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

But it’s no utopia. One poem, “What Are You Reading?” (p. 28), with the epigraph — question at a dinner party, makes it clear that although this speaker has a sense of the value of her knowledge and of her participation in the universe, this might not be a general sense. We know, despite our best impulses, that there are things called More Important and things called Less Important. What are you reading? — that small-talk question sometimes signals an ego-driven showdown. Read Infinite Jest? You win. But the speaker inverts her interlocuter’s question, opening herself to the possibility of more and more democratic legibility. What is read here? “The kitchen towel’s heretofore unnoticed ochre,” “Date on a package of yeast.” In Silano’s poem, everything can be read. The invisible or ignored are raised to the level of cultural artifacts — which, of course, they already are. Everything is written, everything is waiting to be read. The everyday joins together with the holy, the high, however it comes.

Everything is written, everything is waiting to be read. The everyday joins together with the holy, the high, however it comes.

A great deal of what happens in The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception happens Out There: in space, among the stars, in the Universe, in a kind of otherworld where the high and holy are mixed up with grit: cracker crumbs, milk stains, gummy worms. “O perpetual snot! O paperclip in your mouth! / O gate you’re stuck behind (with good reason)!” (p. 31), Silano writes in the titular poem. But the Out There is actually an In Here: there is belief enacted in these poems whereby a credo can begin “I believe in the dish in the sink / not bickering about the dish in the sink / though I believe the creator // of the mess in the living room / cleans up the mess in the living room.” But lest you think that Silano’s speaker is only ironic, only wry, let me tell you that this same credo asserts “I believe in the holy in the hole in the toe / of his feet-in pajamas” and ends “grant us eternal grant us merciful / o clement o loving o sweet” (“Poor Banished Children of Eve,” p. 41). Holding the contradictions, we find that in fact they are not contradictions but co-conditions. Only ever, she seems to say, both. Silano nods to the surrounding structures of religion, tradition, faith, and family (also formally as well as thematically; anaphora is a major presence in the book, and references to religion both kitschy and sincere abound) even while establishing her own offices.

The “all” and “both” of Silano’s poems occur formally as well as thematically; she collapses sentences, runs on across the ends of lines, breathless, tripping almost, all the way to the end of the page, tricking us with readings that change before and after line- or stanza-breaks. The poem “After Reading There Might Be an Infinite Number of Dimensions” (p. 40) opens with a sentence that spans eight lines, encompassing Zinfandel, wrinkle-covering cosmetics, mashed winter squash, rain gutters, and gravity. These first lines establish a world where things are happening all at once. But they are followed by eight more sentences, spread over sixteen lines, and things are happening there, too. A clue comes in the second sentence of the poem, about halfway down the page: the word “fractals.” In Silano’s hands, these poems present a universe where the fractal reigns, and it’s difficult to tell where the center begins and ends. In Alberto Ríos’ words, this is a place where there is “nothing so important, and nothing at all unimportant.”

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