FitP Poet Highlight 41/82: Paul Swenson, "Negative Space"
Is There Deep Play in Heaven? Or, Rest Well, Brother Swenson, Rest Well
On the afternoon of the first
resurrection, I want to sit on my sister May’s bench and read
her new poems. So, maybe, if you’re still around when I go under,
I wonder—could you burn me, turn me into ash, and slip me in
[the family plot] somewhere?
—Paul Swenson, “Family Plot”
I received news last Friday morning (2/3) from Paul Swenson’s good friend and fellow poet Alex Caldiero that Paul passed away around noon last Thursday. I didn’t know Paul personally—we spoke on the phone once and interacted a bit via email while I was compiling Fire in the Pasture—but I do know for certain that his passing, which came after a long bout of unsettled health, leaves a void in the world of Mormon poetry, one that may continually be filled with the language he left behind and with any language and personal and cultural change that language inspires.
Paul had a playful, Blues-inspired lyric and his poems often come across as clever and witty—even, to some, bitter—more than profound. In fact, Deseret News’ Jerry Johnston panned Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake, Paul’s first poetry collection and an exploration of (among other things) Mormon conceptions of deity, ritual, and embodiment, as a “waste [of] space,” the overly playful ravings of a Scrooge. (Odd image that: raising a playful Ebenezer…) Stephen Carter suggests that while the “interpretation of Mormonism” Paul explores in his poems is, yes, “forever inventive, forever reflective, and forever playful,” Paul’s playfulness is “deep.” It’s more than mere wit, more than a child’s attempt to inflame his elders, as Johnston suggests it is. Stephen observes that Paul’s “deep play” works after the manner theorized by Jeremy Bentham, British utilitarian philosopher, though Bentham was curmudgeonly about the benefits of such play. Says Stephen, Bentham “describes deep play as when a person is engaged in an activity where, ‘the stakes are so high that … it is irrational for anyone to engage in it at all, since the marginal utility of what you stand to win is grossly outweighed by the disutility of what you stand to lose.’” As Jennifer Reifsneider, Curator of Collections at the Missoula Art Museum, has it in her discussion of the “joyful revelry and subversive whimsy” present in the MAM collection, deep play “arises when the potential for loss far outweighs the potential for gain.” So it occurs when the player gambles social, cultural, and spiritual standing against a compulsion to play with subjects others think too serious to consider with anything less than deep solemnity (if at all)—as when a Mormon poet tinkers publicly with religious and cultural taboos (like Mother in Heaven and sexuality), exposing himself, as it were, on the chapel’s front lawn. (Reference the image above, in which Paul is pictured “at a candlelight vigil for Lynne Knavel Whitesides during her church court.”)
But isn’t a poet in part someone who instinctively plays with words, and who plays with them deeply and well? Someone who, in process of such playing, speaks to our deepest personal and cultural needs and desires? I’ve said elsewhere that poetry is a mark of cultural health, that it’s an indication, as Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Hass says, that “a lot of people [in the culture are] literate and alive.” This is so because “[y]ou have to have some kind of interior life to make [and to enjoy] a work of art and in a world as busy and heedless as this one we need all the consciousness we can muster” in order not to wither on the vine, as it were. So poetry—like living a creative life, in general—comes in part of introspection and carries with it an abiding awareness that the inner life matters. And it matters not only because deepening our awareness of what’s on the inside requires that we make time to ponder, to sift through and reflect upon matters of the soul and our lived experience in the world. But also because self-awareness and creativity require imagination, which enables us to step into another’s soul and to consider the world as experienced from another’s perspective. Because imagination ultimately isn’t confined to the boundaries of lived experience, it becomes space of endless, deep play—space where the conscious and less-than-conscious minds come together to question, to make sense of, to critique, and to expand our relationship with the material and immaterial worlds.
