It’s difficult to be present in this century and the last without being conscious of the word consumption. We’re a culture of consumption: in the Athens, Greece airport, there are signs over every water fountain and sink, warning against consuming too much water, of letting the faucets drink every little drip we leave behind; ethically responsible food organizations decry the meat we consume, the evidence bulging at our waists; television ads, billboard ads, radio ads, that we consume consume consume, beg us to consume more electricity, more hard plastics, more metal, more wires, to be plugged in to consume a bounty of words. Traci Brimhall’s second poetry collection, Our Lady of the Ruins, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, taps into these worlds of consumption, and indulges her imagination by creating a group of women on a pilgrimage for something, consuming everything along the way.
These poems are vivid, each poem its own Francisco Goya, the space where fantasy meets terror, where wonder collides with destruction. The women on the pilgrimage pass “condemned bodies” that have been branded by guards; they give in to suffering, not questioning if they will suffer, “but where”. They “pass cigarettes, tangerines/and iodine” to prisoners and “sweeten the hours” by “shar[ing] scandals/from the city”. The women seem immune to the destruction around them, and marked by violence, they are both practical and vulnerable, hardening and imaging a lighter future. They survive by consuming, by absorbing the stories around them, by creating new myths. In “Prayer to the Deaf Madonna” the narrator recounts her story of survival:
Yes, I profited from war. My children lived.
They ate apricots and honey. And it’s true—
when I found the mandrake growing beneath
the feet of the garroted man, I ate it.
It tasted like libertine’s semen and sweat (11-15)
Brimhall has a knack for saying what’s uncomfortable, what’s known, and uses juxtaposing ideas to fill in the gap between discomfort and pragmatic living: “Yes, I profited from war. My children lived.” What’s at stake in this poem, and other poems in this collection, is the heart, often sacrificed, always under threat, including the heart of an elephant: “curators removed an elephant’s heart/from the museum because it began beating when anyone/it loved looked at it” (“Prelude to a Revolution” 12-14). In this movement, from one location to the next, from one belief system to the next, from one loss to the next, the women become more and more animal. They no longer “astonish [the] wolf [who] lifts its mouth from the lamb” (“The Visitation” 18), they become both wolf and lamb, the astonishment and the observer. In grief they either “lift empty bowls/and drink” (“Auto-da-Fé” 13-14) or desecrate that which has hurt them:
I killed the bull
that gored him, stitched its head
onto the dead man’s body. When I saw
what I had made, I kissed its nipples,
drank there until I was strong enough
to brush the flies from my breasts. (40-45)
The epigraph from Joseph Campbell prepares us for this journey: “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power”. These are poems that dip into that interstitial space between consuming and being consumed, between suffering and surviving, between giving life and taking life.