Some endorsements of my work
Some extended reviews
The Consequence of Moonlight
You may find an extended review of The Consequence of Moonlight, by Henry Hart, in the Fall 2018 issue of Blackbird.
Published inThe Cresset, Spring 2018
In her new collection, The Consequence of Moonlight, former Virginia Poet Laureate Sofia Starnes holds up our illuminating but limited language until it dims the light we think we see by. What’s left is a mysterious moonglow that immerses the world in stories we cannot help but follow. “Does not your heart,” the poet asks early on, “weary from things apparent, / ask what each storyline will tell, // which words carry their roots with candor?” (“Emerge,” 22).
This willingness to trail and engage language—and thus all we define with language—opens up to the reader worlds of misses and near-misses, birds and saints, bicycles and baptisms, the bodies of lovers and the Lenten corpse of Christ. Throughout, we are called to examine and reflect. “A word,” Starnes tells us, “depends on impulses—air-catch, air-lease—that hold its meaning hostage. // Language, like the dawn, is the defeat of hours / and a second’s gain….Shouldn’t we ask // who and why, the plot and the denouement, the ache / for endings?” (“Last. Child. Last. Child.,” 52).
In a world where belief can hinge on language and hurt and heal can be close cousins, Starnes taps into our desire for destination and arrival. Despite the misses and near-misses of accidents and lost opportunities, she moves toward love and afterlife. Unafraid to “brave a new calligraphy of skin” (“Love and the Afterlife,” 120), she patiently travels toward final meaning.
And yet, never does she rush the journey, be it across Galicia or the rough terrain of the soul. Steadily, the trek from Point A to Point B moves us, as readers, toward epiphany. Knowing who we are and from whom we come “starts with a little leaf / that tells us how our bones / are like luxurious stalks / grafting in secret” (“Ancestry,” 35). It calls us to observe and learn from nature—as in the closing lines of “The Clover”:
see the sky the moon the sun,
the non-erroneous olive branch
that falls on human hearts;
falls on the errand bird and
bloom: they do not know
the good they do,
or wonder how
the good gets done. (39)
With its content sparrows, lambs, and doves, the poem echoes Matthew 6:28 and its injunction to stave off worry. The lamb seeks the clover, but knows no anxiety in doing so. The dove, “a harbinger of peace,” nevertheless is “no wiser / than the dawn or dusk” (38).
The poet also associates birds with calm in “Baptism of Desire,” and yet a calm that is not easily obtained: “Again, an eye on whirled and wintered / bird. Awareness is the proper name for nest. //Restless we live….Until, confessed, // we hunger for the birds” (91). Likewise, in “Tunnelers” she laments, “Come April, we are nothing, / nothing like the birds…” (93). It is language that helps approximate her sense of restless urgency for both the heavens and the calm the birds inhabit, as well as their noisy fleeing. It is language that leads us as readers into both experiences.
In “The Bridal Ferns,” the poet further contemplates such nuance by following the philosophical breadcrumbs of her questions:
I wonder how such puny a word as pit,
could be both seed and slum, both dormant agency
and tomb; both conflict verb—met up against—
and scoop; a stone that yields, yields small,
yet hurts the hand. I wonder how,
but pittances deceive: this is the way of potency
and plea; the soil is notched by hooves
and by the Fall, and then by fledglings,
How measured is the earth for gift and scar,
for creaks and croons, for the precarious child. (“The Bridal Ferns,” 69)
Throughout The Consequence of Moonlight, the poet negotiates sound and sense—“we try ‘aloft’ and ‘lamp’ for meaning” (“The Consequence of Moonlight,” 87)—noting how “[t]he world survives / through barter” (“Peddled Looms,” 59). Often, she arrives at language that speaks to our desire—on the physical/spiritual and adult/childhood levels—to name and be named, to love and be loved.
