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by Katie Ford (Graywolf Press 2002)


              Katie Ford's collection, Deposition, begins, intriguingly, with the Oxford English Dictionary definition of that word:

Deposition: (1) The action of putting down or deposing. (2) The taking down of the body of Christ from the cross; a representation of this art. (3) The action of laying down, laying aside, or putting away (e.g. a burden). (4) The action of deposing or putting down from a position of dignity or authority; degradation, dethronement. (5) The giving of testimony upon oath in a court of law, or the testimony so given; spec. a statement in answer to interrogatories, constituting evidence, taken down in writing to be read in court as a substitute for the production of the witness. (6) The process of depositing or fact of being deposited by natural agency; precipitation, sediment.

              This definition, which had some surprises for me, is also paired by Ford with a quote from Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The two are not exact, but close enough, I felt, to serve as road signs for what I anticipated to be a collection dealing with matters of faith, its loss, and/or transcendence into new understandings. However, after an initial reading I'll admit to some confusion mingled with genuine admiration. Deposition is not an easy read. Not since Susan Stewart's The Forest have I encountered, for review, such a challenging collection. Unlike Stewart, however, whose detached and outward-looking voice shepherds things along, Ford presents the reader with a landscape that is so interior, so personal, that only startling glimmerings are initially discernable. The uninformed reader is left to stare into Ford's glass darkly.

              Personal histories that also happen to be spiritual odysseys have made for some of the most enduring world literature. By necessity such odysseys are interior journeys: Augustine's Confessions, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain and, of course, Dante's Divine Comedy. For the most part these spiritual pilgrims, Roman Catholic or Protestant, were orthodox in their beliefs — and they were all men. For women, similarly, one finds a high level of orthodoxy in the great works. For example, the Catholic spiritual autobiographies of Therese of Liseaux (Story of a Soul) and Teresa of Avila (Interior Castle) go to some lengths to emphasize adherence to Rome. Still, there are some surprises in these works. Rigidity over doctrine at times gives way to a more flexible, mystical view of God, whether it be Therese falling asleep, peacefully, over a rosary she didn't care much for, or Teresa playfully playing her guitar or scolding God after landing on her backside, one senses in these women an awareness of a more open, accessible God. Ford follows a similar path, though she achieves her own mysticism – and I wonder if she would even call it that – through negation of doctrines. It is by this necessary peeling away that Ford demythologizes the beliefs she previously held. In doing so, she takes a feminist theologian's route, giving precedence to the “actual life” of the person living under a religious system.

              Her approach is indeed not orthodox. The “deposition” of her title suggests a belief system that no longer has need of myths such as the traditional Christ as deity. In effect, it is the construction of a new gospel. Central to this new gospel is the role of “conflictedness” that Ford feels is inherent in Christian orthodoxy. In a revealing interview for Graywolf Press, Ford talks of her own involvement with a fundamentalist group about the time she went to college, and its impact upon her belief patterns. Her falling away from that group, and later attendance at Harvard Divinity School (where she would also study with Jorie Graham), suggest a strong and independent mind intent upon staking out her own relationship with God. It is these life experiences that provide the personal canvas upon which her collection is assembled. Given the high intelligence of Ford's work, I feel Graywolf Press should have included this interview, or some distillation of it, as an introduction to the collection.

              In the Interview, Ford reveals the trap she found herself in to be part of a larger box that orthodox Christianity has always occupied. This is not feminist rant, but a hard-won, if extremely personal, understanding. Faith and doctrine can be violent, Ford insists, given the handed down age-old models:

Perpetrators of violence also force their reality on the other, become the master of it – this happens in domestic violence, political hostage situations, child abuse, etc. Both also throw the other into crisis, a crisis they have constructed, and are the only ones who can save them from that crisis. This mixture of force and its relief is the combination abusive relationships thrive by. Conflictedness.

              Not surprisingly, the first poem in the collection, "Put Your Hands Upon Your Eyes," has just such a master / reluctant follower dichotomy. The master sounds a lot like Pilate, with his probing variations on “What is truth?” And, with a title like "Master,” one can't help but think of Jesus. (The entire collection is permeated with biblical echoes and imagery.) Clearly, Ford is signaling that something has been lost in the 2000 year-old mix. Such insistence on authority, taken to its extremes, have historically concrete destinations:

one hand among many, shoved through bars of a cattle car,
a loom of fingers and iron, decaying on the vertical
even as cloth is made.

