Something is afoot in poetry. Joining the ranks of collections of largely self-possessed, discrete poems are poetic sagas, story-long volumes that signal not only a rebirth and reinterpretation of the ballad but lay challenge to the more traditional literary forms assumed to rule over narrative, be they fictions short and long, historical accounts, or philosophical treatises. These new books of poetry, among them Hermine Meinhard’s Bright Turquoise Umbrella and Morris Manning’s Lawrence Boothe’s Book of Visions, have long legs and curiously complex nervous systems, sending feedback loops forward and backward through the collection. For the reader, the effect is somewhat akin to moving through a thicket of voices reprising and clarifying previous conversations even as they amend and add to them.
Though we have a handful of contemporary poets, as well as not so contemporary influences, to thank for this new wave in poetry’s ocean, we can glean much about the movement, if it be one, through a single poet and her third and latest collection of verse: Anna Rabinowitz and The Wanton Sublime: A Florilegium of Whethers and Wonders. Best to pause here a moment and consider the meaning of the title’s f-word. “Florilegium” joins two Latin roots: “flor—,” a flower, and “legere,” to gather or collect. It can refer to a collection of writings, much like an anthology, or, more literally, to a portfolio of flower pictures. It would seem that the first definition best suits Rabinowitz’s collection and yet a simple sexual euphemism easily makes the second definition as useful to us. Rabinowitz’s collection of whethers and wonders (and I might add “what ifs”) is also a collection of “de-flowerings,” a transformative act that replaces the flower, to extend the metaphor, with seed, stem, and sometimes, fruit.
Rabinowitz’s collection, then, is itself a fruitful de-flowering, taking the Virgin Mary, one of history’s “purest” figures, and insisting upon her mortal, rather than divine or rarified, qualities. The collection effectively repositions Christianity within history, asking to see the mortal body, to witness the mortal scenario that runs alongside the divine event at the core of Christianity: the virgin birth.
How does Rabinowitz manage such a thing? Like Darkling (Rabinowitz’s second collection) The Wanton Sublime approximates a novella in verse, wherein two principle personas—Mary (a.k.a. mother of God, mother of a revolutionary named Jesus, mother of Christianity itself) and light (a.k.a God, angel, embodiment of rape as privilege, mystery)—undergo transformations philosophically complex and familiar. A catalogue of Mary’s losses—her virginity, her identity, and ultimately her child—and usefulness to a plan larger than herself plucks the myth from the sky and hands it once again to those of us still living on the ground. By turning her subject inside out and examining the dark act disguised within a flash of blinding light, Rabinowitz reveals the core of disquiet attending the world’s most famous virgin birth.
The collection’s opening poem, “Of Plunder and Precinct,” readily establishes the stakes of the collection. The title itself invites a question: where one has established precinct, is plunder philosophically possible, or is what would elsewhere read as plunder simply the act of taking that which is already yours? That which, in fact, you created in the first place? In other words, does it follow that God, as creator of humanity, has the right to do with us as God will? Melding form and content, Rabinowitz proceeds to explore this question thematically and structurally: each four-line stanza’s first and second lines are rearranged, word by word, to form the third and fourth lines, creating new meaning out of old.
It begins in a far meadow, a bright room, a hillside thick with time
A woman in a field of flowers interrupted and carried away
A thick meadow begins it in a woman bright with flowers and time
A room carried in a hillside interrupted a far field away
This structure continues until the fourth and final stanza, which, rather than using words of its own, is built of words from the three previous stanzas. New meaning is made by such a process, begging the observation that very different stories can be told using precisely the same material. Which tale is true? This question lies at the heart of Rabinowitz’s project as explored in the third stanza of the same poem:
It is a lie that serves the truth
Beauty by nature rules over strength
The truth that serves beauty is a lie
Nature by its strength overrules
The “thick meadow” that “begins it in a woman” here turns a woman’s beauty to its own devices. Both the nature of the perpetrator—whose nature is violence—and nature itself—that raw material, which, according to Judeo-Christian myth, is the creation of God alone—is not a mistake but a purposeful creation in which we, God’s children, are to live.
