A Dialogue with Hannah VanderHart’s Review of Rosarium (Acre Books, 2018)
“The body, like a church, / is a crime scene,” Hannah Dow suggests in her poem, “Liturgy.” What does it mean for a body to be like a church? What does it mean for a church to be a crime scene? In another poem, Dow invites readers to, “[s]ee how much our body is / like a circle.” Break, we say of lines, as we do of bones and locks and hearts. The break of these lines lets us see how much our body is, the muchness of it, and then we see how much it is like a circle. By using a simile rather than metaphor, Dow keeps the body and circle separate but touching. The body is like a church, and it is a crime scene. The church is like a body, and it is a crime scene.
When I first read HV’s review of Rosarium, I suggested she change her phrase, “the idea of the body,” to “incarnation,” given the themes and theological orientation of the book. We then had a dialogue about the weight of the word, wondering how well it could fit with the way Dow’s poems circle around, in HV’s words, “the immaterial IN the material.” For the last several weeks, I have read these poems and thought about what they have to say about Incarnation.
As a child, one of the first rhymes I learned involved folding my hands together: “here is the church, here is the steeple.” There is no church without the Body, a Body that was tortured and killed, some say to fulfill its mission. “What kind of civilized people eat the body and blood of their savior,” Marge Simpson once asked, which summons Gandhi’s response to what he thought of western civilization: “I think it’s a wonderful idea.” One person’s civilization is another’s crime scene. There is, at the center of Christianity, a great crime, the crucifixion. What is more difficult to hold as a reality in the mind: God dwelling in a single human body, or God dead on a cross? In one part of the rhyme, my hands opened with fingers wiggling upward—“here are the people”— but then, refolded, my hands opened to absence: “where are the people?”
Dow’s poems wrestle with the sensual and the ineffable. They seek language for the body, that sexual, soulful, strange thing. Of the crimes of Christendom there are too many to mention, but one that is central to this collection is the shaming of the body, specifically the body as a sexual being. “[W]as this a celibate’s reward?” Dow wonders in the poem, “Please Don’t Feed the Spirit Animals.” “Sex in heaven, / perpetual love-making, no threat of offspring.” In “Not My Day,” the speaker enjoys a carnal fantasy about Jesus while attending, “another wedding / not my own.” She gives Jesus these great lines:
the wedding of two
bodies is pretty much the same
altering thing that happens
when I let him inside of me.
Rosarium has many thrilling moments like this, in which bodies dance around, darken, deepen, enter and depart from other bodies, and the residue of desire, of wonder, of faith abides. Dow acknowledges the inspiration of Mary Szybist, and like Szybist, Dow brings to her well-crafted verse a devotion to iconography and religious history, and, also like Szybist, fills these subjects with humor and erotic energy. Her gaze is equally perceptive turned inward and outward, interpreting dreams in “Echolocation” and ghosts in, “Photograph after a Murder: Memphis, 1968.” The poem never mentions Martin Luther King, but he haunts its lines, just as an indistinct part of a Joseph Louw photograph that inspired the poem might be a spectral presence, “or blurred man / walking.” The speaker challenges the “Agnostic / photographer,” by wondering, “if resurrected / photographs were not / some embryonic ghosts.” This collection is haunting and healing, and Dow practices Incarnation and Resurrection with elegance and abandon.