Monday, April 25, 2011

Poets exploring the Shakers and the sin eaters

Originally printed May 21, 2010.

Prairie Lights is presenting a triple header of poetry reading today.

Of the three poets, the most intriguing is Arra Lynn Ross, whose collection "Seedlip and Sweet Apple" tells the story of Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (better known as the Shakers) in colonial America.

As a series of interconnected poems, "Seedlip and Sweet Apple" reads more like a novel in verse than a typical poetry collection. Drawing from the unique religious and political history of the Shaker movement, Ross's recreation of Ann Lee helps illustrate why Lee's followers believed her to be Christ incarnate in female form.

"There is no end, there is no death / Only the other breast," Ross' Lee proclaims in "God Is the Mother of All." "My body, a song -- / sing it, and it is gone."

As with Camille Dungy's poetic recreation of 19th-century slavery in "Suck on the Marrow," Ross recreates the 18th century through the richly researched found poetry of catalog lists and magistrate's dockets as well as through strong, poetic voices that sound simultaneously ancient and contemporary.

"Behold I stand at the door and knock: / seedlip and sweet apple in my hand," says Ross' Lee, coming across as a combination of Christ and the Statue of Liberty.

As the poems move from describing 1742 England to describing 1784 New York, the apocalyptic tenor of the Shakers' belief system -- bringing about "A New Heaven and a New Earth" -- contrasts against the birth of a new nation, the United States, taking place at the same time. Without drawing attention to the contrast, Ross manages to infuse her poetry -- even the footnotes and bibliography -- with an appreciation for how the religious and the political intertwine today as tightly as they did more than two centuries ago.

Also reading today is Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate James Cihlar, whom Ross names in her acknowledgements for "his perceptive insights."

There aren't very many similarities between "Seedlip and Sweet Apple" and Cihlar's 2008 collection, "Undoing." Cihlar's poetic insights come in viewing the everyday experience of the present moment rather than in researching and recreating the past. He's interested in what happens when Google reveals there's another "James Cihlar" in the world -- one who "would be dismayed at the use our name has been put to."

Cihlar provides lengthy poetic lists of "What My Father Used," "Mother Used," "Stepmother Used," "My Ex Used" and "I Used" -- along with an account of "What I Know and Did Not Know." But his perspective is that of that of an undone man searching for "Twin Cities," "Your Home in the City" and finally "Poetry City."

Cihlar is also listed in the acknowledgements in William Reichard's "Sin Eater" -- the title of which comes form an Old World ritual in which a beggar is hired to pray over the deceased and absorb the dead man's sin while consuming a meal prepared by the family.

"I'd grown fat with it, like most do," reads the first line of the title poem. And many of Reichard's other poems -- from "Easter (ending on a line from Apollinaire)," to "The Soul in Limbo," to "Journey's End" -- echo that sense of religious satiation for a "sin eater" who, after devouring his meal, finds himself damned.

Today's 7 p.m. reading at Prairie Lights is the only time and place at all three of these poets are scheduled to read together.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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