The Gold Thread by Sarah Kennedy
Elixir Press, 2013; 80 pp
Reviewed by Paul French
Published in 2013 by Elixir Press, Sarah Kennedy’s The Gold Thread is the first of a kind for me, that being a brand new collection about the Christian experience. As poetry presses are so prolific nowadays, I’m sure there’s a bounty of others, but, as I said, this is my first encounter with something so contemporary--”contemporary” incidentally being a key term in the form & concept of many of the works within The Gold Thread, as the antique tableau of religion is animated by the 21st Century speaker’s shattered self. Interestingly though, when the pieces speak, it’s a case of the old foregrounding the new, of the new as context, a modern stage for an ancient soliloquy.
And if considered a play, then The Gold Thread is one of many masks. Its discourse is relayed through the voices of historical religious figures, who are, in line with much Christian poetry (Hopkins and Donne especially), frustrated by the ecstasy and pains of faith. Importantly, these characters (the central ones) are women, many of them mystics and shamaness types (e.g., Margery Kempe) who gained influence and diverted followings from the patriarchal main of the flock--giving them, like St. Francis, an anti-hero identity in the history of the church. Indeed, the question of what femininity is/can be in a Judeo-Christian culture is one of the book’s prime thematic features. ”Death of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni,” the sculpture used as the book’s cover art, is an excellent introduction to many of the paradoxes that Kennedy explores (check out this month’s installment of “Closer Poetry” below for a more in-depth idea).
As for the poems themselves, I was amazed at how well-crafted and lived-in they felt. At first, the idea of this being a book about Christianity and its historical figures made me resist the poems, but the more I dug in the more I found myself sympathizing with the personae Kennedy inhabits. Eventually, I found myself returning to the first poem of the book and discovering its true brilliance. That poem, “Speaking in Tongues,” receives this month’s close reading. Take a look, and come back next month when I’ll be reviewing Michael Robbins’s new book, “The Second Sex.” What an original title!
Closer Poetry #5
Note: Please excuse any mis-lineation of the verse, as thepoem below has been transcribed manually.
* * *
Speaking in Tongues
of her kneeling self,
and the choir clears the way.
note, then a wailing,
hands flung heavenward--
the shaking skirt testifies
to the legs--
bare toes dug into the dirt,
fingers meeting God,
her open body:
another St. Teresa,
the angel’s golden spear--
her pierced heart bled--
and she bore it like a secret word,
like the whole of creation--
and here is
kissing the lips
of lepers, making them Christ--
and here comes
mother Eve, mouth still moist,
tongue touched with fire.
How she is made
to tremble, yet
with her effort,
a Venus rising
a sheen of muscle and sweat.
he sees a man
could drown in it.
I chose to dig into this poem, the first in The Gold Thread, for several reasons--the foremost being that it serves as a manifest for a bevy of the book’s themes and conceits, providing us with crucial seed images that will develop throughout The Gold Thread.
I wager that the book was originally supposed to start with the long titular poem, and that “Speaking in Tongues” was originally placed afterward as an overture toward the later Margery Kempe sequence; but since “Speaking” reveals so many germinal elements, not just of that sequence but of the whole collection, (the title itself is somewhat of an ars poetica for the book) it was planted on the first page as a road sign for the reader. A wild swing, and I’m probably wrong, but still, this is one of those keystone poems. If you’re reading this review because you’re wondering about whether or not to buy the book, your reaction to this poem is a good indicator.
If you’ve read this feature in AMRI before, you’ll notice that this poem’s a bit longer than the usual single-pagers (it’s actually on the short side compared to many of its peers). To accommodate this length, I’ve had to stretch my sections to 10 lines each. Still, I’ll try to provide as deep a look as possible. Let’s get down to it, shall we?
In its first line-casting, “Speaking in Tongues” sets a major theme in this and really any collection of spiritually sparked poems, i.e. disembodiment, as a woman leaves her body (“kneeling self”) through her voice “a single note”). The subject (“one woman”) is then contextualized by the presence of others, a whole choir in fact, who “clear the way” for her voice, which we can now think of as delivering a solo. In the wording of these lines we can see disembodiment (the woman leaving her body as a voice) and then re-embodiment (the voices of the choir described as bodies that “clear the way”). Strange as it is, this abstraction serves to represent the Christian dualist position of considering both bodies as vessels and spirits (the voices) as migrant abiders; and paradoxically both can figure for the human self.
