The Unnameable Holy: a review

[Resin by Geri Doran reviewed by Remy Wilkins]

Faith is unilaterally said to be a comfort; submission is thought to be the fruit of oppression. Faith has become an act of the torpid, it is common to hear “I take it on faith” to mean -and perhaps has always meant- “I take it without consideration”, whereas submission has been relegated to a barbaric age of oppression, but what Geri Doran has done, and that rather courageously, is to return us to the wild faith of the primeval era, to the radical nature of submission, and to remind us of the true dread of religion. The fainthearted have already logged their complaints about this book and its tendency to “God-talk”, but the mistake comes in thinking that faith is purely the act of the weak willed, those at wit’s end, when true faith is dangerous and true gods undomesticated.

That religion is careful and easy is early and often challenged. In the second poem, where the first has set the landscape as the soul, the dimness of Israel’s sight (quoting Genesis 48:10) becomes our model for faith as he calls himself a daylily nearing dusk. A daylily’s breathlike glory is perfectly emblematic of man’s life, here used for the recklessness of faith, for faith, says St. Paul, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” and as G. K. Chesterton understands these Christian virtues, “Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.” And this is necessary “or it is no virtue at all”. Israel in the poem looks at the world and says: “Pigsty, lilyfield -what difference/ to an old man losing sight?”

The fourth poem, “Hurry the Iowa Cornfields”, reminds us that faith is not a series of answers, but a pattern for finding answers, a questing. “Twice now in the declining light/ I’ve carried my prayer to the field.” This prayer midpoem is refused, but in the silence which follows a response is made:

I come at dusk to stand in the rows

rummaging in the inadequate light
for gold silk turned to brown,
for ripeness, answering.

The answer comes out of the abundance of the earth, though it is not the sort of answer that would satisfy “the calculus of logic”, as Ms. Doran elsewhere calls it. This imprecise impression is repeated in “Dusk in the Palm of the Lord” where she says: “God in the presence or absence of love./ I forget which grace is.” and her prayer is repeated “Do not forget me at dusk.”

This terrain is full of wilderness, darkness, and fire, but it is not resigned solipsism, as she says “we passed/ from knowing to unknowing and back” (The Cedar of Lebanon). Neither is it all tension; truth comes in epiphanies, blue plums, potatoes, and the “persuasive hue” of Madrona trees.

She speaks carelessly about her god, he is floundering, the “Dirty One”, the wild, silent, and uncontrollable. As daring as she is in her belief it is no wonder, in our temerity, that we shy from this sort of faith, gravitating to beliefs that suit us, that placate us. Rather than faith we prefer the satisfaction of reason, something attainable, civilized, something devoid of any darkness -this is the noonday religion of the timid. Whenever beliefs are determined by what won’t embarrass us, what speaks to our inner sensibilities, what makes us feel most proud to be us then we have fallen into the isolation of know-it-alls and numbskulls.

The book, which is divided into four sections each taking a line (sometimes tinkered with) from the final poem, has a particular movement from exploratory doubt to resolute love and submission. The book’s penultimate poem “Reveal, in the Country Moonlight, Your Steadfast Means” ends with, “Trace on me the map of Your will.” or consider the title “Lord, Yours Is the Hour of Conquest, Mine to Submit”. Obedience so intent on revelation can hardly be called blind.

Her lines have the deliberation of a prayerbook, language that is seeking transformation. Consider the lines:

What carried us from year to year was yield,
potatoes in, potatoes out, like rowing.

Note how the lines start with rough sounds, “carried”, “potatoes”, and soften toward the end with “year to year was yield” and “like rowing”. The next line overloads us with stresses before quieting: “Fist-sized, firm, rich tasting, and abundant-” yet the downbeat at the end is not the rest we’re looking for, we are pushed beyond, thrust past the dash, moving from knowing to unknowing and back. Her lines embody her purpose and often with shimmer and surprise:

There’s a chirr in the pond, the rustle
of water spangles amove with turtle;

In places she slows incrementally, like a pointillistic didact forcing us to note every single dot of color.

In each room, a woman or man
wakes to the radiant skin
of a lover, a flesh-ghost
caught in the act: sleeping
receding. Or is it just one room
one man asleep,

one wife unsettled by a moon,

In the title poem some father/farmer figure is quoted calling the weather “Predictable as an Indian”. I cannot help but think that the title is a pun: resin/re-sin. Just as the weather turns so too do we turn. Belief is a difficult task and we must ever labor to try and “slough the dirt stains off.”

Along with this sense of dirt and darkness there is something shockingly ordinary to Ms. Doran’s handling of the Divine. What, from the heading of the second section, is the “unnameable holy” appears in the final poem as: “Most Heaven, you bring to the door/ the unnameable homely.” It is a God who conspires with the window-blinds, whose love is seen “in seed potatoes planted/ with a grunt”.

This is not a religion of the catechumen reciting the guarded poetry of patent answers. The irreligious typically return to the predictable, to the homogeneous, to the safety of subjective feelings, but these are the poems of the man in the Gospel of Mark who said: “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” and poems that reflect Don Pedro in Much Ado when he said, “My love is thine to teach: teach it but how”. Geri Doran’s writing is a mixture of humility and the courage of someone hanging from a cliff: tenacity born of a desperate situation and her book is a return to the twilight, to the witching hour of faith, to a God greater than doubt.

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