of the Borges character drawn into an encyclopedia entry about another world, as well as his book review of a tome that never existed (which now we want to read).

We know belief is not unwavering, that even saints struggle with doubt. But worse is Unamuno’s parish priest who continues to nurture, to save others though he, himself, is beyond salvation because he has lost his faith. We are kin to him, to that writer—who sought truth in life and life in truth, even knowing he would never find them—and to Yates’ speaker, given to seeking. We understand paradox—Salman Rushdie noted there was no vocabulary to speak of the spiritual except the religious, yet religion is the poison in the blood as well as the great solace and inspiration. We know art began as sacred—and that sacred, “at its best, brings about great masterpieces, and at its worst, murders.”

Though Yates has been criticized as descending into indifference, I would argue instead that in this  book and its title poem, she evokes the way we know what only humans can, eyes open. This despite the fact that rain, spiders, shrubs, cats and of course, the universe, don’tcare about struggles to understand the world or to label its parts in order to bring ourselves some comfort. 

It may be that her “I” weighs in with a Buddhist sensibility of mindfulness, or can be seen as having some spiritual relationship with nature, but even so, we aren’t allowed to forget the sadness and futility that accompany consciousness. We keep in mind how frequent these thematic arcs are, as in, say, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year or Camus’ The Plague.” And of course, we must consider etymologies. 

There’s a history of confusion between imminent and immanent—that indwelling or abiding, as of the Deity. Consider, too, the latter’s secondary denotations that make the distinction of acts performed or occurring within, rather than outside the mind of the subject. Implicit is the fact that one of the earliest gods was the sun—which carries through history, as in:  “May the Lord bless thee and keep thee. May the Lord make his face shine upon thee.” Attending to roots in the hypothetical proto-language of origin wherein words like shine, sheen or show have connotations of behold, of radiance, of brilliance, we find they begin to define one another, adding illuminate, glisten, shimmer, luminous, glow, along with beam, ray, halo, as in the appearance of…which are then often compounded with deity or divine.

And so a speaker weary of trying to find an expression lacking that, concludes in the only vocabulary available—a likeness to God. 

Even a word such as beautiful can’t be fully unlocked from beatific, and thus to bless, where the OED makes an aside thusly: “Hence, a long and varied series of associations, heathen, Jewish, and Christian, blend in the English uses of bless and blessing.” 

I would argue that these are in fact blessing poems.

From Reviews and Essays, 2000 to 2015 by Willes Christian

About the Author:

Brenda Yates is a prize-winning author of Bodily Knowledge (Tebot Bach). Her reviews, interviews and poems can be found in Chaparral; The Tishman Review; KPFK Radio 90.7 (Why Poetry); The American Journal of Poetry; Mississippi Review;City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (University of Iowa Press); Angle of Reflection (Arctos Press); Manifest West (Western Press Books); The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VI: Tennessee (Texas Review Press); Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Books); Unmasked: Women Write about Sex and Intimacy after Fifty (Weeping Willow Books); and Local News: Poetry About Small Towns (MWPH Books) as well as journals in Ireland, the UK, Israel, China and Australia.