A Penance

by CJ Evans
New Issues Poetry & Prose 2012
Reviewed by Cate Peebles

“There is rest out here, ready to have you”

CJ Evans’s debut collection, A Penance, is a dance of veils, vivid with threads, figures, and musical fringes. Its language is dexterous and muscled, charged always by a need for sanctuary and peace. The opening poem, “Penitential,” is a prayer for protection, as suggested by the invocation of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers:

The Saint Christopher’s medal worn

in prison, and landmines and stamens and blood on the eyeglasses
photographed on cobbles. The hollow of her inner thigh, the shadows

of her eyelashes. The dead. Everywhere here. Tattooed teardrops
or cherry blossoms. Needles. Pray for us.

The layering effect of prayer, prison, landmines, gory plant life and artistic representation (photography) followed and juxtaposed by a sensual snapshot of a woman’s thigh and eyelashes recalls surrealist love poems by Eluard or Desnos. In this first poem, we are introduced to a fluid voice that will consistently possess a vague, haunted past. Whatever wrong has been committed is behind him: “…we will never know if it would have turned out differently//had we done it differently.” Echoing Lady MacBeth’s assessment, “What’s done cannot be undone,” the speaker is faced with the humbling reality of life, post-drama.

The book’s first two sections are suffused with a keen awareness of cruelty and violence as natural components of humanity and the natural world. Nature has violence built into it, as we’re told in “I Know the Pinecones”:

…They know
wrong will come to them

and they choose to come out
from under their hoods

and meet it, the knives
in their hands the fault

of an Earth that lets its bones
be bent into these cruel devices.

(36)

We’re built for self-preservation. Schopenhauer’s “Porcupine Dilemma” comes to mind: on a cold night, porcupines struggle to stay close for warmth, but the closer they get the more likely they are to injure the others. The metaphor suggests that the closer we try to get to each other, the greater the likelihood that we will inflict or sustain psychic wounds—the ultimate danger of intimacy, which stands out as the crux of this collection: “I dread your affection,” the speaker says in “Penitentiary” (48), “…but ominous as a cry cut short, its lack would be louder still.” The choice then becomes: do I hide from the world and try to generate internal “warmth” (devotion to the internal world) or do I continue to participate in the world of others with anxiety and the likelihood of pain, sweetened by moments of actual physical warmth? The solution to the dilemma, of course, is not black and white—the internal world of the speaker is bright and warm, but his longing to hold and to be held is not diminished no matter how great the glow of his inner engines.

Throughout A Penance, the speaker is acutely aware of his flaws and mistakes. He’s afraid of the debt he owes: “I’ve failed // my children already. I’ve loved nothing better/ than betrayal. And the insects know.” (“Prey,” 20) The speaker is clear about his past, but does not wallow.  There’s an awareness wherein the poet doesn’t shy away from sin in favor of newfound repentance; we’re not rejoicing and born again in these poems, but existing in the murk, doubts intact, which is refreshing in its ambivalence.

Still, these poems excel in their devotion to words as a substance all their own—a medium that’s physical, spiritual, and distinctly of the mind. These words are given life in an almost animistic way: “Let’s leave / the sinister to the suet, the rampart to/ muffle. Truss up your antlers, plume and/ feathers…” (“Response to A Heron,” 70) The speaker’s penance comes in the form of linguistic gems: “It’s striking / how much dark there is // in this world that houses / diamonds and rivers.” (“Trespass,” 54). We’re reminded of the coexistence of great beauty and equally great darkness.  Through the darkness, the voice in these poems remains aware, and it’s this awareness that keeps him alive.

Ultimately, there’s hope here: “There is rest out here, ready to have you.” So says the final line of the last poem, “Instructions For Sixes.” There’s a movement in A Penance from the view of protection as an act of violence to protection as closeness and warmth, true shelter. Reading Evans’s sonorous, richly textured words has a calming effect; you can go along for the ride and experience the language, and you can also take a little time to dig in, take a look around at the viscera, electrical currents, and representative human longing that animate the work from within.

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