University of Washington Press, 2002 (ISBN 029598274X)
I must admit, reading Suzanne Paola's new collection, The Lives of the Saints, was a great way for me to start off the new year in my reviews column. The language and logic of the book caught my attention from the prologue (in itself, an uncommon device in books of poems) where Paola writes: "The lives of the saints take place all around us, under us, so much of the earth they seethe in it like anything else humankind puts there. We find them in our white teeth and as dust mites in the sheets we use, allergen to our dreaming." This proves an excellent set-up for the works to follow.
For the most part, The Lives of the Saints offers a rich mixture of phrases, imagery, and ideas. It plays with the mythical and the religious, giving them a certain respect while also twisting them into totemic masks that caricature their natures. The book bounces equally between the present and the past, often merging the two into intriguing letters from the historic saints to modern realities as they might have seen them. Paola masterfully dances in words that bridge the gap between two worlds in such poems as "The First Letter of St. Paul to the Clones" and "The First Letter of St. Paul in the Homogocene." A perfect example are these smoothly crafted lines from "The Second Letter of St. Paul on the Human Genome Project":
I sound harder on you than I mean
You never did anything but what your forty-six chromosomes
cried out for, in their carhorn piston voices.
Up where I am we can hear them, 4 billion of you
& the rauc rising: more & more.
It is difficult to decide what is more exciting about Paola's book, part of the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series the seriousness with which she attacks the themes of her poems, or the playfulness with which she turns those themes upside-down. Everything about these poems involves a contrast in ideas, perhaps going so far as to straddle a border between the sacred and profane, as in these lines from "Patient 6":
In the Renaissance the body's back
as idea. It's still soul they seek, that second appendix,
slack bag waiting for the immaculate invisible to come.
What the body consumeth cannot be said
to profit thereby
Or these clever lines from "Caterinati":
This the glorious Paul taught you when he said
that you should mortify the body
whenever it should wish
to combat the spirit, but the will should be
dead and annihilated in everything, and subject to My will.
In this submission, Catherine writes, is freedom,
& my players call & ask for my nun routine.
Recommendation: a definite must for anyone interested in interwoven styles and themes, not to mention carefully crafted poems that resonate with not only great beauty but power and wit as well. The Lives of the Saints fits well in terms of its themes somewhere between The Last Temptation of Christ and Monty Python's Life of Brian. Paola's poems deserve to be admired: a good book to hide inside the torn-off cover of a hymnal while at church.