Courting the Ineffable — Fully into Ashes by Sofia M. Starnes

Fully into Ashes

Fully into Ashes
BY Sofia M. Starnes
(Wings Press, 2011)

In “Soul Radio: Three American Spiritualist Poets,” an essay appearing in American Poetry Review (July/August 2011), American poet Tony Hoagland suggests “allegiance to the plain style” and “an unspoken austerity in the worlds they represent” are hallmarks of the poets he examines. For Marie Howe, Jane Hirshfield and Linda Gregg, he speculates, “sumptuousness of detail, as well as opulence of word, would be beside the point.” Fully into Ashes, the fourth collection by Sofia M. Starnes, takes the opposite approach, courting the ineffable with cascading images and luscious language.

Establishing a relationship, however uneasy, with the Word, or particulate words, is a precondition for spiritual seekers and artists. After all, as John’s Gospel puts it, “In the beginning was the Word.” Starnes spent her first seventeen years in the Philippines where she was educated in English; she moved with her family to Madrid where she lived another seventeen years and where she completed an advanced degree in Philology. She moved to the United States in 1989, her sensitivity to the endless possibilities of language honed by this personal experience and training. These biographical details became relevant as I tried to understand how she achieved the particular effects of these poems.

…a marvelous mining of this world’s disparateness, in and out, cycling always in the knowledge that the Indivisible cannot be attained linearly or particulate-wise.

Without seeming derivative of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Starnes writes poetry, let us guess, that Hopkins would appreciate. They employ a similar diction, most often choosing their key words with Anglo-Saxon roots. For instance, “Awash” conjures up early memories of her mother: “She washed us thus, all fingers sluicing equally, / giddy the skin, / true, as soft thumb’s dimple” (p. 7). The word “giddy” derives from the same Germanic root as “god,” suggesting the childish delight of bathing on a continuum with mother as a source of love and protection, a rudimentary glimpse of the divine. Both poets are both skilled in the multiply complex alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme schemes that beg to be spoken aloud and savored. Surely, Starnes’ poem, “Intercession III,” shares indwelling intensity with Hopkins:

Wet as the evening, over-wet, dark
as the hour, under-dark; You swell,
shrink, grow, bend, leave me, ah…
flecked stammel on the ribs. Tell me.

— p. 8

Unabashedly embracing words as the stuff we work with now, she writes in “The House That Spoke,” “Here is a task to undertake — / let’s build a house out of a sigh, / to be, through memory, a language” (p. 8). Then acknowledging “the sigh was a pre-Babel thing,” she concludes, “Why not say simply?” and does so, laying out her précis of the human condition:

I am bewildered by my fall, how
the ground rose between groans and good lips,
how it hummed when the tower homed,

fully into ashes.
And all I heard, whooshed between words,
was love you, love me.

— p. 8

The collection is divided into three sections, identified by a key poem from the section and an explanatory tag: “First House: Find,” “Leaving Pompeii: Ache,” and “The Moonlight House: Gift.” Each section opens with a poem of “Intercession,” and many poems contain opening epigraphs from the Psalter or some bit of situational grounding, ranging from a Goya painting at Museo del Prado to “Fox Trot for a Convalescent.” Each section contains a thematically important poem using the house metaphor. Despite all these markers, the poems, for me, presented no clear linear trajectory, but rather a marvelous mining of this world’s disparateness, in and out, cycling always in the knowledge that the Indivisible cannot be attained linearly or particulate-wise. In other words, these are poems of a mystic, not of a seeker.

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