Main Street Rag, 2021
40 pages, $12
Review by Sarah Carey
Lisa Zimmerman’s latest chapbook, Sainted, opens with a quote from Oregon poet and teacher Alaina Pepin:
“I was holding a rosary and a bike chain, trying to remember which one would get me closer to God.”
In the 28 poems in this collection, which focus on the lives and reimagined stories of lesser-known saints, Zimmerman masterfully yokes the mystery of the sacred—as invoked by praying the rosary or through any form of reverence—to the practical means through which whatever one might view as sacred cycles through day-to-day life.
Within these cycles of ever-changing light and seasons, Zimmerman blends past, present and future in a colorful tableaux that presents relatable dilemmas of survival and despair juxtaposed against the power of hope, story, and hero. In addition to speaking through the imagined voices of the saints themselves, and those who knew these saints in their own times and settings, the speaker in these poems anchors us in reality by interspersing vignettes from her own life.
The result is window after window of insight and linguistic surprise.
In fact, windows are a recurring motif in this collection. In Sainted’s opening poem, “Kitchen Meditation,” the speaker reflects on light filtering through bottles on a windowsill on a winter day, “holding/a steady cordial of January’s thin light—clean, cold, undrinkable.” She continues: “summer/
remains unthinkable, so future I could build a church/around it, be saved again by the virgin’s blue gown…”
It’s as if the promise of warmth the future holds lies in the faith the speaker has in the days ahead, a sort of saving grace and countervailing force against the harsh reality of winter and its bleak landscape.
In “Poem for My Grandmother, Named After Saint Anne,” the speaker recalls childhood visits to her grandmother’s home, “where supper was lifted from mason jars and the oven” and plates heaped with green beans, buttered potatoes and roast beef “with its necklace of carrots, pearl onions, bread risen and warm in the basket.”
Zimmerman describes these meals as almost sacred rituals, which she would partake in after emerging from her grandmother’s brambled yard to sit at the laden table “where squares of sun followed me through wavy glass windows.”
But the last two lines shock us back into reality. The warmth the speaker feels from the light and her grandmother’s love, along with her reverence for the feast and her grandmother’s efforts, are juxtaposed with her mother’s alcoholism and disdain: “My mother, flattened by too many gin and tonics, hated this
food. She said/we were not peasants. Oh, but I was, I was.”
Against the backdrop of family dysfunction, Zimmerman’s speaker resurrects this memory from her childhood and offers it as a testament to the saving graces of humility and gratitude.
In “Travels with Saint Francis and Saint Clare,” the speaker is in the valley of San Damiano, a church in Assisi, Italy where the first monastery of the Order of Saint Clare was built. The speaker seems to internalize their struggles as her own:
How can I not be only myself with their dream
of God, from moment to moment? The sorrow
of their hope and suffering follows me
and the feel of the stones beneath my feet—
so many emerald prayers. I know what people think.
I had doubt once too. But now, in my body of evidence,
how strange to imagine I stand in the sunlight alone.
Saint Francis, popular for his association with patronage of animals and the environment, figures into roughly half of the poems in this book. But Zimmerman gives us aspects of Saint Francis, including his relationship to Saint Clare and the worlds they inhabited, that are less familiar than the image we conjure of Saint Francis holding a rabbit or birds in the ubiquitous garden statue.
For one thing, through Clare’s imagined voice, we see him as an instrument of rapture. In “Saint Clare of Assisi: At the Beginning of My New Life,” she speaks of first seeing Francis preach in San Giorgio:
He was beautiful when the Gospel tenderly set its talons
upon him. When he spoke I saw tears drop onto his tunic,
small moons of grief and bliss—that he had only this
thin body to offer, this frail and furious life.
Clare describes the impact of Francis’s presence and spoken words:
…I felt wings
of a giant bird or angel beat in my breast.
I was so afraid the joy would tear my soul
from my body…
There does seem to be an almost erotic undertone here; I admit I couldn’t help but conjure Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” But it’s Francis’ humanity that emboldens Clare to choose, in solidarity, to transform her life and commit to a new life of service: “I said no to the world that day and yes/to the world inside and yes/to the promised one, beyond.”
In “Saint Barbara,” Zimmerman writes of a woman locked away for her beauty and beheaded by her father after he’d locked her in a tower he built himself, “beating back/all the hungry young men/who tried to steal her from him.”
In this account, Barbara’s embrace of Christianity presumably puts her father over the edge:
Perhaps it was after she flung the statues
of false gods from the tower windows
that has father’s fury became a raving beast
of rage. He pursued her as so many men
pursue a willful independent woman:
with a sword and a mission.
We also hear from Saint Roch, the patron saint of dog trainers, who tells us he likes cats, but it’s a dog who follows him, house to house, as he “wipes spittle from the mouths of poor plague victims.” This saint recognizes his own mortality, but also the dog’s nurturing nature and loyalty:
It’s only a matter of time before I’m sick too.
I walk to the woods so I can perish gladly
among thistle and daisies, bees droning
their song of plenty in my ears. Soon after
the dog finds me and every day brings
a loaf of bread carried gently in his jaws.
Pulsing within the pages of Sainted are undercurrents of doubt and ambiguity, fear and longing and violence as experienced through the lives of the characters. Living with these undercurrents, the venerated become the vulnerable, while the vulnerable gain strength and courage, though much of the time they die for it.
In “Joan of Arc, Patron Saint of France and Soldiers,” France’s national heroine, famously burned at the stake, Joan wants a new narrative: “No arrows, no bloody lances./ No horses drowned along the riverbank. No ash/of my bones adrift on the Seine.”
Instead, in one of Zimmerman’s shorter poems, Joan of Arc pleads for her mythic reputation be recast in a different light:
Let the saints
who spoke to me offer anything else—
even an easy death for my cruel father,
old age and happy grandchildren for the soldiers
who would have followed me into carnage. Let my life
be small and devoted, prayers woven through my hands
into the soft fur of my animals at home. Let me
be an emblem of a different form of courage,
the bravery of kindness, for example, or true faith…
The repetitive rhythm of “Let the saints…let my life…let me…” in this poem creates the effect of a powerful plea, even a sense of urgency, through which Zimmerman reminds us of the power of small acts and tactile talismans to summon the sacred within us.
While I never prayed the rosary, many times in my youth during services at the Episcopal chapel I attended with my family, I remember singing my belief in the communion of saints through the Apostles Creed. This was in the early 1970s, when our small, university-based church offered a folk music service — which was, for me at the time, the best part of the whole experience, and made participation in the rituals of organized religion more palatable, (along with the pretty black lace veil of my mother’s I sometimes got to wear.)
Reading Sainted, I was reminded of the power of those services, and of language and music to open our hearts and minds to something greater than ourselves. On every page, Zimmerman seems to say: if we pay attention, devote a little more of ourselves to stillness and wonder, the communion of saints can allow us to share that sacred space.
I believe it.
Sarah Carey is a graduate of the Florida State University creative writing program. Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Five Points, Sugar House Review, Florida Review, Redivider, River Heron Review, Split Rock Review and elsewhere. Her book reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, EcoTheo Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal and the Los Angeles Review.
Sarah’s poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Orison Anthology. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, including Accommodations (2019), winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award. Visit her at SarahKCarey.com or on Twitter @SayCarey1.