Some Bones and a Story is Alice Major's sixth collection of poems. It consists of sixteen first-person narratives delivered by saints, nuns, Blesseds, and a token apostle. (A Blessed, as Major explains in her Afterword, is someone who enjoys "just-south-of-sainthood status.")
Most of the stories contain a grain or two of fact to ground them in history. "I took the bare bones of biographical events and built my own stories around them," the poet tells us. But then she cautions, "These monologues are not historical reconstructions. They are the narratives of a woman of my time and place¨certainly not of a woman from 14th-century Prussia or first-century Palestine."
Fair enough. But if Major simply wants to tell her own stories in her own voice, why does she bother to dig up "bare bones of biographical events?" And does the modern flesh she "builds" around those bones bring them to life or weigh them down?
Perhaps the answer to the first question lies in the piquing peculiarity of many of the stories: a woman disguising herself as a monk; a rich widow baking coins into loaves of bread for the poor; a girl growing a beard to discourage an unwanted suitor; a nun whose fits of rage land her on the convent ceiling. In fact, Major is at her best when she forgets about her own time and place and lets the limitations of the narrative form work for her. When, for example, in "Saint Brigid and the blind nun, Dara" she sees the morning through the eyes of an abbess: "the dew white and sheer/as the veil of our lady lying on the grass." Or when, in "The Saint's Daughter" she enters the imagination of a small, neglected child: "God was everywhere./I peed as quiet as I could in the night-pot/not to interrupt his holy thoughts. Everywhere."
Major's imagery can be sharply sensuous, as when she focuses on "the wafer/that sucked moisture from her tongue" in "Saint Pelagia", or on the dubious joys of self-mutilation in "Possessed by Gravity": "Pull the knife into the flesh./A scratch at first,/beads on a thread,/a scarlet rosary." Another plus is the measured pace of the writing and its muted tone. Both the stories of the saints and their bones, after all, were preserved for centuries by the church that gave us plainsong and chant.
The church. There's the rub. Too often, Major undermines her own work when she attempts to graft a modern sensibility onto that of her long-dead subjects. For there is one quintessentially modern note that jars throughout, namely, the demonizing of the religious institution and the pathologizing of the religious experience.
Most of these women were willing brides of Christ. Yet aside from brief cameo appearances, Christ is virtually absent from the world of these poems. In "Saint Anne Teaches Her Daughter to Read" Jesus' grandmother sees right through him to her daughter Mary:
Sometimes, I'd see a flicker of her old self
in him ű her ardent ideas, her love of stories,
the poet's rhythm in his words, read from a sky
so full of potential. She was there, a little.
In "The Cuckoo Chick" Christ is reduced to a gruesomely carved crucifix that becomes the focus of a novice's masochism:
The artist has caught too well
the haggard, sagging agony.
She looks on it
as hers, as her peculiar inspiration.
It's the cruel holes she stares at,
unearthly appetite fledging in her face.
Too often, the spin Major gives these ancient stories sends them careering dangerously close to political correctness. How likely is it that a woman of Saint Anne's time and place would voice a wish for a female Messiah? ("I wanted it to be my daughter,/not her son.") This is not to deny centuries of church-sanctioned misogyny. But Some Bones and a Story would do well to lose the poem "Saint Paul, Questioned" in which the lone male apostle comes off very badly when approached by a chorus of women:
Who is this Mary? they asked. This
virgin called whore? This one
beloved of Christ? Where does she belong?
She is nothing, I told them. A misreading,
a dead end. And I showed them the bright light,
the straight, white, glorious road, the tiers
of men and angels pinnacled by God.
Such a clay-pigeon approach is unworthy. Yes, Paul did advise women to obey their husbands and keep silent in church. But what else would a first-century Pharisee have done? And surely a poet could forgive much of the man who wrote: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal."
This is not to say there are no beautiful poems in Some Bones and a Story. When the women are allowed to speak in their own particular, idiosyncratic voices, the result can be deeply moving and even funny. The moment of vocation is captured with heartbreaking simplicity in "Saint Marina" : "It came as a voice that spoke my name/intimately, at my shoulder. My/name. The one my mother called me by." In "Blessed Veronica and the Holy Family" a poor novice whose family cannot afford to give a gift to the convent comes up with one of her own: "any woman can cry, that's / what the men say anyway. So I decided / to make a virtue of it." Her gift is tears. The novices take turns holding a bowl under her chin to measure her output:
A whole quart in that bowl
by vespers. I felt a little
lightheaded after, when they showed
it to me. All that tribute from my poor old eyes. The liquid
was thicker than water, but clear
and deep enough for the Christ-fish to swim in.
In her Afterword, Alice Major acknowledges that the women whose stories she has built her own around "would have explained their lives quite otherwise." There is a fine line between liberation from, and denial of, the past. To her credit, Major manages to walk that line with just the occasional misstep. ˛
K.D. Miller is the author of Holy Writ : A Writer Reflects on Creation and Inspiration.