Saturnalia Books, 2014
Paperback, 80 pages
I am currently teaching an undergraduate seminar on Mid-Twentieth-Century American Poetry, a course full of powerhouse poets with urgent points to press. There is at least one very good student, however, who seems quietly frustrated by a topic these poets don’t address: few of the writers on my syllabus address religious faith in an affirming way. There is mystical transcendence in Allen Ginsberg, followed by ecstatic rainbows in Elizabeth Bishop. Robert Lowell and Denise Levertov are converts to Catholicism, but we spent more time on Sylvia Plath’s occult transformations. Future assignments involve poets who passionately advocate political causes: Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich. Yet the syllabus overall has a distinctly irreligious tilt. My own taste contributes to this bias, but impiety is inevitable. A high proportion of the best twentieth-century English-language verse engages the big mysteries but sets aside traditional religious answers, and the twenty-first-century is following suit so far. That skepticism was probably an unconscious factor in why I specialized in the period, but some readers find it alienating. Don’t poetry and prayer, after all, remain kindred genres? Aren’t reading and composing poetry still spiritual activities, as they have been for centuries?
Reading Silano’s newest book, Reckless Lovely, reminds me that even now, awe constitutes a primary poetic impulse. The persistence of the ode suggests that poets still aim to praise, although many contemporary poets direct their wonderment not at God’s work but at nature or human love and resilience. Three poems in Reckless Lovely are overtly titled “odes,” but many others share the same posture of amazement. What David Graham, borrowing a term from Alice Fulton, has previously called Silano’s “maximalism”—an encyclopedic Whitmanian verbosity—often manifests as awe at science, art, food, and other intersections of human drives with natural fecundity. Human and natural facets of the world inspire enough reverence in Silano that supernatural design is almost beside the point.
Part I of this three-part collection trains Silano’s telescope at the origins and nature of the universe—how much more encyclopedic could a maximalist be? “The Big Bang,” “Black Holes,” and other poems bristle with scientific diction. The cyanobacteria, mycoplasma, plexiform layers, and other mouthful terms, however, are not barriers to comprehension. Instead they communicate thrilled awe at the beautiful complexity of the world and the astonishing achievements of the scientists seeking to comprehend it. The profusion of forms throughout Reckless Lovely strikes me as another manifestation of all this ecstasy: so many schemes to try! Silano is fond of couplets but also spreads out a feast of prose poetry, carmina figurata, litanies, abecedarians, and glosas. Even her free-verse poems are intensely sound-driven, knotted together by internal rhyme and alliteration. Some lines are brief and tight, but more often they rush headlong at the right hand margin.
My favorite slice of the book is Part II. The thread joining these disparate poems about sex, artichokes, painting, and lingerie is Silano’s interest in iconic representations of women. Ekphrastic poems can be hard to get moving, yet “La Giaconda” and “Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows” are particularly brilliant in their associative frenzy. The latter begins with alliterative, polysyllabic linguistic fireworks:
Cult of the brow ascending like a condor,of refusal to bow to the whimsy of busy tweezers.From follicle to follicle, freedom unfurls.Brow most buxom. Ferret brow.Brow channeling Hieronymus Bosch shenanigans.Brow championing Duchampian high jinx.
Like Kahlo’s “come-hither furry viper” of a unibrow, however, this exuberant poem also has heft. Silano is celebrating an artist’s memorable achievement, but she’s also celebrating her genius of excess and refusal to be decorously contained. The style and content of Silano’s praise merge perfectly as she takes Kahlo for a muse.
Many of the collection’s best poems implicitly criticize narrow definitions of feminine beauty and women’s proper appetite; Silano uses her roomy version of the lyric to argue on behalf of desire and capaciousness. Part III, however, acknowledges hunger’s dark side. The book’s final section begins ominously with “Wolves Keep in Touch By Howling”: “I scent;/ I fang; I phalange; I from helicopters;// I for sport; I greedy chew my foot off;/ I trickster; I snout.” From there Silano’s poetry grows more overtly political. Having just taught Ginsberg’s furious, funny, and ultimately idealistic “America,” I especially enjoyed Silano’s apocalyptic re-vision of his famous poem, “The Untied States of America.” “America, a round of gunshots at three in the morning; the helicopters/ circling, searching,” Silano testifies, lamenting that “the bees have taken over the foreclosures” in this “land of milk and money…reckless lovely.” Religion is no solace, either. In the penultimate poem “God in Utah,” God is everywhere—in a delicious dinner, in “Keegan’s fading acne,” in the scolecite, the quartz, the fossils, and the sunflowers—except in the temple where she is exhorted to “reflect on the majesty of His creations.” Here and throughout, traditional architectures for worship have lost or perhaps betrayed their power, but a current of sacredness courses through the speaker’s experience anyway.
Reckless Lovely is a strong, smart, urgent collection that blends wonder and irreverence in appealing measures. There’s a risk of surfeit in the style, of course, and some of the poems hold up to rereading better than others. “The Big Bang,” for example, offers an ambitious recipe with a delicious final line, but I like awe better when it unsettles me more, as in many of the later pieces. While this book is beautifully designed, too, its pretty smallness puts the squeeze on Silano’s long lines. Nevertheless, Silano’s achievement deserves your reading glasses, direct sunlight, and a plate-cleaning literary appetite. Poets too rarely greet us with a declaration of “feeling all wow,” and even less often follow up with courses of shiny wordplay, formal ingenuity, weird humor, and serious politics. Here is a poet who has a ton of fun with her substantial powers. I don’t know if that’s enough for my student; we all need to see ourselves reflected sometimes in our readings, so I’ll have to help him find some strong poets whose answers to the big questions resonate with his own. For me, though, Silano’s secular joy is miraculous enough: somehow, she manages to respond to our damaged present with both critique and delighted praise.