For instance, in the poem “Unknowing,” she describes how even if we forget the “bright red apples dangling….if they fall, we shall remember thud, / and with each peel, the aftermath of leave.” In this reflection on memory, loss, and love, we hear echoes of Eden and its Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet, in the poem what immediately follows is a call for intimacy: “Touch me, my love. For knowing reconvenes / as constancy. // We had a birth, a life of fingertips. / How do we know? / How, but through trembling” (44-45).
Thus through language we call out to be heard, known, and understood. We reach toward “learn[ing] the residue / of taste” (103), “the urgency of touch” (96), how “evening light translates to evening / wind” (91). Starnes invokes us to immerse ourselves in the natural and spiritual through experiencing language.
In this same collection, though, the poet also acknowledges the limits of language. We must not be afraid, she explains, to move beyond words into solitude. We must “know the stillness / for what it brings” (“Exodus,” 63). Similar to the moonlit saints in her title poem, we must welcome stillness: “[a]nd so, from word we turn to wordless” (“The Consequence of Moonlight,” 87).
In part, such quieting allows us to fully experience the world around us. We observe; we contemplate; we take in. As Starnes explains in “Mushrooms,” “Where / nothing feels, nothing is ever real. / Heaven, I think, lives off our daily / skin, props us as sentient mushrooms / on our stems, stems over healing / wounds, wounds over soil, / over the gutsy beds of streams—oh, / how the glorious body happens” (25-26).
Using what she observes of our vibrant, complicated world, Starnes connects us to ourselves as well as to the world to come. She encourages us to embrace the deeply felt, be it joyful or painful. Many of these invocations come through poems that focus on a child named Elena, which Starnes notes is “etymologically akin to the moon….[and] harks back to our being called by name” (“A Note to the Reader,” 122). In the poem “Elena, Halfway (Or: The Quality of There),” Starnes cries out, “Come, swallow whole your share // of grief, for no one pushes off with half / a heart, or half an awe, / or half the obliging lung” (41). There is happiness, struggle, and loss in these poems. In them, as the subtitles suggest, the persona also approaches the qualities of “Departure,” “Forgiveness,” “Detachment,” “Assent,” “Oblation,” “Here,” and “Return.”
In other poems as well, Starnes addresses moving from this world to the next, where “[e]ternity slips in as something else: / new skin for our elusive shadows” (“A Mode of Permanence,” 80). In “Mortality,” we hear echoes of T. S. Eliot in “It will be fine; it will be fine, / to leave this rented consequence / with nothing but our borrowed feet, / to trade this skin—our reach, our dearth—both sanctuary and residence, // far nearer to our bones than we, / for vacancies in glory” (24).
Starnes further weaves together natural and spiritual themes in the three sections of The Consequence of Moonlight by placing biblical verses at the end of eighteen of the sixty-nine poems. Such placements amplify the collection’s move from self-discovery, to doubt and rebirth, and finally to “a meditation before the Crucifix…[where] we discover who we really are, through the One who calls us, tirelessly, by name” (“A Note to the Reader,” 123).
This final section is especially powerful. Beginning with the long poem “Meditation on a Lenten Corpse,” Starnes draws together earlier themes. In “II – The Carver,” where the sculptor “wouldn’t think idea / the right word” (84), the poet asks us again and again to feel: “Not flash, but feel, grasp, gauge, glory. / Throb and texture” (84). In “IV – Resurrection,” she concludes, “It is not memory that makes us, not the spellbinding lace / on nitty-gritty nerve-ends,” then moves us beyond what is lost to the connections that remain: human and divine love. It is her love’s cheek that carries her “beyond remembering.” It is her hope in the divine that propels her even further: “I’ll press it; part need, part instinct—no, all instinct, true / as genuflect love. Lose and God gives. / So ready, ready to resurrect” (86).
