Gloss reviews Hagiography
The cover of Jen Currin's second book of poetry features a quirky illustration of an old house on top of a mountain with a large halo inexplicably floating above it. The poems in Hagiography are equally eccentric and intriguing, and do indeed elevate odd fragments of life. Traditionally, hagiography is writing about the lives of saints; Currin plays with this concept and shoves haloes onto strong, familiar images that are sacred in poetry: trees, mountains, the sea, fish, fire, birds. In a tone reminiscent of fairy tales and mythology, Currin spins archetypal images into poems that are incongruous and whimsical.
Hagiography isn't grounded in the real world; rather, her best poems read like dreams, full of pieces of ordinary life that have been transformed into mysterious messages. In 'It Was One of Us, Night or Day,' Currin explains, 'Each tree had to be thanked/ so I set to my task ... The spirits urged me to hold up a branch/ and act like a magician/ but I refused./ Since birth I have been afraid of stories.' Despite her apparent fear of stories, Currin is unmistakably drawn to folklore and the eerie images that often accompany storytelling. In 'A Bat Unveiled' she laments, 'A tree falls to its knees./ I become the sudden murderer,/ unable to recognize the radishes/ of my hands.'
At times, it seems the poems try to out-weird one another with their arbitrary titles and baffling syntax. 'Shadow/Distinction' begins, 'Boys of the frog illiterate/ lighten our studies/ in the man-woman-tiger church.' 'Acrobats Glow in the Dark' matter-of-factly explains, 'The carnival is a block away./ The brothel where we clip our fingernails/ when we are in the mood.' I recommend that you have patience with the collection, for the majority of Currin's poems succeed in transforming the archetypal into the fresh, strange and spiritual.