Because the Fall warped all things in our world, even our language, in order to recover the truth about that world we must warp our language even further. T. S. Eliot did this, hitting the English language and Western culture until it shattered. In Lobotomy Magnificat, Canadian Catholic poet Kathy Shaidle hits language even harder, producing short, violent, pointillist poems in which each image is compressed into the tightest possible space.
The collection’s opening piece, “A Summer Thunderstorm Considered as the Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy,” sets the tone:
Skin’s prayed wet rosaries all day.
Finally thunder turns the corner — a memory trigger.
Can’t close the window in time. . . .
Sidewalk and rain — concrete veronicas.
There’s that same Eliot retreat into double-tongued muttering (“Can’t close the window in time” does much the same work in Shaidle’s poem that “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” does in “The Waste Land”) and the same obsessive sifting through the past, endlessly seeking, hoping that this time the half-remembered lost object will be found. And Eliot, too, was preeminently a poet of the Fall.
But Shaidle’s from the 20th century, with none of Eliot’s Miniver-Cheevying dissimulations. Her style is shocking but straightforward, nothing to hide, a roving klieg light rather than a shifting shadow-pattern of autumn leaves. She writes about the Kennedys, about conspiracies and murders, contemplatives and humiliated women. The title page of Lobotomy Magnificat maps her territory: “Jack Ruby” (I posed before a lined and numbered wall,/my head like shot-glassed whisky), “St. Laurence’s Gridiron Disguised as an Electric Fan in Thomas Merton’s Bangkok Hotel Room, 1968” (those God-tossed well-coins/you call saints), “Contacts with Trotskyites” (men can be hard/and men can be soft/but mostly they can just get lost), “Good Friday, Georgia O’Keefe” (Waiting for time to take its communion). Ferociously Catholic, wryly political, challenging and stricken — that’s Shaidle country. Therese of Lisieux and Jimmy Dean.
Readers who know Shaidle solely through her combative and often vituperative weblogs (Relapsed Catholic, and now Five Feet of Fury) may be surprised at the poignancy and compassion of her poetry. The title poem, written from the perspective of Rosemary Kennedy before and after her lobotomy, is heartbreaking:
The nurse folds up my blanket like a flag
and the rich were sent empty away. . . .
I am left here to hold my own hand,
kneeling in the coral pews behind my eyes
Shaidle’s poem in the voice of convicted murderer Evelyn Dick includes this description of an incestuous assault on Evelyn as a little girl:
After the first time, I went to that window
and threw my soiled nightgown out.
It gnarled in the rosebush, Abraham’s ram.
And no-one said a word.
The longer you spend with that imagery, the more it hurts.
Not every poem works. “Restoration Conspiracy Notebook” never quite comes together — it’s a heap of portentous utterances, not a poem. But the best poems in this collection are among the best poems I’ve read.
Illness, physical pain, and humiliation; people for whom God is an inescapable and often anguished question, not an answer; but also art, contemplation, the ability to accept an unbearable situation with humor and grace. (Shaidle manages to capture the humor St. Therese deployed against herself and her canonizers.) She’s Hopkins with fistfights, Paglia without the self-absorption of ersatz paganism, Patti Smith at Midnight Mass. Her poetry is broken the way hearts are broken.