The moon, the saints, the child Elena, and images of childhood and birds also reappear in this final unifying section. “The consequence of moonlight / is a sigh, / and saints out in the garden, strong / and pure, lift stories, as if bodies, / to the sky” (“The Consequence of Moonlight,” 87). Here, the poet is also lifting the reader through her narrative up to the heavens, where “a bevy of crows” flocks and “moonlight darts” (“White Crow,” 100). In this world between worlds, the skies are “a grant of memory” (“A Viable Way Home,” 109) where we arrive, finally, at “[a]ll this: the journey of a vast world / through our ears, whispered as breeze / and finishing as birth” (“What We Know,” 98).
And so, as in Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” The cost of all this according to Starnes? “Invasion, inhale, intake…the bonus of reflection” (“After-Rain,” 114). In the final lines of her book, Sofia Starnes again shows the consequence of moonlight: the ability, like the saints, to shine light on the dark; to be both of the world and beyond it. “This much is heaven in our push and brink,” she concludes, “this much is world. / For all the love we root in afterlife, time // to greet earthly flesh: here, we conceive / a heart, here between fern and fence, // the tenderest outlast—” (“Love and the Afterlife,” 121). What language and life follow the final dash is ours for the choosing.
The Consequence of Moonlight: A Review
Ann Falcone Shalaski
Published in Chesapeake Style Magazine, May, 2018
“The act of writing poetry,” Sofia Starnes says, is a “getting out of the way” so that a poem might occur, a poem that must itself become “a place of resonance, where the reader might recognize a voice otherwise unheard.”
On a very personal journey, in a collection that took six years to complete, Starnes clearly renders insight into tradition, faith, healing, and the language of the soul. Eloquent and profound poems call us to witness the Presence. We move through the dark at times, confront joy and regret, and we often experience a life-changing moment. It is surprising how far this poet carries us with just a few powerful lines.
The work is separated into three sections. Poems of self-discovery and the need to understand the self are in Part 1. We also enter into the passing of time.
Part 2 contains a treasure chest of poems peopled by children, symbolic of purity and openness, as the poems reflect those sacred moments of rebirth that can cleanse and restore us.
The final section, Part 3, begins with a selection of poems that are a meditation before the crucifix. It is here, the author explains in a Note to the Reader at the end of the book, that we discover who we really are.
There were pages throughout that had my heart in them, such as “The Way We Thrive,” “By Name, We Called You,” and “Madurodam”, a place I visited many years ago, near the Hague. It was back to life, as vivid and clear as the morning I arrived there.
To read this body of work is to experience poems of passion and conviction. Not afraid to delve into complex issues, Starnes sets her course with a spiritual compass, filling the empty spaces with beauty and promise. She brings the reader through life’s trials with strength, grace, and the wisdom of a sage. Most importantly, we are assured that a sacred mystery remains a mystery.
Written with precision, The Consequence of Moonlight sings. It is sensitive and serene. However, do not mistake serenity for weakness. One after another, the poems restore a sense of balance for us. Delicate, with flashes of humor, they point to a heavenly direction, while creating a strong, cohesive whole. Starnes tells us there is no shame in joy and no shame in sadness. There is harmony all around us. Through words carefully chosen, Sofia helps the reader not only to see the things in life that are worthwhile, but also to see further and deeper.
The Consequence of Moonlight was written with a deep personal investment. It is obvious Sofia Starnes cares about what she does, and she approaches poetry with a mixture of discipline, patience, and generosity. As a result, she has given us a perfectly paced collection of poems impossible to forget. If a book could shimmer, this one would.
Fully Into Ashes
Fully Into Ashes, Sofia Starnes’s fourth collection of poetry, maps the intersection of spirituality, identity, and faith. Her book is divided into three parts, as she echoes the Holy Trinity. This is not a fashionable subject for poetry in our secular age, but Starnes makes no apologies. In the artist’s statement on her publisher’s website, she describes each section thusly: “There is ‘Find’; that is, the initial awareness of whatever life proffers. Then, there is ‘Ache,’ our growing experience of loss and longing, both of which define us. And ultimately, there is ‘Gift,’ when what becomes clearest to us is that we are most often on the receiving end, having paid no price to equal its worth, of all that is Good.”
