Issue 14

Steve Harris Reviews Susanna Childress’s Entering the House of Awe

Entering the House of Awe, by Susanna Childress (New Issues, 2011)

The psalm-like title of Susanna Childress’s collection, Entering the House of Awe, appears to come from a Jewish prayer called the ‘”Ma Tavu” (“O How Goodly”).  It would be a mistake to think this title signals a collection of reflective meditations such as Eliot’s Four Quartets, or George Herbert’s The Temple. Oh, there’s awe, even at times holy awe, but it’s always in a voice that’s intimate, immediate, and often amazed. The first poem, “What’s Done,” is a frantic ejaculatory prayer, complete with gaps and pauses, as if the speaker is out of breath: 

Lord     about the women who pummel their children
in public                  Sweet Jesus
both you and I been angry enough to shake a baby to turn over tables       Lady

at the airport flinging her spatula of a girl again       and again
into a chair       SIT loud enough to render an ocean still only
she isn’t       she wails       You saw

the one in the grocery store dangle her son by an ankle       drop him
head-first into her cart       Like Peter he stayed upside down
squalling and I swear         I was a pillar of salt in the aisle

The overwhelming majority of poems in Childress’s collection are narrative poems. However, these are not prosey blocks telling easy-to-follow stories in a measured voice. These are densely worded and richly imagined stories, told with a feverish intensity that reminds one of the door-slamming urgency of Dostoevsky (set in the Heartland of America), with a stream-of-consciousness flow reminiscent of Faulkner. While it’s true a number of the poems have biblical references, the poems are primarily about people, relationships, family, friends, and lovers. As you read on, you can detect an autobiographical arc to some the poems, but that’s an impression you should hold loosely, since Childress is a master of voices.  In “The Wry World Shakes Her Head,” subtitled a “Meditation on Isaiah 40,” the reader is presented with a group of characters straight out of a Flannery O’Connor story. Cast upon the compressed landscape of a two page poem, there’s more going on, or suggested, in these two pages than in most short stories: breast enhancements, dysfunctional family history, laughing, cussing, crying, and a poor boy who drank Drain-O and can’t shut up about his haircut. Sweet Jesus indeed:

. . . Shirley, tattooed, orange with tan, Shirley, said
to have blamed herself, to have bawled herself ill when her

three-year-old brother, unattended, drank Drain-O and scoured clean
his gray-soft brain. The wry world shakes its head

but what is it they want? Comfort, comfort, only you are not
His people and if by chance you are, you’re shot through

with withering, field of flowers, plain of grass, the Lord’s hand
giving doubly, doubly for sins and now Mother has begun to cry,

Roy Dale announces, again, his haircut, and Shirley Ann’s breasts
splotch red as holy as holy text.

I chose “Wry World” as an accessible entry point to show Childress’s narrative skill. Not all the poems are as accessible, and most, due to density of story and image, are resistant to my attempts to examine lines in isolation. That said, I often found myself reading and re-reading them, even when I was left stumped as to what was going on (the poem “Torn” totally confused me). What is key is that I enjoyed re-reading these poems, catching new glimpses, with each reading, of just what Childress was doing through a sometimes cryptic and yet fascinating use of language.

However, Childress’s skill goes beyond these narrative demonstrations, with their casts of flawed, but redeemable characters, jagged lines, and busy stories. When Childress turns her attention to a love poem, she can knock it out of the park. In the poem, “Weaving,” a woman runs her fingers through her hair, while her companion watches, his head in her lap, as if both are captured in a living portrait, a gentle picture of a relationship at rest:

These ribbons – the thin, falling strings – are meant for her hands. This
is why she has long hair. He’s begun to think it entertains her,

separating the rivers as she does, the straight, deep brown a thousand paths,
of her going on and on with her fingers in her hair, restless,tired,

and the truth is, he’s tired too, head in her lap, nearly dreaming
of the two of them, right here, a facsimile of what it is…

Later in the poem, the man, watching the woman drink morning juice and noticing a string of saliva swinging between the cup and her mouth, reaches up to correct the image. It’s an affectionate gesture, but one that signals transition into something new, call it Love:

. . .He reaches up, an awkward stretch for his shoulder, presses
his fingertips along her face. Yesterday he saw a blackbird flying

low to the ground, trailing a long dark string, moving fast, weaving,
skittish, away from the other birds. There was something

brave about it, that nut-sized aggression: I will make a home.
From the middle of her fingers, he untangles her hair.

As I mentioned above, the majority of the poems in Childress’s collection are narratives, but there are two notable exceptions, “Serpentine,” and “The Hyssop Tub,” that go beyond storytelling. Both of these poems are religious meditations built around works of art. Together, they have the quiet power one might find in the stately poetry of Gjertrud Schnackenberg. In “Serpentine” (perhaps the best poem in the collection), Childress begins with a meditation on Andrei Rublev’s “Savior,” and then switches gears, to a modern day woman washing her underwear out in the sink:

The psalmist told her she could rest on God’s shoulders.  She is
a lamb, a flaccid slab of woman, rinsing out the stains
from her panties in the sink, her body seeping its black scallops
onto strips of fitted cloth.  She would tell herself a dream:
holding the cheeks of the Savior of Zvenigorod.  Set her mind
on disappearance.

The meditation weaves back and forth, with the woman considering the state of her soul and the history of the icon:

art historian, There is no trace of Byzantine severity…
She falls asleep to this, arms tucked around herself, Mary
of Magdala, widow of Naim. Each night she has waited

for something to fall, and each morning she wakes, heavy
with mercy, to this damaged fresco of Christ. A man
found him in a barn, four hundred years after Rublev set him
down. Staring up from the step of a barn, quiet Christ.

The “quiet Christ,” with his gentle, non-judging, otherworldly eyes, is just what the woman needs at this confusing point in her life:

                                                            She fears nothing as she fears the loss
of such amity: thank God, his eyes do not search, they do not penetrate.

The poem, “The Hyssop Tub,” at seven pages and in seven parts, is the most ambitious poem in the collection. It starts off with a quote from Psalm 51 – as translated (or impressively re-imagined) by Mary Sidney (from the Sidney Psalter (1599)) – and proceeds with a complex meditation on works of art, history, and repentance. A number of paintings are referenced throughout the poem sequence, but the central ones are those involving women washing or bathing. The carefully employed imagery in the sequence’s second part features a naked woman crouching in an iron tub and suggests a willing vulnerability, a desire for a cleansing (as prefaced by Psalm 51) that goes beyond the physical: a rebirth, a baptism:

Let them have the dancers. I’m in love with the woman in Le Tub,
her russet sponge and her russet hair. Russet jar as delicate as a teapot, filled,
I want to imagine, with the oils of gardenia, some flower from the family
of Rubiaceae, not the bitter leaves of Labiatae. She is a careful
woman, russet yarn between her needles on the counter. You, too,
loved her, I can tell. It would have been easy with each hatchmark to deliquesce
her body with water but you did not give a glistening – you gave the tub,
simple iron sphere, opening up and out, and the sempiternal
turning of her head, her body dry, ginger ashen, like someone crouching
to kiss a new land, saying Praise be, saying I believed, and the crepuscular small
of her back knows how what is poured over her shoulders from the mouth
of the splotched pitcher will rivulet. . .

There is so much going on in this passage, with its intricate interplay of voice, color, painting, and psalm, that the poem stands beautifully by itself. To see Childress maintain this meditation for seven pages is astounding and left me feeling this is a fruitful direction for her poetry. Childress is a poet of great range, a unique voice that adopts many voices, all of which merge into a wonderfully balanced collection and easily one of the best that I’ve read this year.