Courting the Ineffable — Fully into Ashes by Sofia M. Starnes
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
— 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
fully into ashes.
— 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.
“The heart’s abundant feast” (from “Leaving Pompeii”) is found in relationship frequently signaled by invoking “heart,” and in things (“And the world that was wander/ and rest/ is now Thing,” from “The Fret of Memory”), and in reflection that assimilates such experience and renders it in words. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that for Starnes, language, on a par with things, offers itself to reflection as primary material; certainly, her poems read that way. “Migrations,” from the second section, demonstrates this so well that it is worth quoting at length:
– and to heart, where we, too,
appointment, pungent segment, bitter-
all those stories of our fathers
Tell me, darling:
— p. 39
All of the dense glories of Starnes’ language can readily be heard in these stanzas. But she does not restrict herself to these intensely lyrical moments. The middle section also contains a poem in six sections, “The Rood of Jesse,” based on a shark attack of a young boy two months before September 11, continuing right through the attack and its aftermath.
The poem is theodicy:
In our limb, his limb-loss, a tingle in the thumb.
While we wait, red wine
courses out of grapevines into us — we, the carafe,
we, the glass transparency
and the nick, veeing.
God is good, the harvest says, wherever the rain
nourishes; yet it washes someone’s grenadines
— p. 45
It is lamentation:
which is why we dream the scene larger:
not the moon, but the moons after,
not the bloom, but the salvation of the rose —
gardens of the world,
not the shadow, but a giant bending over,
blueing darkness into, out of us.
We hope God —
— p. 48
It is a cry for Resurrection and finally a statement of faith for the body corporate:
We wish someone would climb
piece-meal into our eyes. To see is to select.
Isn’t that Lazarus over the glistening steel, covering
Look! Here, here I am? Can’t you see I made it?
— p. 49
The following poem, “What They Never Knew,” set back in time to Verspers on September 10, returns to a more-opened Mystery:
also, the unwarned: the brave benevolent
— p. 51
Death is the threshold over which faith dares to peer. Fittingly, several poems in the final section touch upon death, including two lovely elegies, “The Scarf” for Starnes’ father:
We’ll walk into a liturgy,
for a while:
of a dress…
— p. 69
and “The Armoire” for her mother:
Listen to the wish-wind mazing
the wall, where she nods, smiling.
on lifeless things; she leaves them for us.
— p. 71
The final poem, “A Way through Words,” turns its back on all that has preceded, all the particularizing, the words, the various separations that constitute our earthly existence. It is in the form of a prayer, a response to Psalm 19.
After our histories of speech — harangues in song and stammer
After the tidying up of prayers, Heart, at the first,
to flick the sediments of sound away, as one would sweep
— p. 83
And through the silence, the “One murmur,” there are
….voices racing to tell us
what things are like. By rumoring, we raise the dead.
articulate as childbirth.
— p. 83
So ends this particular faith odyssey. Starnes writes frankly, passionately within a Christian framework, always taking her faith as a given. But over and over, she pushes it into the realm of Mystery, the only nexus possible to faith and art.
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