I was skeptical when Traci Brimhall’s second collection, Our Lady of the Ruins, appeared in my mailbox. A growing lack of poetic appreciation has elevated the search for this century’s poetic genius to a hysterical quest. Collection synopses hyping “half-feral street urchins” and “mid-apocalyptic exiles pilgrimaging for salvation” strike me as cheap attempts to arouse readers to canine levels of excitement. Tongues loll. Wide-eyed panting ensues. Occasionally, someone loses control of his/er bladder and wets the carpet. Meanwhile, the quiet word passed around the wine-and-cheese table is, Well, the writer pulled off an interesting idea. At best, it’s a book-length experiment. At worst, the edgy premise meant to pull in the masses and electrify the discourse stomps over such archaic concepts as meaning and craft, giving birth to Frankenstein collections: a brilliant second jolt of life for the poet, but a tortured and clumsy beast. Interesting in the abstract, but no one wants to get into bed with it, especially when these gimmicks come off as insulting to or out-of-touch with the subject matter. When it comes to the gimmick/edge debate, readers are split between those who want poetry to house its meaning in familiar objects and moments, and those who want poetry to transport them light-years away from the mundane.
Thankfully, we have writers like Brimhall bridging that divide. Yes, Our Lady takes place in a world experiencing the beautiful process of destruction and the “sacred violence” of recreation. Iconic figures like exiles, prophets, and cannibals run rampant, and I cringed a little when I read the brief, eloquent synopsis from Carolyn Forché. But instead of sending me into an eye-rolling fit, Our Lady does exactly what the cover art suggests—taking a hammer to the pretty porcelain figurine of a woman and, through the mythic landscape of apocalypse, revealing the red mess beneath in the moment of impact. It’s no gimmick; within these ninety-six mid-apocalyptic pages, “between what / we say and what we hide, lies the world made flesh,” or, more specifically, here lies the internal world made external.
Brimhall’s ability to weave in grand themes like freedom, salvation, and damnation with consistent motifs like bones, stones, crucifixion, and songbirds would be enough to categorize her writing as not just literary, but thrilling. But she also blends the fantastic setting with the very real and universal agony of losing children. The front and back covers of Brimhall’s book work as magnets, drawing opposite forces crashing together again and again, such is the case with salvation and damnation, or how joys of the body bring her subjects relief as well as pain. Often, the two are the same. It quickly becomes clear that “Now, in the last world… the epidemic continues. / We remain empty.” The collection takes us through a quest to fill that emptiness while also fearing the possibility of success. Brimhall’s narrator speaks for a group of sisters suffering from the overbearing emptiness of bearing multiple stillborn children. While the world burns and survivors become exiles, prophets, and killers, Brimhall’s narrator emerges as a representative baptized in blood and cinnamon. The fictional extreme only emphasizes just how eerily close to home this voice’s insights are.
Brimhall is an unforgiving creator, but she balances every base or monstrous action with arias and honey. As a female poet who writes mainly from the female perspective, I found it incredibly provocative to read about female figures who don’t just make a show of embracing their more animalistic natures by drinking too much and having too much sex. These are women who “go to prison windows and pass cigarettes, tangerines / and iodine through the bars. Anything we think // could heal a man.” The combination of cigarettes, tangerines, and iodine forces one to rethink what it means to heal not just any man, but a man who is both the instrument and victim of a specific and familiar damnation. I realize how ordinary and familiar these prisoners’ lives are when set against a mid-apocalyptic setting; from the beginning, Brimhall equalizes her reader with the figures in the book.
The suffering of the speaker is so common and embraced that I can’t help but empathize, so it’s a shock when she says, “Of their mother: We are sorry we could not be the ones / to kill her…” There is never a moment, even in the end, when we are not reminded that the ruined world these people live in has also infected the speaker and her sisters. We become witnesses to them stripping and binding a midwife who is “Bent under her spirit’s arousal,” and hanging a wayfarer who asks for food, and yet they even relish victimizing themselves when they “tied [them]selves to chairs, / naked and disobedient.” They know their own fate, “Here, where all love ends,” often speaking to the reader as though he or she is one of the many gods they attempt to worship or devour, confessing that:
You should know we are guilty.
We raised more demons
than we could lay down.
So what if we’re haunted.
So what if we’ve stopped dreaming.
Take us by the hair.
Lead us past the ignorant light,
past a God who threatens
to love all that we are.
