"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.

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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