A version of this may appear in an upcoming issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.
Zone 3 Press is a sneaky, awesome press. How many poets really know of this press? Zone 3 Press seems like it is flying under the radar. I mean, they only put out one or two titles each year, but, damn, each book is terrific. Copper Canyon, BOA, Graywolf, watch out. There’s another press delivering excellence, and Amanda Auchter‘s The Glass Crib is no exception.
So why the title The Glass Crib? Is it because it’s an intriguing image? Yes. Is it because it appears in the poems “The Threat” and “Offer It Up”? Yes. But it also occurs as an associative symbol. To me a glass crib sounds dangerous since it could shatter (and there are shattering glass images in the book). I mean, who would put their child in a glass crib? Though a glass crib also has a pristine feel about it, too. With the glass crib, you also get the feeling of a safe place for a baby – a crib – which is juxtaposed with the danger of glass and the sterility of being behind glass. When I first thumbed through these pages, I thought the book was going to be about being an adopted child, which it is in part. As an adopted child, I could relate to those glass-crib feelings, but can’t we all? Aren’t those the feelings an adopted child would have? The feeling of being in a safe place but among strangers. And when with strangers, don’t you feel a bit scrutinized and when in glass, perhaps, the child feels like a lab rat. This leads to the second side of the symbol – a glass crib is like a fish tank or a place to put hamsters or lab rats, but it’s not a place for a baby. An animal, yes. A baby, no. The glass crib image and the associations I just shared are the feelings and tones Auchter’s collection of poems present. That is, Auchter presents us with the delicacy and hopefulness that are present with pregnancy, birth, babies, and young children, and the terror and tragedy that can accompany the birth and or death of a young child. This book is about sorrow, pain, loss, and ascension.
The Glass Crib begins with the tender poem “Annunciation,” which is about the hope that accompanies pregnancy:
My skin stretched and torn into the shape of a child's arm or a foot, and then a mouth, an eye. His incredible blue breath.
The following five poems, however, present a harsh tone that is aimed at the vodka-drinking birthmother who accidentally conceived the author. The shift begins slowly in the opening lines of second poem, “Possible Beginning”:
My birthmother unties the strings of her bikini top on a striped beach towel, lights her cigarette, flicks her ashes into the muddy Gulf. When she wakes the next morning, brown skinned, hungover in bed with a man who brings her aspirin, tomato juice, his fingers to her lips, I am still the sand grain stuck inside her from the day before
This is how we are introduced to the birthmother. At first, the scene seems benign and innocent – a young lady is sunbathing and smoking cigarettes. Then it slowly turns. The birthmother has brown skin, which means she’s in the sun a lot, and she’s hungover, which means she drank a lot. Ok. That’s fine I suppose. But the more the detail the poem reveals the less benign this birthmother becomes, and then we learn that she is pregnant in the wonderful image “I am still the sand grain stuck insider her leg / from the day before.” This pregnancy is reinforced later with:
the possible beginning of fingernails nostrils, knees. Of her name called over and over, his breath, her body on fire, the idea of face and knuckle, the small mouth she will push away.
The harshness and anger towards the birthmother grows, and then in “Gospel of the Unplanned Child,” we read a dialogue between the mother and the unborn child:
You said I want my body back. I said your body is my body. You said I'll kill you with the stairs. You said I'll kill you I'll kill you. I said I'm still here. You said please don't tell – I told with my soccer kick. I told with my umbilical cord.
A few poems later in “Elegy with Photograph in Hand,” it seems the author will forgive the birthmother:
inside my mouth runs the hemline of your teeth the thread of your pink tongue rising from my throat, or that whenever I catch myself singing, I owe all the notes to you.
This forgiveness, however, is short lived, if it is forgiveness at all as the tone of the final lines may not be in line with the actual sentiment. The harsh feelings and anger towards her birthmother continue in the following poems. Until we learn that the author is unable to bear children.
