The Glass Crib by Amanda Auchter. Zone 3 Press, 2011.
“There is no pain but the bodily”: so begins “The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa,” the final in a sequence of saint-themed poems in The Glass Crib, Amanda Auchter’s debut collection. Theresa’s claim is reflected throughout a book concerned with the corporal. Auchter saves her persona poems of those canonized for the final quarter of the book, but the entire work is a document of variations of sainthood: human imperfection cleansed through the gift of enduring faith.
Imperfect mothers–sometimes nearly burdened by pregnancy–populate The Glass Crib, and their laments coalesce: “As you grow older, / do not imagine me– / you will never get it right.” “A Late Blooming,” a heartbreaking poem that practically justifies the entire collection, encapsulates the complexity of birth. Auchter artfully directs the poem toward the later absent mother, and the lines carry so much regret:
you fed me air, vodka, saltines, small
unnoticeable meals, enough for you
to gain just ten pounds of water, the pale
tissues of my heartbeat and bones.
“Vodka,” tucked mid-line, increases its strength. Auchter creates such frailty in the pregnant form, and wonders: what, exactly, does a mother owe a child? “Ten pounds of water” gained in this pregnancy meant a life barely changed, at least physically, and yet a world of internal metamorphosis. The poem turns back to an earlier work in the book by stating, almost in whisper, that “I want to think / of you better than you were.” The desire is not empty fantasy: although the narrator’s birth mother “pushed through the doors” of the adoption agency “into / the February dusk,” offering her child to another family, the absolute connection of birth is never lessened by distance. The child, rather than living in anger, would rather think “of how / you spoke to me when no one was listening.”
Auchter returns to the particular pain of separation in “Limbo for the Miscarry” and “Childless,” where another mother “was not / thinking of the daughter my body / could not grow.” Faced with an inability to birth, this mother continues on, steadfast, almost fighting against an indiscriminate evil that steals life: “I will not eat for two. I will not leave the house / with bags of Cheerios or crackers or stash / juice boxes in my purse.” The proclamation turns blunt: “There will be no / vomit, shit, hungry crying at 3 am.”
Anger is to be expected from such loss, but this is an anger of forward action, not static mourning. In “To the Unborn,” the mundane action of the character, to “wash and dry this / basket of apples” is sometimes enough to satiate heavy memory. One of Auchter’s skills in The Glass Crib is to coax grief anew, as the narrator notes “each version of you spools / in the red scarves, the names / I wrote down, then erased.”
In the second section of the book, “Without,” Auchter turns from maternal elegies to meditations on lost siblings. “Extreme Unction” crafts the deliberate action of blessing, and the narrator knows that though “all of this can be repaired– / fingers splinted, bones unbroken / again,” she accepts that there is “something lost on her face / I can’t get back.” Scars are given pulse by memory, and are sometimes further wound by time, and those left behind to grieve must either remain in the stasis of pain or turn elsewhere. In “O Sinner Come Home,” the narrator leaves “the dirty sink, the casserole dish. Mother / with her stack of forks, a rosary,” and most importantly “the white sheet covering my brother’s body.” Her “teenaged self” leaves absolute pain for temporary love, and her “lover’s mouth erases what can be erased.” The reader is compelled to forgive the narrator’s decision.
This call for compassion continues in “The Bottom Drawer,” where idiosyncratic grief is made acceptable and necessary. A mother keeps her son’s pajamas after he has passed, and the narrator wonders if “she wears them . . . if at night she slips / into bed with the shirt, cradles him / back into her.” “Keepsake” dramatizes another unusual collection: hair. A trunk is found “filled with the comb-teeth / scrapings, scraps of baby-wisps, my knotted / snarls.”
The tendency to save and assign meaning feels iconographic, and prepares the reader for the final section of the book, “Bring Splendor.” The Glass Crib is the newest in a revival of the Catholic poetic aesthetic. Sarah Vap’s Faulkner’s Rosary, Mary Biddinger’s Saint Monica, and C. Dale Young’s Torn appropriate the ritual, imagery, and cadence of Roman Catholicism in a complicated manner. These contemporary poets, along with Auchter, move from strict orthodoxy and craft works far stronger than devotional verse, and yet they all find solace in the corporal lexicon of the religion.
A woman considers adultery, but ultimately chooses to remain faithful. A mother implores her frustrated daughter to “offer it up,” and she does, her “knees to the floor / [to] give it all back to the God / who asked me to bear it.” These are people who struggle to remain faithful to God and family, and yet who find salvation in those same places. “Bring Splendor” transitions from everyday flashes of faith to the travails of those later canonized into legend. Auchter’s saints suffer. Saint Agatha’s “flesh / spooled in [a knife’s] rusted light.” Saint Cecilia, later incorrupt, remained with “roped hands” in a room with “no window, / but stone walls” for days until her death. Saint Catherine’s pain is even worse: “how my bones break, how the sling- / shot twangs and splits / my lip.” When Catherine “ask[s] of death,” she does so not to stop the torture, but to embrace the beyond of her belief.
These poems are not mere documentation of bodily suffering. The Catholic literary aesthetic has always revered the pained person of Christ–from the whisky priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory to the stigmatic novitiate in Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy–finding unfortunate beauty in the desire to self-sacrifice. Auchter’s saint-themed poems lead into the powerful “Glossolalia,” where the lines “Let me speak of belief, / its small sounds in the distance, its ear / its tongue, the quite murmur of flood and field” feel appropriate to encapsulate the entire collection. The Glass Crib is an honest book of poetry, where imperfect narrators and subjects abound, and yet a certain hope arises from these lines, a hope coaxed into life by the poet’s care with words and her subjects.