Through most of the collection, this fear of being loved despite their flaws is something to scorn. I enjoy how artfully Brimhall associates these deeply afflicted figures with defilers, because this collection is an attempt to teach us how “humans love the spectacle // of suffering, but never learned why.” Part of the answer lies in how Brimhall flips the classic treatment of the relationship between light and darkness.
Within the apocalyptic setting and beneath the struggle with loss is an all-pervading search for self. It’s natural, then, that in poetry that is already part myth, part Biblical experience, there would be an exploration of the ego and the id. But Brimhall doesn’t leave this relationship alone; she continuously looks afresh at the familiar through a lens we in the literary world might normally associate with a child’s perspective. These women, however, come off as ancient, having experienced in ninety pages enough for an entire species. Their experiences and the subject of their observations are clearly subjects for adulthood. It is madness that allows them to see life in death, when the narrator observes that “The flies gathering on our lips are bringing us fruit.” What a strange and wonderful image, carrying connotations of death and continued life. Brimhall challenges the reader outright, saying “When you ask about resurrection,” she “shows you a deer licking salt from a lynched man’s palm.” When the speaker “found the mandrake growing beneath / the feet of the garroted man” and “ate it,” she compares the taste of the mandrake to “a libertine’s semen and sweat, / but it made my heart a safe place for music,” successfully entwining the epitome of life, semen and sweat, with death hovering just above. The connection between life, sexuality, and death comes to a head when, after losing another child, the speaker comes across this scene:
…a man in a field holding the soft, gray
loops of his intestines in his hands like evidence
of life, but not proof. I killed the bull
that gored him, stitched its head
onto the dead man’s body. When I saw
what I had made, I kissed its nipples,
drank there until I was strong enough
to brush the flies from my breasts.
Notice the constant movement between opposing forces in the first two lines. The first line begins gently, “soft” and “gray.” Brimhall knows how to set up expectation and then carry it over into surprise. The use of “loops” to describe the man’s intestines is playful, suggesting childlike madness. The moment grows grotesque as the speaker desecrates two bodies, then tender, loving, ultimately an answer to the loss she alludes to in the beginning of the poem. She must marry life to death in order to be able to “brush the flies from [her] breasts,” remove symbols of decay from her body to sustain life. Ruin is omnipresent; the man holds “evidence / of life, but not proof,” his death an icon for mankind, his intestines simultaneously offering evidence of life and its counterpart, just like the flies.
Of course, a full discussion of life and death demands questions of divinity. There are numerous references to non-specific holy texts in Our Lady, one being the book of plagues. These women witness allusions to many of Christ’s miracles, suggesting that Brimhall’s book is a kind of bible-in-the-making, a bible of the damned and of the saved begging to be damned. In Our Lady, God, like seemingly everything else, represents both life and death:
…that you so loved the world you disguised
yourself as a hawk and also as the arrow
in its breast. As a fawn, and the ticks
feeding upon it. As a child’s cry
in the night and the answering silence.
Comparing this depiction of God with the earlier corpse desecration gives the reader an uneasy feeling. This dichotomy either further legitimizes the speaker’s actions, or the wariness one feels about the bull carries over to God, declaring him both the victim and the deliverer of death. The speaker surgically connecting the bull’s head to the man’s body demonstrates the exact same concept, blurring the lines between light/dark and life/death. It’s a little Twilight Zone, but Brimhall takes a wrecking ball to our socially acceptable ideas of God and madness.
So, if it’s difficult to tell righteous from depraved, how can these figures save themselves? How can they heal? After a lifetime of war and degeneration, how can one find peace? Brimhall’s purpose isn’t to answer, but to make these questions obsolete. We, like the narrator, live “In the country where believers eat the bodies / of the gods,” where “We don’t recognize ourselves // in his radiance, but we do in his suffering.” Setting aside the expectation of momentary release, anyone who has ever found themselves staring into the amber depths of a double whiskey as though God might lie at the bottom, sought out anonymous one-night stands, or set their ex’s clothes on fire, knows that sometimes you have to drive crashing through a wall of destruction and depravity in order to come out the other side ready to be healed “whether we want to or not.” This devotion to darkness brings with it an iconic representation of Satan: “Nailing myself to a tree // didn’t bring God any closer, / but when I looked a serpent in the eyes / I felt a common salvation.” Here, looking evil straight in the eye delivers commonality and salvation, where the ultimate Christian symbol of suffering, crucifixion, fails.
