Carl Griffin reviews God Loves You the second collection by American poet Kathryn Maris, a short, accessible exploration of religion.
The title of American poet Kathryn Maris’s second collection, God Loves You, might not be the most enticing on offer this summer, especially if you have already read Something for the Ghosts by Brit David Constantine or, also from America, In Search of Small Gods by Jim Harrison or Practical Gods by Carl Dennis (not so much for the theme in some of these collections, but their continual spirituality and refusal to let up). God Loves You is more biblical than any of these collections but not all of the poems focus on this overly-explored theme, and those which do are neither preachy nor offensive (at least they are not meant to be). The book is split into three short, accessible sections. (Or should that be books?) And the first is your best bet if you want to avoid the religious poems.
Although her time at Boston University studying for a MA was ingrained by teachers from outside America, such as Derek Walcott and Geoffrey Hill (a poet whose own ingenious work is often inspired by religion, although not always in a flattering way), there is no doubting the general American style lacing the poems of God Loves You together; long-lined, prosy, the intelligence more subtle and emotions conveyed mostly through stories rather than dense descriptions of nature or food or inanimate objects. Both the biblical poems and the prosy poems are worth reading and sometimes the two elements are combined to wonderful effect.
But the highlights of this first section ignore both these elements. Is this a sign as to Kathryn Maris’s future development as a poet or are these poems given their extra strength by the esteemed company? The sonnet ‘Kill a Tree, Kill Me’ lends the section a new layer of humour. In it, Maris moves with her husband to his native land:
I thought the Dutch were unremonstrative
and green, were droll, couldn’t be influenced,
rode bikes. He claimed my views were unbalanced,
and furthermore he’d be uncooperative
if I attempted bicycling.
The ‘bi’ could be dropped from the last word (though it isn’t the end of that line) but still the image is priceless, weaving all the themes of the poem, and the varying thematic subtleties, into one image.
The rest of the section explores the relationship of neighbours and our particular response to neighbours, from the view of a Noah-like survivor: I remind him of the neighbours, but he says, ‘Look. I don’t want to be reminded of the neighbours’, to a stab at what Hell might be: ‘ignorance of the proximity of our neighbours’. Surely that’s a guess at what Heaven might be?
The theme is stretched to the more relatable by a witty poem addressed to Kate Moss, the Kate Moss, mother of a daughter who is in the same class as Maris’s own daughter, and a poem about returning a lost girl to her mother at the National History Museum, both of which carry the same look of a block of writing narrower than the average page of a literary novel but wider than the average poem; well-written enough though that may be, like a Jenga tower, if you remove a line in the middle the whole structure might collapse.
The second section of the book gives us no break from the religious exploration. It includes another sonnet worth reading (a collection with more than one sonnet worth reading has to be admired for this accomplishment alone), this time a religious communication set in a pub: ‘Kyrie eleison! I said it in the pub./I said it to my bitter then I said/it to my heart.’ The sonnet’s title, ‘Lord Forgive me’, is not far off the translation of kyrie elesion but it isn’t the exact translation and Maris, given her interest in religion, would have known that, leading to even more questions throughout the poem, making this quiet pub scene larger-than-life. There is time for a poem about angels, inspired by the twentieth-century Greek poet Melissanthi. The only original element here is Maris’s insight but it’s an insight powerful enough to warrant rereading.
This second section begins and ends with deeply religious poems, to the extent that they use biblical language and references, whose long, rambling lines are preceded with numbers, as if each of the paragraphs are Biblical verses themselves. Although most of these poems lack power, the last, ‘Here Comes the Bride’, certainly packs a punch. Again the connection between people and God is grounded in reality and easy to relate to:
1. The bride held fast to her father’s arm
and walked with him to the altar, stop-
ping at an old man who sat among the
guests. She whispered to him through
her veil, and the secret was heard by the
woman who sat to his left side, and she
wept to hear it.
We then discover more about the two women but without really discovering anything. Truth is whispered, the brevity of the facts hinting that reality is delicately mutable and easily manipulated. A lot seems to be learnt in such a short space of time, indicating that the joyous occasion has opened up a can of worms but that both parties have finally accepted they can no longer harbour the past.
6. She recalled the secret that the bride
had told the old man: ‘God loves the
woman who sits to your left, but I tell
you and not her, for she will not believe
it, and yet it must be known, but you
must never speak of it.’
7. With guilt in her heart, she went to
the old man to confess she knew the
secret. But he was deaf and blind, and
neither heard nor saw her.
Whether either of these women is Kathryn Maris herself, or whether they are both entirely fictional, isn’t made clear, but it is a stand-out poem either way.
In the third and final section, just as short as the previous two, the poems are less of a collective and are more individual experiments. From the presence of God in school assemblies to the apparition of biblical characters in car number plates, the connections merely come in the form of content and the fact that the poems are quirky.
In ‘Street Sweeper’, the final poem, God is whoever is listening. The Bible itself is compared to the periodic table:
The Periodic Table won’t revoke
what it has put in the world –
earth metals, non-metals, catalysts.
Nicely put. It is difficult to find originality in a subject such as this, but Kathryn Maris has managed to achieve it, not throughout and just-about, but deeply, albeit infrequently. And if the latter seems the more worthwhile, God Loves You will make worthwhile reading.
Carl Griffin has written many poetry reviews for Wales Arts Review.