Step into Her Office: Reviewing 2010 Saturnalia Poetry Prize Winner Martha Silano

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“Any man can go without food for two days,” Baudelaire said, “but not without poetry,” and how true this quote is for the horror of these days. Between bouts of influenza and caretaking for the words I’ve been buoyed by—no, made alive again by—by an incredible poetry collection: Martha Silano’s The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception.

Silano is a madcap genius, and the poems in The Little Office… showcase her amazing ability to mix the mundane and cosmic, or better yet make us, us people—in all our fallible forms—into some star-dusty part of the cosmos. From parenting and praying with the aliens “for a gleam to remain on our lips // long after the last greasy French fry is gone,” to a hateful litany and even gravy, this book’s list of delightful aspects is endlessly long. Silano’s poems are superb with music and lexical texture and they never fail to gloriously push and pull the mind—from the intimacy of homework and parenting plane rides to the existential intimacy of the collection’s first poem “My Place In the Universe.” The poems can be playful in one deftly crafted line and stone cold serious in the next. They are impeccably titled (“I Wanted to Be Hip,” “Your Laundry On the Line Like A Giant Breathing Beast,” or, among so many others, “It’s All Gravy.”) and the movements into the early lines of Silano’s poems (the gesture from title to the first lines) is so engaging, it makes nearly every poem impossible to put down.

The magic of The Little Office of Immaculate Conception is not that so much is happening, so much is packed inside of these 90 pages works—the true magic of Silano’s 2011 collection is that so much works and works brilliantly. It’s fully alive lushness is wonderful. From the incredible long lined wit of “In Praise of Forgetting,” where the poet says “we need a verb: to art! To take the ho hum mundane, / to sparkle-ize it,” before asking “Catch my glittery drift? Mine glimmering eye?” to “Love,” that begins so wickedly

I hate your kneecaps floating free

in their salty baths. I hate your knees,

both of them, and I hate your eyelashes,

especially the ones that fall out, the ones

you’re supposed to wish on:

and torques and twists over so many lovely couplets until the sense-making heart clang of the final lines:

At the China Palace the plates piled high with Mu Shu

Hate, the plates now a busboy’s burden of hate,

the only sound the dumpster’s clanging hate hate hate.

Silano’s poetic eye is wide open, wryly, to the complicated ecstasies of being—of motherhood and our small place in this universe among the nebulae in the Milky Way, that just might also be a cookout on our street. She tells us that it is thorny and dense to be alive, to stare at the stars while the slugs eat the pole beans and one is blessed/burdened with bringing someone else into the world and not only that but keeping them alive. Life is as crazy and knotted as it is joyous, but Silano’s world is one I want to be alive in.

After spending the last months with Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, I will follow Martha Silano wherever in the cosmos her poems take us because I know whatever glittery edge this poet brings me to, I will open my own eyes, try to take it all in, and it will be beautiful.

                  -Alex Lemon, author of most recently of Wash Your Hands

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