When a work such as The Wanton Sublime appears, it is tempting to congratulate it by calling it original, as if it emerged pure and whole from the poet’s imagination. And yet here such a summation would be a misunderstanding of the collection’s project. We return for a moment to “florilegium” and recall that it most accurately translates as “anthology.” Anthologies generally contain the work of more than one, and often many, writers, united not by tone or style, but content or an editor’s glimpse of some terrain the works share in common. The Wanton Sublime, too, achieves such an effect, combining voices, logics, and metaphors that weave their way through history. In this way, Rabinowitz’s process mirrors that of the historian or cultural theorist who charts a development across time and text. Rather than producing a work of nonfiction that achieves some synthesis of disparate sources, however, Rabinowitz, whethering and wondering, creates the sources themselves, which extend from pre-Christianity to the present day. Superstitions, almanacs, nursery rhymes, even string theory all reveal their dependence on the figure of Mary, virgin mother of God, for part, if not all, of their logic. The standard nursery rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb,” for example, is so wholly transformed in this collection, as a reader I was humbled to have never before made the connection:
Mary had a little lamb
His genes were white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to know . . .
He followed her to bed one day
It was against the rule
He urged the virgin to stay and pray
Was Mary game or tool?
This revised version of the nursery rhyme gives voice to many stakes of the collection, not least of which are the question of Mary’s manipulation (could it be Mary’s naiveté, rather than her purity, that made her an easy mark for God’s divine plan?) and of the nature of the virgin birth itself. Was Mary raped, and if so, by whom?
To explore these and other questions, Rabinowitz proceeds via likeness—alliteration, repetition, subtle transformations of words by changing a single letter to make an ode, for example, odd—to draw out difference and trace a line that replaces genealogy with genre: a potent god and a ravished, and ravishing, pregnant mortal. Multiple mythologies attest that Mary is not the first attractive virgin to arouse the sexual interest of a god.
Later poems make explicit that which “Of Plunder and Precinct” suggests, asking not only whether Mary’s virgin birth can and should be placed alongside other mythic tales of union between mortals and gods (Io, Leda, etc), but who exactly Mary was? What do we know of her? Blinding divine light, whiteness, and moral purity regularly attend the image of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception, obscuring darker implications. The prose poem, “from A DISQUISITION ON UNBEARABLE CONUNDRUMS OF BEING,” clarifies the choices by offering readers a brief test:
True or false:
That all of the above could arguably be either true or false seems part of the point. What is at stake here for many is a function of belief and so, for these believers, a test of true or false is largely irrelevant. What, then, is relevant? What is the point? To guide our answering of this question, Rabinowitz places an untitled poem in the center of the collection, which reads as a kind of hinge uniting the collection’s various claims:
The point is lament
The point is grief
The point is melding a muddle of Marys
Myrionymos—she of many names
But whose lament, whose grief? Ours over losing the Mary who existed before Jesus? What kind of Mary are we in danger of losing? The saint or the mortal soul? Does belief in the virgin birth as miracle occlude the possibility that Mary the mortal was raped? What kinds of choices, be they spiritual or physical, did Mary have? Rabinowitz, in “from A DISQUISITION ON UNBEARABLE CONUNDRUMS OF BEING,” again presents the reader, and Mary, with several options:
Virgin, select from the following consummations
devoutly to be urged:
I’d venture it is not usual for believers in the Virgin Birth to think often of Mary’s vagina, much less think of it in relation to the trope of vagina dentata, invoking as it does the surreal and the psychoanalytic. Indeed, the story of how Jesus came to walk the earth as the word made flesh seems largely immune to such modern interpretations. And yet, unless one is to read the Bible literally, the story of the Virgin Birth is either that—a story intended to hyperbolically explain just how special Jesus is—or a new spin put on an old set of circumstances—an unmarried woman shows up pregnant and later, when her son becomes an important figure and must not be marred by unseemly origins, the mother’s sin is strategically sanctified. In “from A DISQUISITION ON UNBEARABLE CONUNDRUMS OF BEING,” Rabinowitz once again makes the options clear:
Complete this sentence: Mary is
Why present these options in the form of a test? A test requires that one provide, based on one’s knowledge and study, one’s own answer or interpretation of an issue. Tests establish both ownership of material and, often, a final judgment of one’s abilities to manage it. Indeed, readers of Rabinowitz’s florilegium are positioned as cultural historians and theorists, presented with a range of facts and fantasies and the uses to which they have been put, and asked to extract an answer—that is, if an answer is what we are after.
