"Where the Center Begins and Ends" — The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception by Martha Silano

The Little Office
of the Immaculate Conception

BY Martha Silano
(Saturnalia Books, 2011)

The reasons that mothers have eyes in the back of their heads is clear: protection, discipline. But what are the effects of eyes in two places at once? Of attuning oneself not to one’s own safety and happiness alone, but to another’s, or to several others’? Most obviously, simultaneity. And even without the metaphorical eyes, the person with a child by all reports has their attention divided. Where once only one’s own desires, needs, thoughts, and sense called out for action, now there are two (or more) sets of each. Time, if it retains linearity, retains it in the sense that a double-decker bus is linear: it might travel forward, but the present is complicated by its levels.

Martha Silano’s book The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, which won the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, manifests a voice immersed in simultaneity, and containing multitudes. This speaker has to be so immersed: she is caring for children and writing poems; going to dinner parties and investigating her own universe. The mother in these poems is awake to all kinds of things at once, because she is all kinds of things at once. Not uniquely preoccupied with chores, daily life, others’ demands, her children, or the material facts of being a mother and a human being in a cluttered life, Silano’s speaker still makes room among her other thoughts for these. They meld and tumble together. In “9/11 on 9/11/09” (p. 66) the adult’s reflection on history, nationalism, violence, and fear is shot through with the simultaneous fact of a four-year-old’s new knowledge of pattern. Silano’s poems gain their strength by their insistence on the meaningfulness of all rather than some: the four-year-old’s pattern of “red, beige, black, white, red, beige, black, white” becoming “She said red. I said yes, but I did not say blood.” Silano’s speaker’s world is heterogeneous, every kind of thing touching everything else.

Here, knowledge happens in the mode of the everyday and in the sense that there are things out there that are perhaps never going to be graspable, but toward which, nonetheless, we reach.

Because of this, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception is, as much as anything, about knowledge — about what we know, how we know it, how this knowledge is authorized or not, about what knowing is, and about what we don’t know. Silano’s concern is not to delineate one particular way by which we receive enlightenment; it’s not mother-knowing versus science, science versus religion. In fact, enlightenment doesn’t really seem to be the mode through which knowing happens here; things are chaotic, noisy, messy. Here, knowledge happens in the mode of the everyday and in the sense that there are things out there that are perhaps never going to be graspable, but toward which, nonetheless, we reach. As Silano’s speaker says in “My Place in the Universe,” “we’re both expanding our knowledge / of what’s just beyond us” (p. 3). That’s the universe she’s talking about, there.

Throughout the book, this speaker punctuates her own awareness with an expansion of knowledge — and of what can be known. She also positions herself, and her familiar objects and people, right in the middle of discourses which have traditionally created knowledge in rarified circumstances: science, religion. (In the same poem, Silano writes, “Me-n-the universe / really not separate after all, // me surely not a subset” and, elsewhere, “while holding my baby in my lap, right now I can’t think / about patterns or numbers or even the moon,” although even as she says this, the thought shows up.) Babies, mathematics, galaxies, egg beaters, prayer, laundry, birthdays, biology: it’s all here.

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