The first part of section “I. Possible Beginning” is to set up an anger at the irresponsibility of her birthmother and the accidental pregnancy, the vodka drinking during the pregnancy, and the attempt to kill the fetus. Then we get the irony of the author not being able to have a baby, and she would probably be a very caring mother, too, given all of her past experiences. All the author has been through creates a pain from absence, as expressed in “Tether”:
How much we give up for this unnameable thing: love without face, without name. Love, a nest filled with bone, umbilicus, fingernails. Affliction.
The next section, “II. Without,” jumps from the careless mother and the baby that can never be conceived to the loss of siblings. In the second section we get some horrific images of car accidents and loss and death of siblings, such as this scene from “False Memory Syndrome”:
Some days, there was an empty road, gravel, often rain. She forgets if the car was moving toward her or away, headlights or taillights, her face thrown through the wind- shield, her body in the damp country field.
That’s a terrific line break in the middle with “wind- / shield.” Usually, I’m against line breaks on word breaks. They tend to be weak and not well thought out or more of a distraction than an enhancement. But here, I feel and get it. The lady is thrown through the wind as she flies out of her car to the “damp country field.” It’s like a movie accident. And then the line break to “shield.” Wham. When you read “shield,” you can see and feel and hear her slamming into the windshield. The impact is real. The causality, however, is a off. She should crash into the windshield, then fly through the wind to the “damp country field.” But this experience worked for me on the first readings. I wasn’t distracted. I was into it. (By the way, here is an instance of shattering glass – the glass crib breaking. This accident will also be revisited later in the book.)
There’s also the poem “Pyx,” which seems like the burial of an unborn child. Well, it did until I looked up “Pyx.” A pyx is is a small round container used in the Catholic churches to carry the consecrated host, or Eucharist, to the sick or invalid or to those who are unable to come to a church in order to receive Holy Communion. Even after you know what a pyx is, the scene is touching. And that’s what I like about these poems – they are emotionally involved. It’s hard to write directly about an experience and be emotional without being cheesy, overly sentimental, deliberately pulling the emotional cords, or just being down right clichéd, deliberate, and over the top. But Auchter succeeds. I envy that. I want to take classes with her to learn how to get genuine emotions into a poem instead of intellectualized emotions.
And it’s around here, where the running start begins to gain momentum from the leap from section “II. Without” to the section “III. Bring Splendor.” The leap from section II, which I see as an extension of section “I. Possible Beginning,” to section III is the leap from pain to the belief or acceptance in God. It’s as if the first two sections were a test by God. The leap is like The Confessions of St. Augustine. The leap, however, requires knowledge of some saints. But before I get to those saints, let’s get back to the running momentum, which also occurs in the beginning of section III.
I’m thinking specifically of the poem “Offer It Up,” which feels like it was the first poem written in the collection. The main moments in first two sections of The Glass Crib recur here. In fact, after reading “Offer It Up,” I feel like the first two sections were written in order to fill in all the spaces in this poem. While I like this poem, especially where it is placed, it doesn’t seem like it can stand on its own. It’s seems elliptical without the other poems. This may be why it is one of the few poems in the collection that wasn’t previously published in a journal. But here, in section III, it sings and it acts as a catapult into the following poems. The poem ends:
For my sister who almost died, my brother that did. That each time I felt the loss of a letter or a person, I could strike my knees to the floor and give it all back to the God who asked me to bear it.
After these lines, the poems move to the saints that I mentioned above, some of whom are incorruptible saints. In fact, without a knowledge of these saints, you might get confused as to why there are the poems for these saints. I know I did, but I also knew based on the strong poems the preceded that there was a reason for the switch from the personal to the saints, from the secular to the religious. So why the leap? Is it because the previous sections were a test from God? Yes, in part. But really it’s about who the saints are and what they did. Once you know, you’ll see the similarities between them and the experiences of the first two sections. Many of these saints had difficult childhoods and witnessed the death of siblings and/or had poor relationships with their parents. I won’t point out all the parallels due to page limitations (which cost money to print [donations please]), but I’ll point out the main ones for each saint.