Helping us on our way, Rabinowitz experiments with the uses and abuses of historic inquiry and the dangers of being too literal by following a hallmark of the Christian faith, Christmas, to its logical end. If Christmas, December 25, is indeed Jesus’ birthday, then March 25 must be the day of his conception. In “from Farmer Troves: March 25, In the Year of . . .” farmers are advised to take advantage of this fertile time by tending their gardens and employing brutality to encourage new growth: “ ‘Sow lettuce / (it comes up quickly, grows thickly / it is not firmly rooted / when you want to eat it, / pull it up root and all’ “—all this because “ ‘It is March 25’ when ‘the moon wanes’ and ‘the sky arrives’.” Once again we encounter this idea of precinct—does the farmer have the right to use the vegetables he sows howsoever he desires? What is the proper relationship between god (farmer) and mortal (vegetable)? Is rape not rape when it is god’s body that performs the deed? Do vegetables shy away from the rabbit that would munch their tender leaves but later bask in the appetite of the farmer?
Ultimately, the collection begins to shift our question of who laments, who grieves, to the figure of Mary herself. Even as the source and sanctity of Mary’s impregnation is placed in question, other aspects of Mary’s historical identity are raised. However she becomes so, Mary is a mother and, as a mother, she opens herself to the agony of suffering with her child, who, as a mortal, is her son and, as a god, is her creator—even her father.
Three long years she carried thee upon her shoulder and gave thee her breast
to thy mouth, and as thy size increased her heart never once allowed her to
“Why should I do this?”
She is and remains a mother
even though her child die,
though all her children die.
(“THE WOVEN CHILD”)
As much about motherhood as rape, the collection asks how we are to love the product of violence. Indeed, just as Christ asks of God the Father in his moment of agony on the cross “why have you forsaken me” so too does Mary, here, ask this of Jesus. Mary’s question bears more than a mother’s panic at seeing her son grown and gone from her, even through death. Here, the question Mary asks repeatedly in the title poem late in the collection—“Oh my son, my son who will forsake me,” “Oh my son, my son must you forsake me?” “Oh my son, my son why have you forsaken me?”—reveals the additional agony of Mary’s position as a hinge joining Judaism and Christianity. Mary, a Jewish girl, gives birth to Jesus who, by virtue of being the messiah for one faith, cannot be hers. Since the Jewish faith does not believe the messiah has come, does Jesus make Mary Christian? How important is it, in other more modern terms, for parents to believe in, and be transformed by, their children?
It would seem these are questions for historians, theologians, psychologists, philosophers, and writers of historical fiction to answer and argue over. Yet Rabinowitz proves these are questions for poets too. How is an identity formed? Can we productively inhabit more than one simultaneously? Who was Mary before Jesus arrived? Does her prior reality matter or is who Mary was irrevocably eclipsed by who Jesus has become? When Christians pray the Hail Mary, the “hail” functions both as veneration and event, repeated each time Mary is invoked as the mother of god. We are hailed when, if a name is shouted in the street, we turn our heads in recognition, naming ourselves as the one being addressed. We are placed then, like Mary, in a new context. Our attention to an event names us as its bystander, and thereby the event attaches to us, even, sometimes, becomes us.
Who, then, hails Mary? If this collection of poems, prose poems, excerpts and elucidations is to claim an antagonist for Mary, its heroine, that antagonist must be light. What does light do? Brightens, sheds itself on circumstances, makes things clear. Mary is suffused with light as we typically imagine her with halo and blue robes flowing as if she wore the sky itself. But here, light also blinds, eradicates, sterilizes. Early in the collection we are told that “THE LIGHT CANNOT BE EXPLAINED; IT CAN ONLY BE SEEN,” uppercased so the reader doesn’t miss it (“from a gallery of upper case scaffolding as anomalous verse”). This statement continues as a refrain throughout the collection, undergoing subtle changes so that by the close of the book, we are left simply with “LIGHT BE NOT EXPLAINED” (“The Wanton Sublime”). What can this shift mean? We move from a statement indicating impossibility (cannot) to a request made vulnerable to acceptance or rejection (be not)—almost, in fact, to a prayer. The shift from being unable to explain a thing to being unwilling, uninterested, or perhaps, ambivalent about explaining it is profound. Though at first glance the outcome may look the same (i.e.: a lack of empirical understanding) the journey is wholly different. This journey is the gift Rabinowitz holds out to readers: the chance to know, through the labors of her generous heart and mind, what waits to speak inside our own.