Paul, like his sister, May Swenson, before him, occupied and pushed against the boundaries of this space. Sometimes these siblings even tried to represent the space concretely on the page. May did it more extensively than Paul, but Paul tried it, nonetheless. In her concrete poem, “Bleeding,” May lets space trickle through the text, a gap I view—in conjunction with the poem’s content—as a representation of trickling blood, a gaping wound, the gap between women (the seeping gash) and men (the unrelenting knife). This negative space thus contributes to the meaning of the poem. Paul did something similar with his aptly titled poem, “Negative Space,” in which he talks, of all things, about the difficulty of “being Mormon / and having”—*gasp*—”nipples.”
The text of the poem is presented in two pointed columns. The left column opens to the right, like a “less-than” sign; and the right opens to the left, like “greater than.” Taken together these columns circumscribe a diamond-shaped inner court. Negative space is thus quite literally at the center of Paul’s poem. And this emptiness signifies the negative space present a) in the poet’s life as a joyfully embodied being, one who took pleasure in “[h]aving hard nipples,” in being fully sexed and fully sexual even though he lived amidst a people often conditioned to be suspicious of and to put off the body and its needs and desires; and b) in the “mind” of Mormon culture generally, where the correlated body—as the mannequins and comic strip bodies in the poem—has been stripped of its nipples. This “censor[ed],” “emasculated,” “nervously neutered” male body is meant to be the standard against which everyday Mormons gauge their sexuality. But, the poet points out, this body is “purely negative space.” Its presence, he seems to be saying, represents the conspicuous absence of erotic desire, of sexual play—even of cultural play—in much of Mormonism’s religious and cultural aesthetic.
So Paul, the poet, frolicked in this space, filling it with Blues-infused rhythms, with everyday language and passions and conviction, with earthly meditations on the divine. By so singing the body electric, I think he hoped to stir the kingdom up a bit, to encourage his readers to think a bit more deeply about and to play a bit more deeply with the popular, though perhaps not fully doctrinal, beliefs and institutions of Mormonism. And all this to the end of facilitating a more expansive “Mormon mind” and soul. This expanded being is one that could eventually be assigned, perhaps, to organize “the big reunion party,” as Paul calls the celestial afterlife in another poem—or could we call it an after party? Here Paul and his sister—and anyone else who’d care to join them—gather in an open field the afternoon of the first resurrection (as Paul hopes for in “Family Plot,” the last poem in his first book), sharing new and old poems, playing deeply, wittily, imaginatively, with the structure of the universe, with Heaven’s language, Heaven’s culture, and Heaven’s institutions. Their incorruptible bodies fully nippled, eternally rested, eternally ripe.Source: signaturebooks.com
(Mormon) Poet Highlight 5: Linda Sillitoe, “Encounter”
This unrhymed sonnet takes as its lyric province the intergenerational relationship between people, places, and possessions (yes, the alliteration was on purpose). The poet, born of goodly parents (at least it seems so from the cache of memories stirred up in this sensory experience), begins by lyrically binding the three (people, places, and possessions) and expanding and deepening the connections from there. Notice in particular the alliteration at work as binding agent in the first five lines (as through the entire poem): the /n/’s, the sister sounds /b/ and /p/, /d/ and /t/, the /s/’s, the /g/’s, all grouped variously throughout, then combined in the last clause of line five: “I glanced behind me.” I read this mixture as the lyric medicine the poet found in this cabinet of wonders, even though she claims she was just looking for a comb: as she turns toward her past, toward (I presume) her father’s presence in the room, in her life, she finds a genie-like granting of the wish smoldering beneath the surface of the poem—that she could remember her father, “[t]wo years” gone, but always a defining presence in her being and in her connection to her mother and to the past and thus to her present and future.