Starnes illuminates each section with an image. Section I pairs “Find” with the image of “First House.” This house is “not the attic light, but the bricks that left us asking / where the house was. . . . / Not the porch lamps, but the blueprint of a sunroom // and a window stripped to bone,”(“Intercession I”). Metaphor is in play here, and we find that this house is also the body, “ribcage, bruise,” and then something larger: “a basement full of words made // tangible.” (“Intercession I. And the first house can also be seen as an allusion to Eden: “Shade, cool and somnolent,” where “loss is an old but ample word for ghost.” (“Lola’s Window”)
In the second section, “Ache” is paired with “Leaving Pompeii.” Note the similarity of the word “ache” to the word “ash,” which also features prominently. “Ashes are the food that I eat” (the epigraph to “Marye’s Heights”), candles are “glossed to candy- / stubs” (“Leaving Pompeii”), and “the night is now a stranger / dark and lean: guest / to the heart’s abundant feast.” (“Leaving Pompeii”). In these ashes, the house, and the metaphoric body, is in ruins. (“The House in Ruins”) Yet all is not lost in this abandoned Eden; great beauty still abounds: “Daylight / loves in clusters, purple plums / and shriveled prunes: the same enormous summer.” (“The Rood of Jesse”) Notice how carefully and delicately Starnes pays attention to image and sound.
In the third and final section, she notices, and makes us notice, grace. The image paired with “Gift” is that of “The Moonlight House,” which could be a stand-in for the ineffable: “The moon dissolves to mist / and flower . . . // A nipple dribs its moon, the moonbeam dries lipborne // into a child / Between the moon and rose, the hourglass.” (“Nightlife”) And so we see how trembling, how ephemeral, the physical world is. And how much we have been given, and how much we need to give thanks. “And then we ate: a cup of chick-peas and a sprig / of tender spinach for the soup; an egg, simmered and // diced, the drizzle of an olive—green and gold; young legume.” (“All Souls Day”) “The House That Bled” reminds us that the body will fail. But “The Moonlight House” remembers “every poem is house—the verbs / in rooms; the other words // in hampers, bins or closets cueing.” Above all, “moonlight binds them,” (“The Moonlight House”) invisible, yet all-covering, like God’s grace.
Sofia Starnes writes about “the world transcendent.” (“Distances”) Although suffering is present in this collection, there is always the surety that “our God is in a green // robe, balancing whatever season in his palm.” (“Intercession II”) She is fully immersed in the Incarnation, “the divine elevation of all that is real.” (“Artist’s Statement, Wings Press author webpage”) Her “emphasis is on the flame of experience, fully occurring, from ash to ash,” (ibid.) and in this world, “the spiritual and the physical are intimately wed.” (ibid.) Starnes does not write easy and accessible poems; they require close attention and several readings. But, in the end, the reader will be richly rewarded.
Barbara Crooker, The Penwood Review
Sofia Starnes’s subtle lyrics are hushed ceremonies of spiritual awakening — as slowly as wisdom. The soul sweet-talks/its way into the throng/of lung, ribcage, hip. The lips/are doorsill, in and out;/I do not know which-way./What kills a rose? But this climactic instant of beauty is not a death since the rose bush lives on in thorny branches and the classic image resonates in memory. The poem, titled ”Distances” , ends with: a wasted whiff that strikes/heart, a little beyond. Beyond the commonsense reality, we all whiff.
As in her third collection, Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh (2008 Whitebird Award, Wings Press), Fully Into Ashes maps an open landscape where both the spiritual and the physical are intimately wed. These poems evoke the holy spirits in nature toward the divine elevation of all that is real. Never sanctimonious, their religious roots and humble saints inhabit a poetic garden flowering with a second innocence.
