Arc is blessed by Hagiography

Book Review: Hagiography
By Harold Rhenisch
Arc Poetry Magazine
May 15 2009

A hagiography is typically a biography of a saint: Saint Elizabeth, for instance, who was sneaking out with bread to feed the poor; when caught, she said they were roses, and when the cover was torn off her basket, it was full of roses, instead of bread. That kind of miracle. Jen Currin's Hagiography is not about saints. There are no St. Patricks, Christophers, Ursulas or Bonifaces in these pages, neither in a tonsured group staring down from a cathedral ceiling nor even one of them alone with a hair shirt. A hagiography, however, is also an idealizing or worshipful biography of anyone you might wish to idealize or worship. Jen Currin gives the honour to her sister/husband/wife (her lesbian spouse) and herself: two people (and more than two identities), living one life, together in one house. She does this by unfolding her plots through the resonance that rises from and attaches itself to words, rather than directing them with the rational order and meaning most often attached to them. In doing this, she re-opens an ancient debate. This is the old war of the iconoclasts of Byzantium, who insisted that no image could represent God, because to them, he was the God of thought: any image that gave him an earthly form was by definition an abomination. They wanted their churches free of adornment, like the desert. They blamed a lot of this desire for decoration on women, and their interest in jewellery and baubles (their words, not mine) and destroyed images of saints wherever they could find them. In the Western world, their enemies the iconophiles won, and we got Art. In the Eastern world, the artists went underground. They made mosaics, which weren't typically paintings, and standardized representations called icons, which couldn't be confused with reality and so were true windows into the soul. Out of that, by a long circuitous process and a meandering journey through the Russian imagination we got Chagall, with green cows lowing from heavens full of blooming trees and dancing peasants, and we got Jen Currin. W.B. Yeats wrote of the dream of a Byzantium, a place of pure art, with singing birds fashioned out of gold. The triumphant art form of Byzantium was the mosaic, for the richness of colour that came from its depths instead of just from its surfaces: it would never wear away. Built like mosaics, out of jewelled nouns, each simultaneously given individual and syntactical weight by their contexts, the poems in Currin's Hagiography come to us from that empire. As Currin writes, 'brutality taught me: / leaf is a verb. / I am leaving,' and as she says to her 'husband / wife,' 'All these years / I have not been a human being. / All these years I have been a tree.' It is the tree that held up the marriage bed of Penelope. It is that tree in the Garden of Eden, before it caused all that trouble. These are beautiful, smart, exquisitely-crafted love poems. They will, however, perhaps leave the iconoclasts scratching their heads. So has it, I think, always been.

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