Green Hills Literary Lantern




The Need to Ascend:


Redefining Reverence in Poetry by Joanne Lowery and Sofia Starnes




            I frequently give students comparison-contrast essays for their literature exams because one of the best ways to illuminate a challenging text is by comparing it to another.  One suggestion  I share with them is to "hook" their essays, either by choosing two texts which seem similar and demonstrating the many ways that they are distinct, or  by taking two texts that seem very unlike and proving out the surprisingly substantive ways that they are similar.  I take the latter approach when comparing two recent books of poetry by Joanne Lowery and Sofia Starnes. These two tomes have been among the most difficult I have ever tried to get a handle on, though for strikingly different reasons.  Yet, somehow, comparing them has enabled me to find my way to at least a partial elucidation of what both women have accomplished. 

            A skeptical reader might wonder how a grouping of forty-five poems all having something to do with the "Jack and the Beanstalk" tale, Lowery's Jack: A Beanstalk Life (Snark Publishing, 2008) could have anything much in common with the twelve poems in Sofia M. Starnes's chapbook, Corpus Homini: A Poem For Single Flesh,  (Wings Press, 2008), which has been described by Michael Mott as an "extended work of praise," akin to Smart's Jubilate Agno or Levertov's O Taste and See.   There are few evident connections, but these two difficult books have more than their challenge to the reader in common: both works seek to convince us of the attitudes and approach we must take into life to extract from it all of its magical possibilities. Both writers recognize the basic human need to seek, to believe in possibility, to ascend, by cultivating a keen understanding of why life is far more than a crap shoot.  In giving us two very different reasons to reverence our lives, they arrive, together, at a redefinition of what reverence can and should be. 

            One important and defining contrast to note right away is that Lowery's book is as funny as Starnes's work is serious, as seemingly irreverent as Corpus Homini is reverent. One need look no further than the opening poems of each writer to begin to see this pattern.  In "Chance" Lowery seems snide in arguing that Jack's great good luck came not only with his reception of the magic beans, but also way back to when he was conceived, since, after all, his dad "could have had a cigarette instead," or his mother "flushed her sons away." She also rarely meets a pun she doesn't like, as when she ends "Chance" with a line about the hag who changed Jack's life by trading for his cow, "never spilling the beans/about the ending."   Starnes's opening poem "One Body" starts with an epigraph from Ovid's Metamorphoses claiming the earth for our "great mother" and its stones, "the bones/ The oracle intends,"  and ends with an allusion to the crucifixion of Christ, "that mysterious seamless cloak/ they could not tear-/ one Friday's intimation of a truth."  

            One area where both comparisons and contrasts can come into play is the way each poet's poems appear on their pages.  All of Lowery's poems save one have one-word titles, "Photosynthesis," “Daydreams," “Retribution" etc, while all twelve of Starnes's lyrics begin with the word “one”: "One Thirst," "One Heart," "One Birth," and so on.  Each poet works with very short lines and short stanzas, without exception.  In all of Starnes's poems three line stanzas predominate, even if she has to have one-word lines to make that work, as in these lines from "One Body":  "that pleads dark, dangling lost/ insanity./ Two hundred pickers/…" Though Lowery also has several poems with three line stanzas, the stanzas are far more self-contained.  For example, in the poem "Yield," a twenty-four line poem in eight stanzas, there is no enjambment between stanzas, and each tercet makes sense by itself, as in: "Jack sighed./ The wind heard him/ and the sun did too." Both poets write difficult poems, but Lowery's poems are difficult because it isn't easy to figure out her tone, her point of view; Starnes's poems are challenging within the lines themselves; you have to read them several times to even half hope you understand what she is saying.  And this difficulty takes root from the opening of each of her poems, as each one starts with an epigraph from sources ranging from Ezra Pound to Antonio Machado (in the original Spanish) to the New Testament, most of them not all that self-evidently connected to the meaning of the poem they front. 