Listen to the voice of ”The House That Spoke”: Here is a task to undertake—/let’s build a house out of a sigh,/to be, through memory, a language: brick-work,/brick-word, rumors from swung rattan,//spelling out our tales./And the sigh will be the rust stain on the wall,/a pipe’s great story which we failed to hear/in summer patches. Romantic perhaps, but not sentimental. Her original images create a fresh awareness of human experience — in part, as Starnes says, because “I consider belief to be experience.”
The book’s parts, intricately integrated, fell into three, Starnes says: “ah, once more that intriguing and illuminating trinity.” These are apt words to characterize her poetry: intriguing and illuminating (and insightful, to make a trinity). Her artist’s statement about the three parts reads: ”There is —’Find’; that is, the initial awareness of whatever life proffers. Then, there is —’Ache,’ our growing experience of loss and longing, both of which define us. And ultimately, there is —’Gift,’ when what becomes clear to us, is that we are most often on the receiving end, having paid no price to equal its worth, of all that is Good.” Through continuous stages of discovery and suffering and bounty, we feel the sweet sense of wise mercy.
Aside from one six-page narrative, the texts roam between 20 and 50 lines, never wandering aimlessly. Their graceful rhythms, even when quirky, remind of Dickinson; their music echoes classical Spanish guitar solos; their shapes reflect paintings that inspire her (Goya, Donatello, Boucher). Yet, comparative speculations are relatively meaningless in light of her meaningful words. Two elegies for her parents recall their earthly things. “The Scarf” ends when her father tucks/a white luminous robe around himself—/not crowned, not wept—/a small verb: merely dozing. In ”The Armoire”, [we read]: dense as a thicket /this armoire mix… reveals its overlap of living/things on things thought lifeless. Yet, her mother’s possessions persist luminously because she leaves them for us.
An earlier poem of a girl now grown with a liturgy of ghosts ends: Loss is an old but ample word for ghost;/prize is the better word for angel (“Lola’s Window”). Such lines thematically connect the book’s vision. Look! exclaim the last lines of ”The Monument Restorer”: Full are the man and the field, /full are we under the sun.
Starnes’ s poetry has been published widely, won awards, and has been acclaimed by Billy Collins, Andrew Hudgins, and others. Fully Into Ashes stands as a true book of poetry, not a mere collection of poems. It deserves wide attention from serious readers and lovers of contemporary poetry.
Robert Bonazi, The San Antonio Express-News
This collection of linked poems, or more accurately one long poem with twelve parts, attempts a huge task–a task much larger than a chapbook could ordinarily sustain, one would think. Sofia Starnes, however, is up to the challenge. Having already written two award-winning books of poetry, she approaches a compelling theme in this little book, praising relatedness and the unity of flesh, spirit, and all experience. Thus, she writes, we breathe gulps of air, “long-taken. . . by others with our breath.” We are, as the title claims, single flesh. Each poem celebrates connections, boundaries disappearing like the “odd kiss mating / March to April year to year” (p. 1).
Starnes’s peculiar angle of vision is absolutely fresh and original. This is not easy poetry, but it is poetry with a rich vocabulary, oddly wonderful language, sometimes surprising and always imaginative, the images absolutely right: “We squeeze a large gold grapefruit,” she writes, “and the pits collect as small sins in a cup” (p. 6).
The language may be beautiful, the mood exhilarating, but the poet is also realistic. We do wear out, she realizes. We drop cells, lose hair. Species become extinct, and that which the earth nurtures and grows can disappear on whim in the beak of a passing, hungry goose. She contends, however, that loss itself connects us not only to each other but especially to Christ’s loss, which pushes us beyond loss itself. “Two hundred pickers / flooded out of farms, the solitary, / migrant acre rot. A drunkard drives / his pick-up out of bounds, a torn / skirt tightly curls, crimson / against the tree, a final sheet. / And all the time we fall as careless / snips, forgotten / that mysterious seamless cloak / they could not tear– / one Friday’s intimation of a truth” (p. 5).