Truthfully, the righteous and virgin path of salvation can sometimes feel more like hell than heaven. Take peace, or, as the narrator puts it, “This terrible lightness others call peace.” In one of Brimhall’s prose-poetry sections, our guide confesses that she “felt it once, watching bare trees, waiting for wary deer to approach the salt. Nothing sang. Bears gave birth in their sleep, and the cubs crawled out to admire their indigo shadows in the snow.” As opposed to the cubs’ admiration for “their indigo shadows,” Brimhall associates peace with stillness, a lack of suffering as demonstrated by the bear not even noticing labor pains juxtaposed to the “bare” trees in which vegetative life, too, is still—or perhaps stillborn.
All of the sisters seem to have experienced this painful birthing of death. The narrator names this pain “Aja, / meaning unborn, meaning stillness that entered us… the stillness inside the burnt piano, which is also / the woman we untie, who is the mother of stillness.” She isn’t wrestling with the devil; she’s struggling with the dual nature of life, which also happens to be the dual nature of gods. No wonder our speaker grows wrathful with a god who doesn’t have to personally experience the “sacred violence of creation” when “she learned the power that keeps us / on earth is invisible, the force turning // the world’s axis, unseen. And you would have me / love your image… I will bury you / like I buried all my enemies.” Notice the fury the break before “love your image” creates. The final declaration is powerful and empowering. It would seem our speaker is recruiting for the dark side when she declares that “If God is your enemy, rejoice, for the darkness / remembers you.” The rhetoric of “rejoice” makes the speaker’s devotion to darkness religious, but the use of the term “enemies” also recalls the speaker’s early statement that “I have eaten the eyes of the enemy / and I am the enemy” (“Hysteria: A Requiem”). God, then, is as much an enemy as she is, and further develops the connotation that God is in all things—the cursed and the blessed are the same. Bartenders become reverends: asking for one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer might be a kind of baptism.
It would be easy to get caught up in the oceanic monsters gliding through this collection, or such colossal themes as damnation, but it’s the ordinary human elements that separate Brimhall’s “mid-apocalyptic exiles pilgrimaging for salvation” from what could easily result in a cheap gimmick. Even when a poem’s subject isn’t overtly about the loss of a child, grown or stillborn, the theme colors these larger subjects simply by watching “sharks feast on what remained of a whale while her calf circled,” or when “a doe bent in what could be prayer / nudges her young, waiting for it to rise // from its cold sleep,” or in the minute mention of “last season’s / nests cradled between branches, all of them empty.” Though much of this collection argues for the connection between life and death, Brimhall doesn’t make the academic mistake of allowing the big picture to squash the mortal and, therefore, human truths which many cerebral poets might dismiss as trivial or self-absorbed. Brimhall combines the philosophical and the personal in such self-identifying declarations as the following:
I sing of a sheep and the wolf at its throat,
of a goat and its clanking bells, of blood cell
and bone spur and of time which conquers both.
I sing the truth. I sing to survive it.
Brimhall sings of one specific sheep in the second the wolf crushes its throat, of mortality and the end to all living things that must eventually come. Though she does not capitalize it, she sings of “truth,” but how do you survive the truth of your own mortality? Perhaps it is the song itself that survives the singer, providing a kind of immortality, but I think there is a kind of escape, as well, in Brimhall choosing to also weave these larger truths around ordinary human experience. To live for greater Truths too often kills the personal; therefore to escape truth, one need only embrace the personal.
It is the sisters’ very ordinary fear of and lamentation for the loss of children—their children, all children, innocence—that forces the reader to admit that though we aren’t living in quite the apocalyptic state that Brimhall’s subjects are, her uncanny and necessary insights are so accessible and stunning because of the disparity between the reader’s world and that of Brimhall’s speaker. Yet what could be more familiar than where we land at the end of this collection, which is truly a journey into the human soul, where “hollowness moves in, my body becomes / the cave I am seeking… I am red and reeking with the journey… I am harrowed, hallowed. I am stone, stone… Love nails me to the world.” In introducing me to Our Lady of the Ruins, Traci Brimhall doesn’t so much reveal how human her characters are as fill me up with mirrors, reflecting the familiar woman within the unknowable monster.
A. Kay Emmert is from a small town in Oklahoma. She received her BA from Stephens College and her MFA in poetry from Georgia College. She currently teaches at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.