            One has to work hard to understand what either poet is about, but with Starnes it is the very language and allusion she utilizes and references that begins the challenge.  But whether with the series of beautifully simple and striking images that Lowery brings to us, or the more complex tropes and syntax that Starnes prefers, both poets can dazzle any reader who takes the time to ponder their lines -- for example, in Lowery's "Sway," a poem that finds Jack precariously climbing his way up the beanstalk. Lowery ends the poem with one of her longest stanzas, with these amazing lines:

Jack just heard Jack

and the words inside his head.

Some of them said,

take this silence and weave

an open boat for sleep,

a hammock of nothingness

to swing between fear and morning.


             Starnes's "One Thirst" begins in a fashion typical for her, with images and metaphors that are less accessible, but not impossible to interpret:


We must have breakfast first

Fresh coffee keening nerves to perfect

Blades, paring knives to peel


The blue out of the sky.

We squeeze a large, gold grapefruit,

And the pits collect as small sins in a cup.


            Why are the pits small sins?  Because we aren't going to return them to the earth to grow new fruit; we'll merely throw them in the trash.  Yet, even as spring "forgives" such "errors" on our part, it may take away an entire orchard with a late frost, "We cannot have it all."  Both poets are on to something, something big, but they approach the reader, one metaphor, one clever and lyric line at a time, hoping we'll try to catch on.

            Ultimately, what both poets are saying about life itself is what brings them together for me; each of them invokes a sense of order that contemporary life works to discount, but which they gently insist can still not be pushed away or ignored.  Whether it is Lowery's coyly inspiring and inspired reading of a familiar fairy tale, or Starnes's humble but profound reading of contemporary life, each poet argues for an existentialism rooted not in absurdity but in the human need to ascend.

            Though these themes are not self-evident in either poet, I would argue that the main ideas in both works are analogous.  Both Lowery and Starnes present a world lacking in high faith; their solution to this world is a belief in the connection that all humans share, a desire, a need to hope, a commitment to the possibility of ascension.  Lowery's posing of that thesis has the world of Jack and the Beanstalk as its setting, with the literal aid of Jack going up the magic beanstalk, but it is how she reifies and defines that setting that matters.  Starnes has the world at large for her canvas, but she settles largely on the miracles in the commonplace to argue her premise through.

            In part one of Starnes's poem "One Food," the poet seeks absolution for not appreciating in childhood the gift that was her mother's offering and preparation of bread for the family.  Those rituals of "cup of water, pinch of sugar brittle fine,/ the yeast exhaling, clean brume…," were not something she could fully appreciate as a child, though clearly her memories of her mother baking bread are still vivid.   In "One Past" Starnes is brought back by her present tulips being flooded out by an early storm to a memory of when her teacher gave her "seven seeds," which, unlike Jack's five beans, led to nothing magical, since her well-meaning parents accidentally drowned them by putting them in a coffee can without "pores or/ tearducts... The roots had drunk, drunk rain/ and never wept their wealth."  These early examples from her youth each gave Starnes an opportunity to learn and grow- to appreciate the intricate magic in preparing food, in the growth of a flowering plant.  Unlike too many of us, Starnes learns from early lessons, learns enough to be able to gently instruct us in the miracles of the commonplace, all of which speak to our essential oneness, which she now sees everywhere around her. 

            Lowery's world is more tightly focused, at least ostensibly; all her poems make reference to Jack and his beanstalk.  While this reliance on a children's story might seem limiting, Lowery's ultimate applications of the tale are archetypal and profound, while most frequently being flat out funny as well.  And while I'm making that seemingly paradoxical claim I may as well go farther and state that the creative writer Lowery's  book of poems most closely echoes in its ultimate premises is none other than the erudite Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, particularly in his signature piece, "The Garden of Forking Paths."