It is baptismal water that redeems, Starnes insists, even after “water dries,” even through “our dull imperfect years,” even as “we watch aphids multiply, black / holes wide, starved between veins” (p. 20). In spite of all, we hope, and we hear God’s invitation: “Come when your plea is grizzled cork, / again you insist, when priestly sacrifices / speckle with laments. / Come, when your footsteps leak– / your cortege drenched—and you, dawdling, / doubt, wake up to cold breath” (p. 16).
Above all, this is sensuous poetry, the link between physical and spiritual as tangible in Starnes’s hands as it is in the poetry of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets. So much contemporary poetry commits sins of omission in two areas: the attention to the resonances of language and the proper consideration of spiritual realities. Starnes remedies these failings of the current idiom with poems emphasizing a physical quality that surrounds and describes the spiritual center. This extends even to the sounds of the language she uses: “Their carom crazes the cave– / all shells, all crystal, carbon, / lode of iron hidden in the shaft. . . .” (p. 33). Clearly these are poems to read aloud, to savor, to chew.
These are also poems which celebrate, mourn, and bring comfort. The old woman sleeps and dreams; the old man, unsteady without his cane, falls and breaks. Even though “the body takes small comfort in its present” and “the dead grass hums between dead blades out of tune,” Starnes teaches us to pay attention and to behold the paradoxes that surround us: the light in the midst of death, the seed in the midst of night, the birth in the midst of a frozen landscape.
Jill Baumgartner, Poetry Editor, The Christian Century
The concept that is armature for Sofia Starnes’s Corpus Homini is indicated by the first epigraph from Ovid and the last one from Corinthians. In fact, the concept comes near to being a conceit, as the poet follows it closely and varies it widely and ingeniously; reading this sequence is almost like being able to watch, in a sort of cosmic time-lapse photography, the first principles of creation arrange and rearrange themselves to compose the great body of the world. This body is twin to the body of humankind and their co-relations are glimpsed by means of startling associations, examples from science, scripture, literature and history.
But this is no abstract exercise. The details are pungent and impendent; our senses are warmly engaged: “The body takes small comfort // in its present, cuddles evening / moisture before rain.”
In this framework, even the most seemingly remote associations make coherent sense: A “dry Cabernet whose color // is the redness of an old sea split open” yields us the miracle of Exodus in a casual dinner-table moment: walls of water to the right and left. Narratives and narrative fragments make room for themselves; prayers arise spontaneously; there are snatches of autobiography, as when a child’s hopes drown as seeds drown in mud.
This is a kaleidoscopic organization: fragments reflecting upon one another, as briliant colors vibrate within and against fellow fragments and the whole design is always in the process of redesigning itself.
Finally, there is opportunity—or maybe necessity—for two visions of human finality in “One Light,” a vernal, organic, future-flourishing one, and a contrasting, inorganic fossilized alternative. Perhaps both visions are required to answer the question: “Has our dreaming come to this?”
Fred Chappell, former Poet Laureate of North Carolina
Love and the Afterlife
The adage, best things come in small packages, applies to this chapbook by Sofia Starnes. This extraordinarily beautiful chapbook is published by Franciscan University Press. The book contains twenty-four poems, which works out to fifty cents a poem, a fabulous return on investment, as you will see.
I think any poetry reader should ask “What’s in it for me?” of any book of poetry. Personally, I want to buy poetry books the way I buy clothes: I want them to fit and last a long time. These poems do that. Every time I put the book down, I would immediately go back and re-read one of the poems to discover another level or nuance. This is the Brooks Brothers of poetry books! You can read it again and again and never wear it out. Additionally, there is a Biblical quote at the end of each poem, many of which you may not have heard, that serve as ribbons for each poem-package.