This desire surfaces—and ripples through subsequent readings of the poem—in the last three lines, the denouement in which the poet wonders about her mother and, beyond that, about the fusion of time and person, place, thing, and sense as this union moves to draw lucid experience, even ecstasy (something suggested by the narcotic-effect the sudden encounter has on the poet: “The room wavered like my knees”), from memory’s cistern and to immerse us in melancholy wonder over the duration, strength, and will of human connection. Such is an appropriate sentiment to keep in mind, I think, as we strive to “summon” presence and experience from kith and kin past to help and heal us in our present and our future relationships with person, place, and thing.Source: dialoguejournal.com
FitP Poet Highlight 39/82: Jim Richards, “Cleave”
I take Jim’s “it” to be, yes, sex—but also more than sex. It take it to be the much deeper state of being, the more-than-intimate connection, the dual state of oneness entered into when partners become more than lovers, lovers more than partners. Such eroticism goes much deeper and means much more than just the mutual coming to physical pleasure. I’ve written about such intimacy before: To be buried with another in sensuous pleasure; to be immersed in the rush of fluids, the passion, the organizational construct of sexual intercourse, the most earthy mortal craving, is to pass into a ritually enacted relationship between the sexes that essentially serves as the source and metaphor for the broader connection between material and immaterial bodies across time and space. For what is sex but the primal (re)generative ritual meant to unite physical bodies in the propagation of the species and the shared invigoration of the flesh?
As Alicia Ostriker puts it in Dancing at the Devil’s Party, where she speaks about the intersection of poetic language and human passion, this “impulse to connect” bodies—whether those entities be words, lovers, or generations; flesh, psyche, and spirit; subject and object, artist and viewer, poet and reader—and thereby “to perceive unities across the conventional boundaries of separation” is “always implicitly erotic, always a form a making love.” It’s this impulse and the myriad reflections of it that, in effect, motivate the ritual processes bound up in the relationship between man and woman, in religious ceremonies, in human entrance into language (that arbitrarily organized system of signs through which we name our experience with the world), and in our approach to death.
Jim ruminates on this impulse in “Cleave,” wondering over the ways “we” come into the fullness of our bodies and experience a holistic sexuality. And who is this “we,” this collective body in which the poet includes himself? Per line two of the poem: those “who have never done it before”—and in light of the epigraph of the poem, I’m going to tack “marriage” on the end of that: those who have never had sex before marriage. Within the Mormon context of the poem—it was written by a Mormon poet and published in Literature and Belief, a journal housed at Brigham Young University—I also take this “we” to be not simply pre-marriage virgins, but perhaps a prudish, Puritanical people who may fear the body and its processes and desires and who may further have some cultural history of socially deviant sexuality (as Mormons, who have “a pedigree of plural wives” stretching back, through claims to both God’s covenant and literal ancestry, to “Abraham” and, more recently, through the church’s founder “Joseph” Smith).
So, “[h]ow do we do it”? How do we learn to negotiate the messiness of it all, the bodies “tangled,” come together in such a way that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and another begins? “How do we approach the subject / that burns our mouths like soap,” burns both literally and figuratively—literally in that sometimes when our kids talk about sex, it’s in “potty” ways that may lead to mouths being washed out with soap; and figuratively in that the subject is holy and, if approached properly, with respect, and in the proper context, it can be cleansing, like soap, like fire? How?
The poet’s call-and-response-type poem suggests some answers beyond those I’ve suggested here. Most importantly, however, his use of questions—he does after all leave his inquiry wide open—suggests that we shouldn’t shrink from the asking. We need not blush, as a culture or as individuals, when we get curious about the body and its desires. Maybe instead we just need to learn to ask—and to summon the courage to ask—each other in proper context the right questions about what these desires mean and where they can carry us and our relationships. As the poet models here, such questions, I think, and such literature as this poem can get us thinking about sex in transformative, redemptive ways. And I for one am all for that.Source: literatureandbelief.byu.edu
FitP Poet Highlight 38/82: Marilyn Nielson, “Sheep”
To speak for those who otherwise can’t, to give the unvoiced a voice, the other languaged means by which to understand and be understood by others: these seem to be fundamental functions of the gospel of Christ, at the center of which rests the atonement. In this eternally-in-force act of mediation, Christ descended below and experienced all things in order to enter into relation with all things and so to close the gaps among them—including the gaps inherent in and created by the imperfections of human language and even of inter-species communication.