            This resemblance begins with the first poem, "Chance."  Lowery seems to be going for glibness alone in this poem; I've already referenced her jokey pun about the hag not "spilling the beans."  But as Borges does in his companion pieces, "The Lottery of Babylon," (a world posited as completely ruled by chance) and "The Library of Babel," (a world posited as completely set in its order)  Lowery suggests the seeming randomness of Jack's opportunity to become a hero is no more random than everything else in life.  When it gets to practical application, chance and fate are two sides of the same coin: "The lad knows everything/ happens for a reason."  In "The Garden of Forking Paths," all possibilities are equally likely and all do happen: this makes anything that happens in life equally likely, and thereby equally unlikely. Though the chances of Jack ever even being born were infinitesimal, taking into account all sorts of incredibly long odds starting long before just the right egg and sperm united, once Jack is on the scene, he seems natural and preordained for his mission.  Jack happens to get this magical chance.  It's what he chooses to do with it that matters.  As Hamlet learns at the end of his play, "The readiness is all." 

            These same ideas wait for the careful reader to rediscover them again and again.  In "Photosyntheis" Lowery suggests that Jack's story has staying power for us because it teaches "All we have to do/ is lift a finger/ to seize the day."  It's precisely because Jack isn't especially brilliant or strong that he can serve as an inspiration for the lot of us.  In "There," a later poem in the collection, Lowery emphasizes the magic inherent in story- Jack is forever in his story, the beanstalk is forever waiting to be climbed.  And it needs to be climbed; Jack must eternally return, get out of bed "in a boy's body," and go for it, since, "the hag is forever believed," and without Jack, "nothing would be."  Jack represents then our willingness to believe, our need to ascend.  Other poems in the collection show Jack as an adult, posit him in a disappointing marriage ("Afterlife"), and in other tired aspects of adulthood.  But this in no contradiction to Jack as hero; Jack is a hero when he is in the act of belief and ascension; it's the process that matters- the products: the gold, the harp, the notoriety he attained, all are incidental; only the return to the purity of belief and existential venture matter and have worth.

            In the poem with that very title, "Worth," Lowery answers the key question from another famous work, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "Would it have been worth it after all?" by arguing an unequivocal yes- "What if only clouds awaited/ his search: a short, simple story/ minus hen, harp, suspense."  Lowery lets us know that ending would also have been fine, as "A boy stands on cumulus/ alone and proud./  The life that took him up/ is all he has."  In "Aspiration" Jack is even ready to tell children that hope is a good in and of itself, a kind of photosynthesis, a built-in mechanism of the universe for turning light into life.  If by the end of the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk," or the end of Lowery's book of poems about it, "Desire," you as a reader still think Jack did it all just for "gold," it "Shows what you know," or rather what you don't.  To aspire, to ascend, that's the only life worth living.  Since it is the hopeful journey itself that matters, that makes us human, the final result is unimportant: "Who knows how long it took/ Jack to never get there./ Jack wants what Jack wants/ forever and ever."

            And that is also why Sofia Starnes's chapbook always returns to spring.  Though it may seem an "odd kiss" that mates "March to April year to year," spring always follows winter, and there is a pattern of rebirth, resurrection, and finally ascension.  A key line in this first poem of the collection is simply, "But dice games will not do."  As in Lowery's first poem, "Chance," Starnes examines the idea of a random, chaotic universe without meaning and agrees with Lowery that those who see it that way are missing something.  The soldiers who tossed dice to determine who would get Christ's cloak were not ready for "one Friday's intimation of a truth," but Starnes, and any really careful reader, are ready.  That spring time resurrection gives meaning to all the others.  And we all participate in the hope of life's leading to something united, we are all, ultimately, pro-creation, as in Starnes's "One Heart,"  "Celestinas:/ window clicking, love-/ seats dragged closer to the moonlit/ swathes." 

            There is a human need to believe in the promise of spring, and whether we see that promise enlivened by a belief in Christ's redeeming sacrifice and its glorious end or the simple existential need built into all of us to seek what is higher, whether we look up to heaven and see God or just the clouds and sky from our vantage on the high wire of a literal or figurative beanstalk, we all are united in our need to hope, to believe, to ascend.  A life lived for gain or gold, a life lived misunderstanding the viability of our connection to others, is a life hardly lived at all.  In the very conception and shaping of their poetic visions, these two poets and their ultimately stunning work give all of us one more reason to believe.

 Joe Benevento