‘The Two Standards’ by Heather Winterer
According to its publisher, Heather Winterer’s first book The Two Standards “enacts the model of St. Ignatius Loyola, encouraging the collapse of lines between creation and creativity, time and space, the Christian and Christ, the self and the other.” It is higher in concept than most first books. High designed, high concept books leave a lot of run for disappointment and failure. I happily report that this book satisfies in multiple dimensions of substance and succeeds on many levels.
Winterer’s is an eight inch by eight inch book, which allows ample room for provocative (block, round, diamond-shaped) diagram poems and poems with long, sometimes gap-featuring lines. The table of contents is divided in five sets of “translations.” Each of those five sections opens with an over-sized in type, heavily spaced, four line poem. The last section also closes out the book with one as well. I quote the first one here in its entirety:
/ AN APPROACH
after what it used to be
comes mostly cloud
come crystals very vaguely
never still erasing what it can
Ignatious Loyola, great light of the Counter Reformation, laid out a path to clearing distractions and examining and clarifying Catholic conscience: Jesus carrying one flag, Belzebub the other. But Heather Winterer’s poems are not binary powers raking around Rome or Babylon, over Heaven or under Hell. The poet is in the secular desert and in the garden of her own conscience. The road is lined with Nevada track houses and shoots out into the Mohave Desert. The poems of The Two Standards comprise a quest, a questioning through fierce observation of her own instincts, experiences, and life decisions. At the well of a cassia bloom, she notes:
In it the question of powdered seeds
centering bees a yellow
Marks the spot
A simple buzz a daily forwarding of what you are
in early May.
Cradle, crown, conundrum I have never been
Have never simply yellowed into brown
or browned an air with wings
Remembering the way to
It says a think like “go and gather” “get it”
“Spend it everywhere”
Like Loyola’s model, Winterer seems to rid herself of distraction and to clarify in the moment her purpose. To do so is to parse sorrow and suffering. Distractions abound: an unworn garment, a no-longer-appreciated tattoo; barking pit bulls, broken dead bolts, personal ads, bulimia, blistered toes. But Winterer masterfully weaves from the concrete world to abstract meditations and directed contemplations. The relish of mystery and the garnish of joy hand in the balance. Faith in contemplation is at stake.
Toward the end of the book, there is a stroll through the desert, a natural arboretum of cactus (where Loyola would call for meditations on the apparitions of Christ). In “Barrel Cactus” the surmise is that “it pays to be / a little prickly to the touch.” The closing passage of “Saguaro” is more sweeping:
Pretend, for once, the desert is your instinct
groping toward the lush edges of your soul’s continent
where all is fruit, rain, more fruit, more rain.
Poverty and social injustice are not profound in themselves; they are impediments to welling a buoyancy, necessary in rising above grief. The poems of Winterer, a musketeer of the twenty-first century, call us to poetic self-possession. They call us to imaginative exercise, to explorations of dissent and submission, to explorations of practice and gratitude. Whether in an arboretum or a fishing boat, she would have us examine our firmaments and our foundations for considerations to our daily “unanvillings.” They are a version of Dickinson in an actual desert landscape. “In the glitter of bad angels, we enjoy a happy whispering.”