The solo immediately transforms. It becomes “a wailing” in the sixth line, “wailing” here possibly connoting spiritual lamentation & repentance (I’m thinking of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall). Whatever this wailing is exactly, it’s probably not fit for choir practice (unless you’re doing some kind of Space Odyssey soundtrack thing); so we can read here that the voice has not only departed from the body but from the organization of bodies that previously bound it. This will connect us with The Gold Thread’s later discussions of religion.
The wailing of the lone voice causes hands to be raised “heavenward.” If we didn’t get the idea of a church before, we’ve got it now, especially since the word “testifies” shouts up in the next line. There’s a very subtle, very sharp move right here, as by directing our focus with the heaven-oriented hands, Kennedy has invested the image of the skirt (our focus pointed down) with the suggestion of earth. The skirt is shaking, an earthquake--a Biblical sign of God. And what follows is ecstasy.
Kennedy creates a further connection between the feminine body (the skirt) and the earth here by describing the body as a tree, with “toes dug into the dirt” like roots and “fingers meeting God” like branches on a tree version of the Sistine’s Adam.
We are told that this is an “open body,” capable, we can assume, of receiving God or some kind of spiritual essence. However, the way the body receives this essence is more like Yeats’s rape of Leda, where the body submits to the violent power of the deity; the phallus the “prone” woman (another St. Teresa) receives takes the form of a holy, golden spear, which pierces her heart. Here Kennedy suggests that the woman has been impregnated, but that this pregnancy, if not shameful, is a burdensome and private matter (“and she bore it like a secret word,”). The “whole of creation” line that follows reinforces the idea of divine conception--the idea that the female figure has been impregnated by God with God. Inseminated by God, the female figure usually finds a place of glory (Mary, Mother of God); here, however, the female character has been placed as a victim, a passive vessel at the mercy of a rapist deity who ravishes human souls in a violent fashion ala John Donne.
Kennedy gives the poem another female figure, Margery Kempe, and then names Eve as another. Notably, these figures’ entrance in the poem is stage-like, as if they’re characters in a play who have been invisible until given cues to enter the scene: “and here is,” “and here comes.” The sudden appearance of these characters speaks to an entendre of the poem’s title--i.e., “Speaking in Tongues” not only refers to the spiritual phenomenon in which a person is possessed by the Holy Spirit but also to the conceit of using the spirits of others as vessels for the poet to speak through. Throughout the book, Kennedy uses historical, spiritual figures (feminine ones) as vessels for statements about gender and religion in a contemporary context (read the microreview for more of an idea of why she’s doing this).
The female characters are described as mystical beings--violently imbued with godly power. Yet after relishing in a few descriptions of their stunning mystery, Kennedy returns the feminine figure to a supplicant: “How she is made/ to tremble, yet / confess.” And while this is a transitory move to the coming liquid imagery, it’s also a reminder of the female body’s place within the patriarchal schema of the church.
Like so many of Christianity’s dualities (good & evil, soul & body, God & nature), the issue of gender results in paradox. And as Kennedy’s image of the pious woman melts, witch-like, into a pool, it recalls the mystique of power constructed around femininity in the Christian tradition. The lineation is especially effective in this section. For instance that island of a phrase, “he sees a man,” creates a double-meaning, actually more like a triple-meaning. First there’s the literal, the phrase’s meaning when operating as part of its sentence: “he sees a man/ could drown in it.” Second, there’s reading of the phrase as indicative of some sort of transformation on the part of the female character, as if by merging with God and by achieving this formlessness the woman appears more like a man (a repeating idea throughout Kennedy’s collection). And third, there’s the reading that the preacher is seeing some sort of reflection or vision in the pool of melted woman, like she’s become a mirror or a crystal ball.
The final idea of danger/consumption that the water constitutes is intriguing. It’s one of those fantastic ambiguities that gives the poem repeat reading value. Is this drowning sensual? Does the preacher want to be absorbed into her body? Is it a statement about her faith vs. his faith (water as a test as it was for Peter in the Bible)? Has she become a stand-in for God himself (God being represented by the ocean)? I could go on. It’s a memorable ending to a memorable poem, and I highly recommend taking a deep look on your own to see what you can come up with.