The Odour of Sanctity, by Amy Brown (Victoria University Press, 2013), 240pp., $35.
Conceptually, the latest collection of poetry by Amy Brown is appealing: a contemporary hagiography that chronicles the life and miracles of such unlikely saints as Jeff Mangum, the lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel; Rumwold, a newborn baby who spoke for three days in 662 before dying; the English devotional poet Christina Rossetti; and Elizabeth of Hungary, whose corpse is said to have smelt of rose petals when she expired in 1231. The sophisticated structure of the book seems more or less auspicious, too, as it promises to lend narrative grace to what might be a sprawling mass of uncollectable and bitsy stories spread over two thousand years of Christendom. The Odour of Sanctity is divided into seven sections, all of which but the final one have six subsections each. Following what appears to be a liturgical formula for determining sainthood, each of these sections –‘Investigation: The Candidates Lives’, ‘Questionnaire for Life and Virtues’, ‘Beautification: God Examines the Evidence’, ‘Questionnaire for the Treating Physicians’, ‘Words from the Person Cured’, and ‘Cannonisation Ceremonies’—is given over to one of the candidates for sainthood in each of its subsections. The final section comes in the form of an envoi, where the candidates for sainthood are paired in three poetic conversations.
A book so meticulously crafted as to include a tabular appendix, ‘Chart of the Candidates for Sainthood’ suggests either genuine piety or merciless irony. The former possibility struck me as unlikely, but as I was trying to stay one step ahead of such a canny configuration, I began this unusual and promising collection of poetry imagining that I might encounter some fusion of religious zeal and shrewd insight, the surprisingly spiritual re-mastering of a tried and true original. If nothing else, I reasoned, I would at least be treated to a satire on the notion of saintliness.
In ‘Her boredom swooped like birds’, the fourth subsection of the second section, ‘Questionnaire for Life and Virtues’, Brown presents us with a monologue on Christina Rossetti narrated by her brother, William Michael Rossetti. It’s true that the monologue’s speaker admits that his own versifying prowess compares unfavorably to his sister’s. ‘She could rattle off sonnets /In nine minutes’, he confesses to his ecclesiastical interviewer, ‘far quicker and better/Than me, as you may no doubt imagine’. Even given this admission, my hope was that William would turn out to be more modest than he asserts. Not so. In the course of the monologue William recounts his father’s opinion of Christina’s early verse—‘A bit flat and dull’. Unfortunately, the comment reads almost meta-poetically. The following extract is fairly typical: ‘My sister/gave up popular verse—Goblin Market/ for instance—in favour of poetic/devotion’. While this statement no doubt communicates a fact about Rossetti’s spiritual life, it cannot be said to possess the usual virtues of poetry. The line breaks seem unimportant, the rhythm unnecessary, and the attention to language more or less absent.
It would be remiss to judge a long collection by the poetic standards of a single section were it not for the fact that, overall, the poems are consistently and decidedly, well, prosaic. They narrate the stories they’re meant to and might be complimented on evoking the language of their speakers, but they seldom inspire my poetic devotion. Another example from ‘’Underside of the flying machine’ provides brief collaborating evidence:
The sound guy was seven feet tall—
A giant; maybe he was God? Of course he wasn’t; that’s just
An example of how I felt on those literally awesome nights.
Despite the lineation, this is prose. Not only prose, but ordinary and fairly uninspired prose at that. The trend toward lacklustre writing is prevalent throughout, but there are holy relics one stumbles upon along the way. One such section may be found a good way through the book in the very short and decidedly poetic sub section ‘Lions and Horses (Dr Abu Ali Sina Balki examines Seyyedeh Melek Khatun for signs of miraculous intervention from Augustine—1030)’—the titles are always unfailing stupendous.
The read was not exactly quick and painless, and this fact might have been counted in the collection’s favour, as the labour required to take in The Odour of Sanctity meant that the concepts and characters would linger longer than is typical. But I’m afraid this loitering didn’t do too much to alter my regard in the end. A few weeks after I was finished, I still reflected on the flatness of the language and the genuine insignificance of the candidates as characters. While they may shine in soundbites, none of them aside from Augustine has much of a story to tell, and they all end up seeming a mix of the saintly and human in just the sort of way you might expect them to. The lack of any striking comment on the process of canonisation and the notion of sainthood itself also puzzled me long after closing the cover. Why, I wondered, would someone painstakingly undertake the amount of research required to compose such a book only to end up presenting its material in a more or less straightforward fashion? It’s a question I found myself never able to answer.
But still I couldn’t shake the clarity of Brown’s design and the dazzling purposefulness of its conception. Upon even more reflection, I concluded that The Odour of Sanctity may have been meant to leave reviewers like me scratching our heads about the nature of poetry itself. The somewhat low-wattage verse was, I reasoned, an intentional comment on the boundaries of poetry itself—something along the lines of, Where does the sacred province of the poetic end and the profane precinct of prose begin? Now the posing of this question strikes me as a worthwhile project, and I was pleased to have been able to find my way to this point. And yet I still found myself unable to shake an itch of disappointment. If the aim of The Odour of Sanctity was to comment on the connotations of a genre and to enact the stretching of poetic language, it struck me that the project might have been a bit more pronounced, a bit more central and—at the risk of coming across as schoolmarmish—clear.
On the eve of submitting my review, I had an epiphany. Simple but striking in the way that such revelations are, it went like this: saints suffer; to know their lives, we, too, must suffer. If not suffer, at least feel some edge of pain akin to boredom. And this, I understood, may have been a crucial part of the point of Brown’s undertaking in The Odour of Sanctity. Returning to the book again, I found a line that seemed to illuminate my eleventh hour understanding. The line comes from the monologue spoken by Christina Rosetti, ‘She wanted the voice of birds’. ‘Boredom’, it begins, ‘is an art as fine as loneliness’. Recounting an experience she had floating in the sea in which ‘there was no difference between me/and the water’, Christina recounts an early and saintly rejection of her ‘hateful self’. In the midst of this renunciation, she floats ‘buoyant as a drowned body, keen to feed/fishes, afraid of land’. What most struck me about this moment of renunciation, however, was its revealing link to the pain of boredom itself. ‘I felt no pain’, she tells us, ‘but boredom’. While no reader could rightly call The Odour of Sanctity boring, there is a kind of lulling discomfort to its verse, a numbing regularity to its fastidious structure which, quite by design, may end up opening an authentic experience of saintliness to even the most secular of its readers.
THOM CONROY is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University. His work has appeared in various journals in the US and New Zealand, including Sport, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Kenyon Review. His fiction has been recognised by Best American Short Stories 2012 and has won a number of other awards, including the Katherine Ann Porter Prize in Fiction. His historical novel The Naturalist will be published by Penguin-Random House in 2014.