Marilyn mirrors this mediatory act in “Sheep” when she gives collective voice, well, to a flock of sheep. Of course, said sheep could simply be read as a representation of God’s flock—Christ is, after all, the Good Shepherd; and I think such a reading is legitimate. But I also think that reading strips these sheep (as hypothetically actual sheep) of their voice. By making them metaphors for humans, it essentially denies them the awe “the beasts of the field” must have felt at Christ’s birth. Because that’s how this poem comes across to me: as a rumination on what it may have been like when “the heavenly host” appeared to shepherds, “praising God” the moment Christ came into the world (ref). Surely the sheep must have felt something then, too. I mean, He was their Creator and He did come to renew “the heaven and the earth, and all the fulness thereof, both men [sic] and beasts, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea” (ref). I’m sure they have some feelings—beyond instinct—in the matter. And they deserve, I think, for us to at least imagine that possibility.
By imagining this possibility through her language, by putting on sheepskin and sheep consciousness with her words, the poet suggests there may be more to sheep—and by extension, to the lives of animals—than just eating, sleeping, and propagating the species; that there may be more to their experience than just the objects immediately surrounding them; that they, too, may long for “moment[s] / that [hold] more than trees, grass, sky,” moments beyond the immediate contexts of instinct and survival. And with this suggestion the poet points to the transformational possibility that the hope made available through Christ’s atonement extends to the experience and awareness of animals and can ultimately perfect our relationship with them.
As something of a counterpoint/complement to my reading, hear what Marilyn herself has to say about the poem here.Source: byustudies.byu.edu
FitP Poet Highlight 37/82: Gideon Burton, “Salt and Blood”
I like the taste of “Salt and Blood.” No, I don’t live in a coven or avoid sunlight and, although I do like potato chips, NaCl isn’t really my thing. Nonetheless, Gideon’s “Salt and Blood” makes my lyric tastebuds tingle. Hence the audio, in which I sample the sonnet’s Hopkins-spiced palette in my own tongue. Hear the lines densely-packed with sounds that spring off the tongue, as here, “that burning morning bursting hot-white call / of crimson dazzling awe,” and here, “yet He lets that peace in pieces shatter, / and what had glowed a grace-fierce fire, sputter.” Let the open vowels in the first four lines especially crack the jaw and the palate open: the “aw” of each -all word and their “hot” counterpart, the long a’s in “grey drape,” the short “a” of “dampen” and “dazzling,” the straggling, not quite assonant o’s in “morning” and “world.” Savor the alliterative interplay between the l’s, m’s, d’s, b’s, h’s, t’s, c’s, w’s, and the sibilance of the s’s.
All of this sound and tongue work in the octet creates a bit of friction that immediately gets cooled by the sestet’s opening line, which slows the poem’s speed to a more meditative pace: “Cold desert, colder night, stark sky a stone.” The phonetic combo “ol” (which also comes in line 8) further opens the palate and sets the meditative tone and pace of the sestet because the “l” seems to extend the “o,” a lengthening that carries over into “stone.” As I read it, the cumulative effect of these sounds and this move to a more meditative posture creates “[a] thirst inside a hunger,” a desire to be filled and healed that can only be satisfied as we slow down the speed of modern living, which sometimes get translated into breakneck prayers, into prayers on-the-go.
Now, mobile prayer is well and good and encouraged in scripture as the directive to “pray always.” But we really shouldn’t let it make up our entire repertoire of communication with God. We still need to “fall,” in each sense of that term: we needed to fall from God’s presence, as did Adam and Eve, in order to struggle “alone” in the lone and dreary world in order to develop our agency and independence and to be reminded that, ultimately, the communion of grace is our only means of returning “home.” And we need to fall before God, to slow down and approach Him, to worship Him, with real desire. The closing lines of “Salt and Blood” enact and encourage such slowing down with the repeated preposition in the list, which makes the mouth—and hopefully the mind—linger a bit longer on each item: “to shake, to scrape, to kneel and stutter-speak; / to taste the salt and blood of Him I seek.”
This final line not only points up our physical, mental, and spiritual experience of Christ’s sacrifice, wherein He sweat great drops of blood as He absorbed the effects of the Fall and in process extended His grace on condition of repentance. It also points up the rhetorical effects of Gideon’s poem, which speaks to the cycle of redemption even as it encourages readers’ participation in that cycle through its textual acts. “Salt and Blood,” then, becomes something of a redemptive act, a lyric offering of grace.
