Poems from the Mid-Apocalypse: A Review of Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall

Maya Catherine Popa

New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2012. 96 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

The apocalyptic landscape is an oddly familiar one: wolf-riddled forests, cannibalism, floods and earthquakes. Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist in The Road is described here, in a moment of existential understanding: “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable.” This is the narrative of the world after our world and the few people (mostly men) still privy to its “darkness implacable.” Men in the dark, alone: a familiar story. Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins tells another story—a group of women, together, intent on surviving their own misfortunes: “we steal an hour from the future and burn / all the books so history begins with us.”

Carolyn Forché selected Our Lady of the Ruins as the winner of the 2012 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and it’s no surprise why—the collection’s themes of sacrifice, political unrest, and oblivion align with Forché’s own interests, and the language is altogether stirring and strange. The mid-apocalypse narrative places us in limbo: things are bad (think unspecified wars and plagues in the not-so-distant past), but there is always a chance they could get worse. As such, it demands a particular imagination and inventive range, not the desolate “darkness implacable,” but the overstimulated, ultra-sensory experience of vigilance and endurance. The collection’s epigraph, “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power,” uttered by mythologist Joseph Campbell, signals Brimhall’s own mythmaking. She writes and subsequently fragments the collective narrative of these women, disfiguring Christian iconography in the process. In keeping with the disorder of its backdrop, the narrative is not linear, nor is it easily pieced together. In interviews, Brimhall admits to not writing with an overarching narrative in mind but rather knowing that the poems “were about a mid-apocalyptic wandering.” While organized religion no longer provides safety (“There is no paradise / waiting for us, so why ask for miracles?”) the narrative still relies on the possibility of God and employs hard-hitting biblical motifs: silence, plagues, floods, and statues. What emerges is a story infused with ritual and surrealist anxiety rendered through Brimhall’s characteristic lyricism and visual power.

In a land of lynched men, fugitives, and roaming animals, domestic anxieties persist, amplified by the strangeness of their setting. It’s unclear what exactly has occurred or which factions were at odds. But stories about virgins in love with knights still circulate, women still console their men, and the language of a male deity endures. Daughters continue to be educated on how to handle boys and bury mothers, but they must also be self-sacrificing, willing to poison themselves in order to poison lions. The new age requires women to be both domestic and ruthless. Brimhall plays on the familiar presence of women in wartime, “we mend their shirts . . . We fold and unfold our shawls . . . ” But time and time again, she shows these women capable of violence in order to protect their own: “When he asks for a sacrifice, I offer / another woman’s son. The blood on my hands / becomes wine.” (The Blessing). They are resourceful and out to gain information:

                        Once, I held the head

of an oracle over a fire to hear her speak.
She cried, Blood oranges! Bird of paradise!
But I’d burned the soldiers and buried

The armor.” (Prayer for the Deaf Madonna)

The speaker soon after confesses, “Yes, I profited from war. My children lived.” The oracle is female, the injurer, female, and the male? Soldiers already dead. The oracle’s screams are lyric images. It is this fusion of lyricism, drama, and surprise that the collection offers in equal measure. We cannot label the speakers as good or bad. Without a clear moral compass, it becomes increasingly hard to picture a happy future for them. Brimhall deftly undermines the narrative of women as the last beacons of stability, guarding the pillars of civilization while the men are out fighting. These women have dangerous poetic imaginations.

Brimhall does not resort to clichéd, sci-fi scene-setting or moralizing either. In that way, her imaginative range reminds the reader of Matthea Harvey’s “Modern Life,” though Harvey’s playful levity is missing. Brimhall lets her speakers gossip and relay the messy, ordinariness of their world to the reader themselves:

             To sweeten the hours we share scandals
from the city, how curators removed an elephant’s heart

from the museum because it began beating when anyone
in love looked at it, how the coroner found minnows

swimming in a drowned girl’s lungs.

Love isn’t forfeited but is instead regarded with great suspicion: “One of my sisters will tell you that in order to love you must humiliate yourself . . . One sister believes God is a guillotine, and love is an oubliette.” (The Revisionist Gospel). Elsewhere, the proclamation that “Nothing will hurt us / like love.”

In “Our Bodies Break Light,” the speaker describes an encounter with a mutilated beekeeper:

One day as we listen for water, we find a beekeeper—
one eye pearled by a cataract, the other cut out by his own hand

so he might know both types of blindness.

The beekeeper suffers two kinds of affliction: the body unable to ward off disease, and the body as a victim of the mind’s violence. The conversation with the beekeeper, relayed in second person, continues: “You ask why no one believes in madness anymore, / and he tells you stars need a darkness to see themselves by.” Brimhall forges a mythology that complicates our idea of both victimhood and power, just as the beekeeper undermines the trope of oracular sight, a power gifted rather than earned through brutality.

The women’s bodies prove adaptable vehicles for survival. In “The Cities that Sleep,” women orient themselves by the map inked into another woman’s back:

                                      We name unseen
oceans on her breasts and the cities that sleep
under our fingers, recite mountain ranges

and the elegies we have begun writing for each other.
We know the journey to God is a fatal one.
It isn’t even God we’re looking for.

Patterns and procedures established by Christianity are appropriated and recast through human resilience: “Nothing surprises us, not even our own salvation. // Not even waking to a weeping madonna by our beds
 / lamenting that god is chained to the men who made him.” These women engage with the formula of a god rather than declaring their faith in one. Saints proves dissolved alongside the statues summoned in their name. Even as the collection’s middle section “Hysteria: A Requiem” adopts the form of a Christian Mass, it also assumes the role of a personal diary, deflating sanctity. These women have endured both political violence and the violence of attachment. As the final poem in the collection, “Jubilee,” concludes: “I am harrowed, hallowed. I am stone, stone, / I have not trembled. Love nails me to the world.”

Brimhall fully and thoughtfully knows the world she has authored. Feared and confronted by women, this war-torn country proves brightened by its author’s extraordinary creativity. The women in this collection are raised stronger by their demons, touched by a ruthlessness still characterized by feeling. Ultimately, the collection’s greatest sense of apocalyptic woe is in its use of transformative recyclability: a mother’s heart is buried in a dead lion cub’s ribcage, a man gored by a bull has the animal’s head stitched into his chest. However, these details also make Brimhall’s work what it is: tight, dynamic, and inventive. Brimhall proves that in disillusionment there is also great imagination, a half-lost world that awakens our perceptions to our current one.

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