              If “Put Your Hands On Your Eyes” supplies a recognizable template for Ford's complaint, it is the following “Last Breath” poems that carry Deposition into more personal, less identifiable territory – a territory so personal that clues and how they plug into the collection's whole are hard to come by. In her Graywolf interview, Ford talks of various influences during the collection's composition: a New England fall, maple trees, a neighbor's house fire (which is returned to repeatedly), etc. The significance of each varies, and Ford states that this deliberate disparateness was rooted in a desire to create a collage. It's difficult to criticize such an approach, since a poetic collage, in theory, is cumulative, coming into focus only after multiple readings. On her end, Ford does supply a vivid painter's eye. Her images are sharp, often beautiful. But it is the marrying of Ford's images and thoughts that require the reader's heavy lifting. Nevertheless, there are early entry points. Armed with Ford's own personal history, a reader can see how her views on violence and belief join perfectly in “Last Breath With Belief In It.” Here the speaker is cocooned, practically held hostage like Patty Hearst:

They blindfolded her put her in the closet for a month
they didn't want her dead grass pulled out they wanted her to believe

Like Hearst, or more recently (and accurately), Elizabeth Smart, a period of conditioning begins:

......................................................dark month they had her
sit with them long wooden table why stray why desire

But still, through this conditioning, a different reality peeks through, calls:

............................................................and light came
through the torn robe over her eyes

A light is still there, even if it can only be seen filtering through the suffocating, blindfold-like robe of religion, doctrine.

              Ford's use of run-on sentences in her “Last Breath” poems (the first and last sections of the collection) can be initially disconcerting. In her Graywolf interview, she states her desire for an urgency in language that reflected her own “unpunctuated” thought. As a reader, such reasoning from any writer trying to justify the experimental use of language can seem abstract and cloudy until proved by the pudding. However, in Ford's case, I found myself quickly finding where to pause, and the urgency she seeks to convey, is indeed present.

              Deposition's second group of poems are built around the "The Stations of the Cross." The "Stations" is probably one of the most traditional of prayer sequences, a sort of scene-by-scene, blow-by-blow theater that tells the story of Christ's Passion. The emphasis is overwhelmingly on Christ's suffering. Ford seeks to flip this by instead establishing a "plaintive” rendering. I'm unclear as to the separation point between the two since participation in the Stations of the Cross, by its nature, invites different responses. Still, the parallel tracks of Stations and poems are often striking and refreshingly unpredictable. For example, at “Station the First: He is condemned to death,” the paired poem “Petition” has the speaker patiently caring for a dying horse:

I walked the horse around the hayfield even though it had yellow eyes
and would hardly let me touch it. I brushed the field dust off,
soon it was there again. If I kept watch, watch would be kept over me,
I thought. Plums rotted the branch, every few minutes I passed them.
I didn't want anyone to come near me while I was in those fields.

The repetition of watch seems to suggest a closer relationship with Christ's agony in the garden of Gestemane. As a twist, and underscoring Ford's plaintive rendering, it is the horse who is dying, but the speaker who is suffering. The natural setting, the implicit details that point to larger matters, the poem's economy, are reminiscent of the fine work by the poet Christine Garren. Here is an understated tenderness that resonates well beyond the simple setting of the poem. Less clear are other parallels in the “Stations” sequence. Ford admits that to force complete adherence to the “Stations” would have created “contrivance,”and that some of the poems are not "direct hits." I agree, but for better or worse, once chosen, the poet is joined at the hip to such an overlay. Interestingly, one of the most powerful poems in the sequence, “A Woman Wipes The Face Of Jesus,” is also one of the most identifiable:

This comes out of folklore.
Invented because tenderness at times
must be written in. There was a woman.
There was a cross. But in fact
they have hung him too high
to be touched.

Again, there is a straightforward beauty to these lines. The complaint is stated, the indictment against they registered.

