The Lady Victory, by Jane Vincent Taylor, 80 pp. Turning Point, 2012. $18.00
Commentators on contemporary poetry often contrapose narrative and lyric, attempting to trace trends in which one approach may be said to dominate over the other. One could, to be sure, see a certain reassertion of narrative in the new formalism and “expansive” poetry of the eighties and nineties, just as one could argue that the renewed interest in French surrealism via John Ashbery’s influence has lead poets away from narrative in the past decade. Whether this trend away from narrative results in a more “pure” form of the lyric, is, however, a matter of opinion. But perhaps the point is moot, for Jane Vincent Taylor’s The lady Victory – like Eliot’s Prufrock or Yeats’ poems from Irish legend – makes nonsense of the distinction between lyrical and narrative approaches to poetry.
In The Lady Victory, Taylor recounts the experiences of young women who are hidden away at the Our Lady of Victory, a home for unwed mothers. She tells also of the emotional life of the nuns who serve there. The narrative is fragmentary and elusive, and the reader’s inability to grasp fully these lives renders the poetry all the more poignant, as if we are privy only to the images and impressions that, by virtue of their emotional force, remain long after the particular framework of individual lives on which they hung is gone. The effect is somewhat like reading Sappho’s fragments or Spenser’s unfinished book of the Faerie Queene: one is struck by the simultaneity of absence and presence. This impression is strengthened by the way each poem seems to stand alone and yet resonates powerfully with the other poems around it. For instance, “Friday Nights on the Road” conveys the young women’s frustration with their confinement by describing the way they would dream of automobile rides while cruising up and down the hallway in wheelchairs, “popping wheelies down the hall / on our little trip to nowhere.” The image is engaging and emotionally effective, but it is amplified by the very next poem, “A Votive Light,” in which an actual automobile trip is described as the narrator is taken to the hospital to give birth. The wheelies of the previous poem are echoed in the way the “station wagon hits all / the 23rd street pot holes.” Taylor masterfully creates overtones and echoes that keep the reader emotionally engaged.
The best poem of the book’s first section is certainly “A Kind of Food,” in which Taylor’s elusive narrator informs us that “Banana is the food of charities / always on the table in plastic bowls / day old, week old, blackened.” She goes on to vividly describe “the dried up stems curled like nuns’ / arthritic fingers, eternal crooks.” The image is so effective not just because it is exceedingly clear but also because it carries so much of the young narrator’s feelings about her benefactors/captors. As the poem progresses we see these feelings turn inward:
we will know each other
when we meet in the real world
someday – the post office, supermarket,
cleaners – by the lingering odor
oozing under our skin, old oily shame.
To work so much emotional impact, so much emotional complexity, out of a banana is surely the feat of a very gifted poet.
Even more affecting are the epistolary poems which make up the second section of the book, poems written in the voice of a nun placed in charge of the infants in the nursery. These letters to one of the children formerly in her care are tender and vivid, an exquisite evocation of love and longing. They are poems about our desire to belong to someone, but, in a powerful reversal, it is the nun’s desire to belong to the child that is so moving in these poems. She writes
You were a meteor falling into a cold furnace, your
mother’s sobs receding hour by hour, your new
ghost ancestors a huddle of dutiful nuns.
It fell to us to finally break the crusty cord. That
moment you were freed, untethered, floating with
the other beautiful sad babies bedded down in the
infant nursery. Except that you weren’t sad. We
were never sad, were we little falling star?
The suggestion of separation in the image of the broken cord is powerfully, because desperately, contradicted by the we urgently repeated in the last two lines. We see also, in the sister’s description of herself as a ghost, the longing to be made solid by belonging to someone. This deep longing is demonstrated also in the nun’s wild and tender variations in how she addresses the child: “Dear little flame,” “Dear flower fist,” “Dear birthday candle,” Dear little chirp,” “Little ear, dear angel drum,” “Dear little wind behind the rain,” just to name a few. These letters are so sweetly sorrowful, I recommend against reading them in public, as you are likely to embarrass yourself as I did trying to cry inconspicuously while waiting for my daughter’s swimming lesson to end.
The book ends with a third section of three brief and lovely lyrics. These final three poems find a common grace in the human voice, in our ability to sing our sorrows:
I would make some everlasting blues
from the sound my baby must have made
to her new mother when she saw her, saved
from the orphanage, the pity of those nuns’
A song for nuns. A song
for the long sobriety.
Contemporary poets rarely get this mixture of sadness and sweetness so right, so close to the tone of Feste’s final song in Twelfth Night or the final stanza of Yeats’ “Song of Wandering Angus.” As the book ends, the narrator – perhaps many years later, perhaps seeking spiritual rest in a convent retreat—listens “to the sisters singing alleluia into silence.” The line sums up well the experience of reading this book, its play between song and silence, its affirmation of life even when the living is difficult. The Lady Victory is fine poetry because it is well-executed but also because it is well-felt. Regardless of the facts, the emotions ring true. Isn’t that at least one of the things we look for in good poetry?