“Our Lady of the Ruins” is Traci Brimhall’s re-visioned holy text—the gospels of doubt, a lifting up of second-guessing, a desperate grasping for faith in God, men, humanity and most essentially love. Here love is reframed.
In her introduction to the Barnard Women Poets selection, Carolyn Forché compares Brimhall and her poetry to “the stone lady [standing] in the ruins of bombed Dresden,” resilient in the face of apocalypse, “[holding] open the possibility of denying oblivion its dominion.” The poet accomplishes this by acknowledging that we are already in oblivion, and it is not what we expected. By reading Brimhall’s poems we are swallowed by profound anticlimax. We fumble in what might be described as “disappointed relief” that the world has ended (or is ending) and, while horrifying, it is not as magnificently dramatic as we envisioned. In one of multiple prose poems, “The Revisionist Gospel,” Brimhall writes,
“One of my sisters confuses gunfire with the voice of God. She will tell you the book can be decoded. It will reveal where the priests of resurrection hide keys to the armory where you can purchase your choice of oblivion.”
“Purchase,” “choose” our oblivion? Faith is buried in interpretation, revision, ourselves. “To My Unborn Daughter” unabashedly proclaims skepticism yet gropes for truth, something on which to rely,
“They’ll tell you we are banished, but this isn’t exile.
It’s a refuge from a nation of titans.”
Formally, “Our Lady of the Ruins” is cradled by couplets and tercets. The prose poem ghosts the volume, but Brimhall’s formal jewels are innovative and elaborate, most prominently the collection’s centerpiece, “Hysteria: A Requiem,” and the title poem. The poet accomplishes a great deal with innovation, including poetically vigorous prose, structural cohesion and surprise, thematic enhancement and linguistic dexterity, among a slew of other brilliances.
The final poem’s (“Jubilee”) epigraph bodes the coming of redemption, a return to love, some joyous culmination: “Seven times seven years—The fiftieth year you shall make sacred…. It shall be a Jubilee for you, when every one of you shall return home. –Leviticus 25:8-10.”
Brimhall’s elaborate calculations of structure and her precision with pace and innovation prove this collection is something to jubilate. It is beautiful darkness, persistently frightening and wired with faint belief. “Jubilee” ends with the proclamation,
“Love nails me to the world.”
Brimhall’s speaker, in “The Revisionist Gospel,” says it plainly:
“One of my sisters will tell you that in order to love you must humiliate yourself.”
This poetry holds firm that love is apocalyptic, and to get close we must doubt it, fumble for it, fear it and ruin it. (Wesley Rothman)
“Our Lady of the Ruins”
By Traci Brimhall
W. W. Norton & Company, 95 pages, $16