O Holy Insurgency by Mary Biddinger
Black Lawrence Press, 2013; 91 pp
Reviewed by Dillon J. Welch
What is most interesting about Mary Biddinger’s collection, O Holy Insurgency, is also what is most often overlooked in the lap of life: the dizzying specifics, a man watching a newspaper slide into a lake, a “roof [collapsing] / under the weight of its squirrels.” Biddinger dazzles with the ordinary, often reveling in images that are both familiar in content, while still remaining unanticipated by the reader. In “Naturalism”:
...I slipped my arms up
the front of your shirt for comfort. Old
fears reignited like a dinosaur sponge
exploding out of a capsule to terrorize
the bathtub. I just wanted to be home.
But a pair can’t spend all its days
in bed. Hours before we were feeding
each other torn shreds of deli turkey
at the edge of a retention pond. How
else to spend a Saturday?
And again, in “Where You Store the Gun at Night”:...
If there was a wooden box
big enough for the both of us, we could hide it
on the top shelf, next to the kidskin wallet
and fingernail adhesive my grandmother
In this way, many of Biddinger’s lines delight in the playful, dancing briefly around absurdity, but usually just within reach. This is a tightknit collection of depth-in-recollection, and when it shines, it shines bright.
That is not to say every line will resonate with every reader. While poetry, fundamentally, is a guessing game of tastes and hyper-personal reaction to each particular body of work, Biddinger’s poems may leave some readers on the outside looking in. Often addressing the unnamed You¸ Biddinger’s lines sometimes falter while trying to accommodate for character inclusion. In “A Gauntlet,” the speaker jumps from the arresting image of two lovers tied to a tree, to a tame conversation built around phrasal familiarity, before landing on a vague assertion: “You asked how many days / until we could, as they say throw / down. But we were born fighting.” In the poem “A Very Hard Time,” a town is confronted with unexpected environmental complications (“A man on the television noted / difficulties, the new trouble / with air, schoolgirls loosing / their braids in directions / that could only mean evil.”), and just when the poem seems to be hitting its stride, it snaps back to average by addressing the safe, familiar You:
Someone was stealing all
of the lawnmowers, rolling
them across the highway,
but you tangled your hands
in my hair.
While Biddinger does a great job manipulating the line break to flirt with the image of hands tangling in a lawnmower’s blades, one can’t help but wonder where the poem could have ventured if not tethered to the anchor of the distant You.
Though she may have sacrificed untilled soil to fit narrative constraints, Biddinger always explores the complexity of stories and landscapes in profound ways. There is no physical way a reader can leave this book without feeling wholly enveloped in its narrative. In “Heresy”:
Every day I would peel one
strip of vinyl siding off my
house. I started at the back.
There was a shimmery tar
on damp wood underneath.
I did the same thing with
myself and called it purpose.
Here, we are walked along a house to the rear and given the tools to remove its skin. The speaker then shifts, subtly, into a personal and reflective wisdom. In each timeline laid out by Biddinger, there is a story deeper than the gravel pit beneath every storm-wrecked porch.