A Commerce of Moments. By Sofia M. Starnes. Columbus, Ohio: Pavement Saw Press, 2003. 88 pp. $12.00 (paper).
By Marjorie Maddox
Published in the Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2006 Issue. Vol. 88, Number 4.
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 (unfortunately without page numbers) 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 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 ribble of lost things; come,/prize the morning of my whole flesh open.”
Throughout, Starnes’s Catholic and Philippine-Spanish heritage fill 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 clergy and laity, for the lover of words and 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.
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