By LEAH MIRANDA HUGHES
It is universally and literarily true that, from places and moments of darkness, we cry out to God. “Dear God,” “Please, Jesus,” “Oh my God!” says the priest, the mother, the stranger. Good literature—think Milton, Ginsberg or the Torah—rings out these cries.
So in her particular southern drawl, Cathy Smith Bowers calls out to God to begin her new book, The Candle I Hold Up to See You. Beginning with a series of ways to approach God, the book travels through our early education and family history to make sense of our life and death, and the death of those we love. From her own dark moments, the poet teaches the reader how to reach out for the answers to the questions that plague us in the dark.
The first poems are eight lights to God. Each poem holds the title of each of the first eight names of God decoded from Hebrew letters to form a name so sacred it was not meant to be pronounced. The first eight titles of the book may well go unsaid by the reader, even the Hebrew reader: perhaps that is as it should be. If we were to call out to God, Bowers suggests, what name would we call him, anyway?
The eight poems capture much of the aspect of a God we would want to hear us: the father who cannot remember our wrongs and the mother who can remember nothing more; the heavenly glow and the miracle-making; the healer, the savior; the god who comes to you in dreams and He Who Terrifies Us (though not in that order). Bowers points the reader in the direction of a power we might call on or talk to, who might understand us and help us understand.
Her first poem presents a name, a title that it will not pronounce for you nor will write in English. Her second poem employs Dickinson to talk about fire and inspiration, in Hebrew and Greek. Saints are recorded with precise numbers and addresses in her third. In the fourth poem, the radio plays from the station with the call letters HELL, cursing the static in the background. The next poem presents the origin of “sane” and helps the reader define “health.” Our dreams and disasters, Pompeii and lollipops, fish and fear: the last three poems offer a strong God of light, memory and memorial and mistaken glances.
The Candle I Hold Up to See You asserts that “Speech is the candle.” The second section of the book almost suggests that we have to feel our way out of the darkness. In the title poem, “Language: A Sentimental Education,” words like “boll-weevil” and “whorls” beg to be rolled around in the mouth, and are paired with things often unspoken, such as “vagina and urinate.” Words provide for the seen and the unseen. Both “Abattoir” and “Where’s My Frog?” define words as they illustrate youthful mistakes. In “Syntax” and “First-Year Teacher,” the reader sees the consequences associated not just with a word but with their order. These and “Found Poem” take sentimental glances to formative educations, literally and metaphorically. In the darkness, we may have to just feel our way through, Bowers might be saying. And it should not remain unsaid that these poems showcase the sly wit and frank wisdom characteristic of the poet.
Of course, receiving the simple truth can be painful, as illustrated in the sections An American Family and Unmentionables. Bowers tenders truth with gracious detail and rich metaphor, delicious southern phrasing and blunt words like “rhetoric,” “jack,” “jock” and “star,” yet her poems have a certain sting as they close. Bowers accents the truth of the poem with the snap of hard consonants. The truth feels like the sting of the switch in “Living Daylights” as a southern mother warns her children of a beating. In “American Family,” as the speaker reveals the truth of the poem’s situation, she concludes with a slur, the word “slut,” which echoes that sharp sting. The speaker in “Sabbatical” uses the language of hoop earrings while “Cool Radio” reveals the language of the mall and of sisters. When Saint Peter says, “That’s Good Enough,” the poem addresses dreams and death. Addressing death seems to be a prevalent truth in these two sections, where messages left on napkins bear great meaning, as do declarations like “Go limp” or “I’m healed.” The speaker of “Unmentionables” tells
Death has no manners, Mama –
Unspeakable, unthinkable, unutterable –
Many of these poems connect to literary suicide, where death is both literal and figurative. Bowers summons Kate Berryman, Anne Sexton, Nick Flynn and others, but finds her solace in her living family, with a little pear moonshine and homemade soup. This collection seeks out the answers to our simple hurts, our elementary lessons, our questions on mortality, our questions of the afterlife and to those dead there.
Bower’s poems make a progression out of darkness, a journey past adolescence into maturity, a progression in language that helps us define our relationships and sentiments, with words and with people and with God. This collection serves to remind us the value of questioning—or calling out—of working to make sense of the world. It reminds the reader that “the burning” is what matters. The questioning and wondering and figuring matters most when we truly work to make sense of darkness. Each day life brims with complications, so much so that the condensed truth of a good poem comforts us immensely. A good poem can be a little illumination to our present darkness. It simplifies the truth, clarifying perspective. It is the candle we hold up to see.