Too often I read poems, including my own, that are prose one-offs. This, on the other hand, is terrific poetry. The well-crafted poems cover a lot of territory, but they are all presented in a grounded fashion. Each line vibrates, taut as a wire. From the first verses, the book welcomes you in. It’s as if you went to an old friend’s new home, and she wanted to show you around. Thus, at the start, she implores: “Oh, hear—the wind, the hustle-gold / of our forsythia spray—and eager feet, / not far.” She then proceeds to show you the arches, windows, floors, and gardens. After these introductory verses, each poem unfolds as a room, or as a story the poet tells you, while you’re walking around. As in the poem, “Anniversary”, which is told the way a dear friend tells you about a long-ago encounter, when she was seventeen, at a wedding party with a boy. And she says: “All these years, a charity has scattered roses.”
These poems are not just elegant; they will reach a spot inside you that you didn’t even know existed. As with the lines:
Ah, someone in my bone’s machinery
must have believed in pregnancies and stars—
a force for dreams, a godly history
that never ends…
These are also sensual poems in the broadest sense of the word; a compendium of a lived-in world. The poet’s technique is superb. Especially well handled are the line breaks and the enjambments that will take your slender breath away. The poem “God’s Renter”, for example, is so well crafted I had to read it over and over. In these verses, God has chosen a favored tenant, and to her he sends “flowers when the rent is due, redeemed.” The poem unfolds like a miniature sermon—and we come to see ourselves as the tenant.
If you ever need a prompt for one of your own poems, you can take your small trowel and dry bucket to dig among the rich words and phrases of Starnes’s Love and the Afterlife. You will find many, as in: “the trenches veered to truce” [from “O Vivifying Bones”], or “they/looked like hostages set free”, [from “The Runners”], and “Who’d love and still be sane/under unblinking lanterns…” [from “Old Wives’ Tales”]. It’s all here. I was not expecting as much as I received. To paraphrase words stolen from this book—sometimes poetry wanders in.
Guy Terrell, Poetry Society of Virginia
A Commerce of Moments
Winner of the editor’s prize in the Transcontinental Poetry Award for an Outstanding First-Book Collection, Sofia M. Starnes’s A Commerce of Moments expertly portrays the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual “exchange” between this natural world and the world of the soul. As former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins explains on the back cover, “Couplet by couplet, Sofia Starnes leads her readers on a poetic quest for understanding.” Indeed, the “moments” in these poems both guide and enlighten.
The collection is aptly divided into three sections: “The Stakes,” “The Commerce,” “The Prize.” From the beginning, the poet struggles with the overlap of worlds. In the opening poem, “The Pilgrim’s Shadows,” she explains, “this assurance:/this shadow-region is ourself…..” Similarly, the poet’s assertion in “Apples,”—“we hunger for the tree,/for its knowing of a new world”—echoes throughout. Often, the paradoxical comes through vivid Garden-of-Eden choices.
In “Ave Maria,” the poet alternates between lines of the “Hail Mary” and horticultural images: “scent of sweet/impatience” “The summer sores,/once close to festering/now flower thickly.” We are startled by the ending, yet caught completely in its truth. “Pray, pray for us/now and in the hour/Wait, it is not yet/time.”
In “Shadows of Innocence,” Starnes asks, “Remember the white cassock our priest wore/in summer heat, like a returning santo?/It dropped its length on stubby/feet, into our muddy garden.” Likewise, “The Tightrope” begins with “Mid-summer: a certain temptation/…when the year teeters like an acrobat/in white tights/over a plaza’s netting./(Days and devils labor inches apart…)” By the poem’s end, Starnes muses, “Always in pure duality—…the odd drone/hovering over a bee-line, the loose tongue/in the uncommon serpent,/threading a twig…instead,/we slip into a commerce of moments…..”
Such beautifully crafted “moments” give us “living in the world but not of it.” The earthly both overwhelms and inspires. Although Starnes gives us pre- and post-Eden, she takes us further toward repentance and a New Heaven and Earth.