And its palette tastes oh so good.Source: opensourcesonnets.blogspot.com
You look so pleased with yourself
and now you think you deserve to be painted,
lying there, drowned, or crowding library shelves.
Your silly suicide cost me 6.95
at an art sale. I get jealous of you each morning …
FitP Poet Highlight 36/82: Sara Blaisdell, “Ophelia” (This links to an earlier version of the poem.)
Sara’s “Ophelia” makes me a bit melancholy. As does the painting upon which I’m pretty sure it’s based (see above). As does Shakespeare’s lady “of ladies most deject and wretched, / That suck’d the honey of [Hamlet’s] music vows” and who, after falling in love with then being rejected by that “prick prince,” made her way into Shakespeare’s brook, “dead men’s fingers” wrapped around her neck; then into John Everett Millais’ remix; then into the poet’s purview and onto the poet’s “wall” (if the speaker in “Ophelia” can be trusted, anyway). It’s uncanny, really, this layering of Ophelia’s image: supporting dramatic character become subject of a Pre-Raphaelite obsession become mass-produced art print become lyric rumination on, among other things, art, the human condition, life after death—and the potential intersections thereof.
Speaking somewhat to the ways such reproductive layering widens the gap between the creation and reception of an artwork, Walter Benjamin—literary critic, philosopher, intellectual—wrote in 1936 that “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art” into broader cultural and natural landscapes, a process that speaks to the modern world’s drifting away from contact with that which is authentic and original. Benjamin continues, “One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” In other words, the act of reproducing, say, a painting or even, to back a step further toward Creation herself, a panoramic landscape or a human body (as portrayed in a painting or a photograph or film), puts distance between the original and its audience. Such distancing, as Benjamin has it, diffuses the aura of the work, weakening its aesthetic impact, suppressing what aesthetic power and authority the original may bear by virtue of its having been touched and cared for by the creator and thus infused with something of the creator’s life force.
But this life force doesn’t exactly disappear. In fact, it may be that some of the original’s aesthetic, cultural, and psychological DNA gets passed to each remixed, mass-produced, and mass-distributed copy spawned through the reproductive process. In this way, something of the parent work’s “genetics” flow into and through its “offspring,” whose presence and countenance double for the aura of the parent and enter different cultures and traditions. Of course, they’re not the parent’s aura. But, to return to my point of departure, the doubling effect inherent in the relationship among each displaced copy and between each copy and the original is uncanny—each repetition of or variation on the image may arouse in viewers a sense of familiarity with the image’s aura: the copies look and feel a bit like the original. Yet, because the image has been decontextualized and re-purposed, it also becomes unfamiliar: although the copies may look and even in cases feel like the original artwork, they’re not the original; they’re copies. Any aura they bear is imitative and thus inauthentic.
But that doesn’t make their aura or their influence any less real or affective. Consider, for instance, the case of Sara’s “Ophelia”: she’s written a poem addressed to a character in a painting based on a character in a play. And while poem, painting, and play are each separated from the others by centuries, cultures, and artistic genres, the pathos they share is at once cumulative and reiterative: poem comments on painting comments on play, which in turn adds aesthetic, cultural, emotional, and psychological value to the painting, which in turn adds aesthetic, cultural, emotional, and psychological value to the poem. And so on.
From the title, then, “Ophelia” comes drenched in associations: Associations between the wry poet and the intended recipient of her cynicism, which bitterness may turn out to be, as the speaker claims, just a symptom of the poet’s “jealous[y].” Associations between the poem and the “crowd[ed]” canon behind it: the mass-produced art print the poet purchased for “6.95 / at an art sale,” the Millais painting the print imitates, the life and death of Shakespeare’s supporting lady, even Christianity. Associations between this canon and the reader at least acquainted enough with its tragic tale to catch the allusive pathos of the poem’s subject and its potential to touch “everyone” who has felt the pangs of life in a fallen world, of unreciprocated love. Who has death hanging over them like a cheap art print hung in “every room of the house.” Who could find in that print—that lowly reproduction of Millais, which is really just a fictive reproduction of another fictive reproduction of flesh-and-blood humanity—a melancholy hope that even after death we “keep floating,” we keep thinking, singing, reaching out for “something” (maybe what we, as Ophelia, “think [we] deserve”: to be remembered) until we at last rise in “the resurrection,” which is ultimate proof that, like Ophelia, even though we may give up on ourselves and on each other, Christ never did and never will.Source: literatureandbelief.byu.edu
Musky as the cedar drawer
in Grandmas’ standing metal trunk,
a genie scent, improbable and
distant as the sound of hooves on sand
in some Arabian tale read by Father
in the hall between bedrooms to say goodnight.