St. Agatha gave her life to God and would not have sex with any man, including the powerful Quintan, who then arrested her and put her in a whore house and then a jail. Her final prayer was:
Lord, my Creator, you have always protected me from the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Receive my soul.
Now if that doesn’t sum up the author’s experiences, I don’t know what does. St. Agatha’s breasts were also cutoff.
St. Cecilia is the first incorruptible saint. She refused sex with her husband on her wedding night because she was devoted to an angel who would appear if she were baptized. When she was finally baptized, the angel appeared with flaming wings and holding two crowns of roses and lilies. After the husband witnessed this, he was converted to Christianity. When the Romans tried to change her ways, they tried by drowning her in her bath, but this failed and so did the beheading. This parallels the baptism scene in “Limbo for the Miscarry” and, more importantly, the experiences in “Gospel of the Drowned Twin.”
The Catherine Wheel, which is the title of one of the poems in section “III. Bring Splendor,” is named after St. Catherine of Alexandria. The Catherine Wheel was a middle-age torture device that tore apart the legs and arms and then was lifted for vultures, crows, and whatever else to eat the living body. The death, obviously, was very painful and slow, and it was quite popular entertainment. Catherine was killed on one of these wheels in the 4th century by the Roman Emperor Maxentius. This saint seems to parallel the experience in “Pyx” as well as her brother’s death or her sister surviving a car accident and more specifically in “Gospel of the Organ Donor” and to some extent in “The Thundering” and the final poems of section “II. Without.”
Giacomo di Benincasa and a forty-year-old Lapa (who already had 22 children) gave birth to twins during the Black Death era. One daughter was St. Catherine of Siena and the other was Giovana. The latter, raised by a wet nurse, died, but Catherine, who was raised by her mother, Lapa, lived a more healthy life. At age five or six, she had a vision of a smiling Jesus Christ who blessed her. A year later she vowed herself to chastity, and when her parents forced her to marry she refused and fasted, and during times of trouble she would build a cell within her mind from which she could never flee. She lived her life trying to reject her family. Later Jesus told her to live a more public life in the world. This has parallels with the 42-year-old mother in “Poem for the Adoptive Mother” and the sister in “Without” and other poems.
St. Bernadette is also an incorruptible saint. Of her parents’ five children, she was the only one to survive infancy. Bernadette had visions of the Virgin Mary and repeated her words, including when Mary told Bernadette that she would not find happiness in this world but would find it in the next world. I see parallels to a number of places with this saint but especially in these lines from “Visiting Hour”:
this is how dying is, my breath slipping under everywhere at once – see the balloon you brought, how it lifts and sags, this is what I've become on the other side.
St. Theresa is another incorruptible saint. She ran away from home at age seven with her brother in order to find martyrdom. She too had visions of Christ and angels. In one vision, an angel drove the fiery point of lance through her, or as she said:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.
The story of St. Theresa has close parallels to “The Half-Brother” and especially with the final five lines of “Poem for the Adoptive Mother”:
How when you said to me years later, "I knew when I saw you," I want to think of myself reaching for your bright mouth, your turquoise necklace, everything I could get my hands on.
Where I said “catapult” before in reference to “Offer It Up,” I should have said centripetal force as the poems have gone full circle from “Annunciation” to the secular world back to the religious world and launched off:
To which the air fills with living, with sugar, with reviviscence. Go forth beauty, birds of blossoms, sweetness. Made of sky, bring stingers, the form of tongues of fire, bring dawn over stones, over the awakened heart. Bring splendor, the last rising breath. Every question of death, a desire:
go forth a field, a dizzying cloud.
I know I mentioned there are some religious poems in here, but don’t run in fear. They are done well, and they aren’t specifically religious but have religious content. What I said of emotion above can be said of religion in these poems too. In the poems in Amanda Auchter‘s The Glass Crib, your mind will be moved as well as your heart, soul, and spirit, and what else could you want from poems?//