In “Witching Cloths,” “a soul learn[s] otherwise:/that it could not behold itself/in place in darkness.” In “A Ritual of Flight,” a retelling of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we imagine ourselves as Lot’s wife, “There is no way to tell where the blaze stops, or if/our skirts have scalloped into flames;/we cannot halo out the fireline with our toes,…we wonder why/heat tantalized…Was she/so terrified she might be God’s?” In “Rituals of Repentance,” Starnes forces us to face ourselves. “Come, make me medieval….Let me clamor atone,/somber song of the tonsured, the sack-clothed.”
The same dichotomies exist in various versions of love. “Love me now with your/hands (says the soul, half-exploring its/landscape)” (“The Soul’s Landscape”). What follows is a partnering of body and spirit. The two are so intertwined that we cry out with the poet, “Ah, what the soul gives for shape” and gasp in recognition at “Interim/is the word I would use the most cautiously:/how precarious its hum,/ear to earth, plumbing earth/earthwise.” In “Nuptials,” our earthly communions are echoed in the spiritual. Although “we stay/with the death clinging/whole on our skin” and “drink from the earthenware/ewer of lips,” we end facing the lover’s and Christ’s body: “Sweet/benevolent host: where we embrace, there we give up abundance.”
In the five-part poem “A Name for God” (“The Commerce” section), Starnes shows the difficulty and pleasure in naming God: “a pigeon erupts,/tufts apart, almost scentless as God”; “the heavy, heavy hand/of an earthquake, the come-near of God”; “God’s voice comes, entire as the willow’s fore/warning of winds, its rushed ruffling of hair.” Especially powerful is the third section. In a series of blessings, the physical embodies the spiritual: “Bless the foggy notion, the ages-long surplice/which keeps God at length”; “Bless (forgive me for this)/the immaculate bread, the sweet wine with/exquisite taste which, in kindness, conceals.” The series ends with a bringing together of human and divine love. “Thus, divine and beloved break silence:/in heart-home, heart desire, out of heartsore.”
Starnes appropriately begins her final section, “The Prize,” with “Behold the Body.” With a type of out-of-the-body experience, she examines torso, thigh, hip, neck, hair, hand: “This must be how the Godhead/watches us, how the brilliant spine/arches toward us.” In “The Limp,” the poet shows how “Some nights the body sleeps/at the foot of the bed,” then ends with this request, “Ah, wake up, my kind beloved/body—/with our limp we tip the fickle balance.” Likewise, she beckons in “Threshold,” “Come/through the nibble of lost things; come,/prize the morning of my whole flesh open.”
Throughout the book, Starnes’s Catholic and Philippine-Spanish heritage fills the pages with epiphanies. Banigs, woven leaf mats, give rise to “Hence is love partly secret,/an evening of grass, cross-abrading of leaves/on our bodies, when we rise.” In “Coat,” Starnes describes how “Every garment hangs/on our backbones as metaphor, bundling the body’s/hope.” Similarly, “The Body’s Hope,” moves from contemporary to Biblical garments and then to sacramental love-making; “Absolution,” with its myriad ways to wash, resonates hope.
Included also is a trilogy, “The Diagnosis,” “My Father’s House,” and “One Sweet Invincible,” where the poet struggles to confront mortality. In the first, she refuses to name “a shadow in the right lung.” In the second, a child chants, “Shape, reshape/the disease, pat the holes/with soft putty, play pretend.” In the last, she faces head-on “Your father is going to die. This is a real thing. You know it.” The book ends quietly yet powerfully with the poet’s “Nunc Dimitis.”
A collection for the lover of words and of the Word, A Commerce of Moments fills its readers with evocative images and truths. Here is the world, in turns trying and transcendent. Here is a liturgy for the living. Take, read.
Marjorie Maddox, Lock Haven University, The Anglican Theological Review