Rose petals, five generations of fragile crinkles
once supple, fresh, pressed on at a precious time
into the four-inch cloisonné on pointed golden legs
fat as a Buddha tummy …
(Mormon) Poet Highlight 4: Emma Lou Thayne, “The Rose Jar”
Disturbing the dust on a bowl on rose leaves …
—T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
In the opening section of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” the poet muses on the interconnections and “unredeemab[ility]” of time (line 5): “What might have been,” he says, “is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in the world of speculation” (6-8), the business of imagination and memory. He opens the door to this possibility when he hears
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind. (11-5)
The poet’s job, this implies, is to pursue the footfalls of memory into places we’ve never been. “But to what purpose,” he asks, does “[d]isturbing the dust on a[n imagined] bowl of rose-leaves” serve (16-7)? Why pursue these “echoes / [that i]nhabit the garden[?] Shall we [indeed] follow” them “through the […] gate” of meaning; “[i]nto our first world, shall we follow / The deception of the thrush?” (17-8, 20-2). And yet the voyage into and through deception, he suggests, is the end “which is always present” (48). So perhaps, though the past is ultimately “unredeemable,” we can redeem ourselves, our identities, as the poet’s efforts suggest, in the myriad possible passageways of and rhetorical passages written by memory.
Emma Lou Thayne takes this poetic cue in “The Rose Jar” wherein she quite literally (if we can take her at her word) disturbs the dust in her grandma’s jar of rose petals, stirring up the fragrance of rose and memory as she runs her fingers and her mind over the intricate surface of the “four inch cloisonne [jar] on pointed golden legs / fat as a Buddha tummy” (lines 9-10). Finding this jar in the “cedar drawer” of her “Grandma’s standing metal trunk” (1-2), she enters the intersection of several memories, some her own, some others’. The cedar musk reminds her of “some Arabian tale read by Father / in the hall between bedrooms to say goodnight” (5-6); the rose petals call forth “five generations of fragile crinkles” in lives “once supple, fresh,” but now only “fragile” memories (7-8); the jar itself inspires visions of “centuries of Chinese hav[ing] their way” in an intricate culture, their “careful hands […] pluck[ing] each [intricate] piece in place” (18-9); and the fragrance of it all, of this “holy mash,” becomes “tiny gusts / of history waft[ing]” community rituals—“the gatherings of births, graduations, / weddings, funerals, celebrations”—“into decades collecting / but never filling [the jar] to the top,” instead infusing the space of life, of memory with the “subtle, still surprising breath of God” (20-7).
And that, I think, is one reason we disturb the dust on our metaphorical bowls of rose-leaves: because doing so draws us together in bonds of imagination, kinship, and shared memory, such that, like Adam and Eve, we are infused with the breath of God and so become living souls, living communities.
And that, I think, is one thing poets and poetry are for.
(Mormon) Poet Highlight 3: Clinton F. Larson, “The City of Joseph”
While “The City of Joseph” is obviously meant as inspirational verse (especially considering its venue of publication), I don’t find it sentimental in anyway. In fact, the language and imagery and the way Larson binds them together in his poetic vision are quite striking, quite accomplished. In fact, I think seeing it as a tightly-crafted vision of a poet-seer is one way to make sense of the whole.
