01 October 2012

Our Lady of The Ruins by Traci Brimhall

Our Lady of The Ruins
By Traci Brimhall
W.W. Norton & Co.
Paperback, 96 pages
ISBN: 9780393086430
To Purchase: Our Lady of The Ruins

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Russell

In timely fashion, on the eve the world’s complete annihilation, comes Traci Brimhall’s new collection of poetry Our Lady of the Ruins. It begins: “Imagine half the world ends and the other half continues / in a city made holy by pilgrims who wander to it.” Lucky for us, Brimhall has done all the imagination work for us in her second book, selected by Carolyn ForchĂ© for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize. What follows is an extended dream (or, arguably, nightmare) sequence in which Brimhall guides us through the wreckage of the fallen world, a place of broken cathedrals, promises, people. Reading Brimhall’s new collection, I had the acute sense of being an anthropologist who was witness to increasingly disturbing scenes of a landscape and species both alien and entirely familiar: a coroner discovers “minnows swimming in a drowned girls lungs;” a blind beekeeper whose “apiaries are empty except for dead queens, and he sits // on his quiet boxes humming as he licks honey from the bodies / of drones;” and “angels crawl the walls of the cathedral / trying to get back in.”

It is tempting to read this collection as a prophetic vision of what’s to come. Though one finds little evidence to support such a reading. If anything, these poems seem to set their gaze backwards, as if to suggest that our present day is the outgrowth of Brimhall’s half-ruined world. Noticeably absent from these poems are any relics of contemporary society—no burnt-out cars, abandoned skyscrapers, or national monuments turned over on their sides. Nothing we might expect to find in a vision of the post-apocalyptic future.

Instead these are poems forged from a primal lexicon. The book is peopled by butchers and blacksmiths, knights and pharaohs, witches and pilgrims. We are led through graveyards, past gallows, and into dark forests and darker caves.  One can almost imagine these poems as translated from an ancient dead language—the word “fire” appears 18 times. Such primitive imagery figures prominently throughout.

From “The Cities That Sleep”:

We want to ride the horse of the past backward
through time to first wounds, laughter and milk,
but instead we drink from the beginnings of rivers.

The collection as a whole is incredibly consistent. With the exception of a few misfires, each poem is individually strong. It’s not surprising that much of the book was first published in a long list of journals. Though, at roughly the book’s midpoint I began to feel that the poems were treading the same ground, that in my attempt to work my way out of the forest I found myself inexplicably back where I started. What is startling and affecting in the beginning—“A pregnant woman drowns herself in a well. No one drinks from it now”—rings hollow towards the end—“I have eaten the eyes of the eyes of the enemy, and I am the enemy.” While the language feels immediately, if paradoxically, new, at times certain lines tend to read like a medieval Mad Libs: “We found half / of her bones and buried her // uneaten heart in a dead cub’s rib cage.” I wish, too, that the book developed its themes more fully from beginning to end. The book’s movement mimics an extended establishing shot, though one that is expertly executed to be sure. At times I’m left asking, then what?

Despite a few missed opportunities, this is an impressive collection from a poet whom I feel fortunate to have discovered early in her career, which I plan eagerly to follow. More than once I came upon moments that were so affecting I had to put the book down and gather myself. Here’s one, from “To Poison the Lion:” “I poisoned myself / to poison the lion, but when I arrived, it was dead.”

Brimhall situates us so firmly in her world that instances like this are utterly devastating. While the setting of the book, and some of the particular circumstances, may seem foreign to contemporary readers, the motivations and tensions of these people do not. Their struggle for survival and the necessary resourcefulness and selfishness therein is immediately recognizable: “Only when I hurt her do I know she will stay.” They struggle to find a reason for faith in God when confronted with such overwhelming evidence to the contrary: “bread is still mistaken for a missing body, / and a missing body is still mistaken for a miracle.”

For a book so permeated with death, it’s rather surprising how full of life these poems are. In complete darkness, one sees more clearly the brightness of what odd moments of beauty remain.  The end of “Envoi:”

Yesterday I cleaned the bones out of the boat

and met a child on shore. He made a gun
out of his hand. No one taught him this.

He raised his arm, fingers leveled
at my heart. You said I could contain it,

this gift. The boy told me I could keep
the boat. The bones were his.

At a time when so many poems (and poets) turn their backs on the world in which they and their art exist, it is refreshing to read a book so firmly rooted in the dirt of living.

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