              In contrast, in “Nocturne” (“Station The Ninth: He falls for the third time”), Ford chooses a more disparate presentation. In her interview, Ford says this “fall” represents broken intimacy. The broken intimacy is easy enough to discern: harbor at night, cigarette smoke, a conversation going nowhere. What lifts this familiar tableau is the strange but certain image (“Here, and here”) of smoke-filled lungs as Mosaic tablets. With an intake of cigarette smoke, the speaker has arrived at a moment, made a judgement. A relationship will be ending. The one-way conversation (“Please look somewhere else with your eyes”) is reminiscent of Eliot's claustrophobic “Game of Chess”:

She turns an edge under. Smoke is taken in, smoke like text
etched into two tablets of lung. Here, and here: Sinai.

Atoms fill their due portion of each ash.

Please look somewhere else with your eyes.

Ford's particular wrinkle is Christ's third fall. The dinner table, the busy fidgeting of one of the lovers, becomes a necessary but pitiless arena where the resolve of the speaker is co-mingled with genuine, lasting cost:

She undoes the knotted threads where she wants the blue and gray stripes closer
to each other, crop of lavender, dust.

Please do not touch my face.

When she is done she takes off her clothes, raises her arms to get into the dress.

Please do not touch my face.

The harbor at its darkest, stillest, like a question in a throat.

              Ford excels at the Twelfth Station (“He dies on the cross”) with “The Hands Of The Body Without The Body And Nothing To Hold,” which to my mind represents the heart of the collection. In this entry, the speaker is digging furiously at a hillside (Golgotha). There is a spiritual ache and frenzy to these lines that remind me of the anguished faces of Giotto's angels at the crucifixion, caught in the sky above the cross in their own sack of air:

How she worked was this: Give me what I need, I am bending down
this is the last think I'll ask
– a fossilized backbone, a clay vase, a cylinder of darker

ground where oil seeped out of a jar. Something – the hollow of her lung? –
with whispering inside it, bring me something, bring me something. An ax in her

hand digging into the hillside, poison oak everywhere. Her body everywhere
covered with rash. In her sack of air the whispering warped and tripled

by a thin border. This is the site. This is the thing. Let, to those who have, more be given.
It's that she wants something solved, ended, even darkly, a crow stopped by glass.

In effect, this poem is a prayer, a personal psalm of both lament and desire. Images and requests ripple across the lines like fissures that crack the speaker's world and thought. The fossilized backbone recalls John Dominic Crossan's historical Jesus, the one where dogs made off with his bones. The leaking clay vase with darkened earth underneath reinforces this sense of decay. However the decay is not just physical. The leaking jar, with all its New Testament associations, symbolizes spiritual loss as well, with no new wineskins in sight. Then there is the startling, carrion image of a crow striking the limits of existence. The speaker is in extreme crisis, and she compounds her crisis by rooting away at the place of the skull, the place of death. Ford's honesty here is searing, searching, to be utterly respected. To some extent, the ghost of Paul haunts these lines, if not the whole collection. However, it is a Gnostic's Paul, since the emphasis is on Paul's putting away of childish things (such as a Resurrection). This selective slice of Paul is problematic. One wonders how Ford would counter that great interpreter of Paul, Karl Barth (“The Resurrection is the revelation.”).

              Ford does, however, have her transcendence, and it does supply her with a poetic bridge to resurrection – as she believes it. It's a seasonal thing, which, truth be told, is not exactly a new interpretation, but she does a fine job of it, incorporating throughout the collection the poignant image of a folded dead leaf (us, Jesus), and its place in God's great scheme. Understanding this scheme, Ford insists, and accepting it, along with its attendant horrors, whether it be an historical crucifixion with its miracle free aftermath, or some personal trauma, is the first step in the beginning of wisdom – and the herald of a kind of peace:

It occurs to me you can hear me even here under water I
cannot slip the timbre voice of past I am weary enough when I come up

I may not open my one argument my unmythic
complaint what else does the world want but to pass though us but I am
       worn out world through

flesh yeast through a sieve residue of a past season
brown leaves cone themselves into wrists

(“Last Breath Underneath”)






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