To begin with, it incorporates a sweeping sense of Mormon history (specifically) and natural history (in general), of human presence in the world and the West, of the Mormon movement from east to west as directed by the Morning and Evening Stars. It opens with what I read as an allusion to the First Vision, with Joseph and his influence on a chaotic world at the center, as represented by “light” and “whiteness” rippling outward from the “meadows” over “the places where Joseph came / To find his Zion” as moved by and “in the spell of prophecy,” beginning with the grove he knelt in that Spring morning, then moving to the city he planned and helped build, then to the Saints’ movement West, and finally to the valley where he knew they would establish themselves, could make their home and further influence the world “because,” as Margaret’s mother says, “we believe” in Joseph’s vision and words and in the “harvest” to come.
The idea that poetic seership is at work also arises in the repetition of “vision/s” (five times) and the repeated occurrence of “eyes,” “seen/saw,” and the passage of “time,” which, the poet confesses, “elides antiquity and the nearby years,” suppressing history in immediacy, something the poet strikes out to remedy by following Mormon history from “morning” to “evening” and by drawing together Earth’s glacial prehistory (ever-present in the “moraine[s]”) with a specific woman’s (archetypal) progeny, a group of “children” who stand “on a hill”—“a holy place”—and consider their ancestral path, an act that sounds very much like temple worship (”devotion”) to me.
In fact that may be another fruitful way to consider the poem: as an endowment-like ritual through which certain images and key-words are meant to bring us together as the family of God, meant to bind us together in “gray cirques of vision” that will eventually clarify in the Dawn of Christ’s return.
I have no Adam to innocent me,
only consolation cannolis and a damned
garden of green.
Sometimes while God is napping,
I press my limbs to the earth,
and beg the dust to fill my vacancies …
(Mormon) Poet Highlight 2: Emily Stanfill, “Then I Became Eve”
What strikes me most about the poem, first, is the way the poet “verbs” the adjective innocent, using it not to describe her Eve—-as in, “I am/was innocent/an innocent person”—-but as a means of modifying her, as in, “He made me innocent.” This out-of-the-ordinary usage highlights, for me, the possibility of Adam as type for Christ, a man who descended from his lofty station to join his beloved in a quest for something more, for a relationship that could extend them beyond their weaknesses and failures (though Christ, obviously, has neither of these) into the interconnective realities of godhood.
But here, the poet, for whatever reason, has “no Adam,” no transcendent other to join her, to cover her failings, to “innocent” her. All she has, or thinks she has, because later she suggests otherwise, are cultural comfort foods—the “cannolis” that imply some connection with a tradition beyond and greater than her self, a connective “consolation” she’s swallowed up in even as she swallows it in her moment of loneliness; and a “damned” paradise, a green garden that’s both superlatively extraordinary and condemned—fallen out of use. And because fallen, like the poet, imperfect.
That the poet is aware of this “lack” (12) is apparent, not only in the fact that she makes this the poem’s last word (leaving us with a mouth expunged of air as, aloud, we pronounce the closing /k/ and sensually experience something of this vacuum she describes), but also in the way she “press[es her] limbs to the earth” “while God is napping” and “beg[s] the dust to fill her vacancies” (4-6). There’s a latent sexuality in this image of God sleeping and a woman seeking to have her “vacancies,” her empty spaces, filled by “dust” and “stone” (the essential elements of God’s universe), a latency representative, I think, of the potential, total connection available between male and female, human and Divine. But it’s something we can only fulfill, the poet suggests, when we realize we are “no Eden,” that we’re fallen, that death and emptiness are inherent elements of mortality, and that true, eternal connections (as suggested by her closing petition, which emphasizes the presence and reality of “God”  in her own rhetorical presence and reality—-see, she does have an “Adam”-figure) can only come as we continually “fall from this lack” (12), humbling ourselves as we descend through mortality’s solitudes, join the dust of the earth, and learn to see, perhaps, both the complete humanity and the eternal potential of our forebears (as Adam and Eve).
Such, I think, is the ultimate effort of mortality (and, to a degree, poetry): to realize our aloneness and the potentials of human connection and to turn to God, the Transcendent Other, the only one who can really “innocent” us and draw us back into the complete, satiating connections and fulfillments to be realized in His expansive presence.