Jennifer Atkinson, Canticle of the Night Path
Publisher: Parlor Press
2013, 68 pages, paperback, $12
Writing about both the sacred and profane, Atkinson’s images conjure up what Yeats calls the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” In Canticle of the Night Path, she writes as easily about “[p]ollen, lint, scale, mites, mite shit, bits of skin and grit, residue and shadow—light as light” as she does about Mary Magdalene—who “slept under a flowering almond / And woke shivering, blotched with its petals.” Working in units of five lines or paragraphs per piece, Atkinson shares her careful observations on objects like the “missing lilies, the trees stripped of leaves and burnt, the grass trampled to dust.” Between these poems, she includes parables from The Gospel of Mary.
Whether she’s writing about Saint Francis or bird shit, Jennifer Atkinson’s words move with ease and effortlessness. In “Canticle of the Crow,” she demonstrates her careful, exacting use of language:
For the sheer gloss of her blacks, a gamut Of darker-thans—hemlock, skunk, junco’s-eye,
Night rain on paved roads. For her wing’s breadth, her voice, her bravado,
The way she takes on the wind wheeling, The way she fits in among lichen and human,
Key in the archway, queen of the exurb, Brooding her speckled celadon eggs,
In flight, or unwinding the life from the dead: Alive O praise her.
In these couplets, Atkinson’s language is at its most seductive. The precise placement of the vowels in the third line attests to her control of language. The soft series of assonance makes one think of the sound of rain on those roads.
In other poems, she shows her capability of coming up with a set of words that makes one feel awe. She writes, “The stars, unchallenged by lamplight, shone.” In “Canticle of Hours,” she writes “Drizzle and dawn intermittent: a produce truck grunts and whines its way up.” I found these lines sticking with me. It’s hard to forget “the high-pitched tick of a watch on the nightstand.” These lines, especially, I enjoyed saying out loud to myself. Her phrases are satisfying, which is proof of Atkinson’s talent. Even at her darkest, there is a joyful wordplay: “I wish I wish I wish, the child sings. You wish you wish you wish, the waves sing. And the child leaps singing into the sea.” These lines come from one of the Mary parables included in Canticle of the Night Path.
Though Atkinson pulls it off well, there is definitely a risk in using parables; they can easily come off as too weighty and imperative. However, Atkinson avoids any hint of sanctimoniousness in her Mary parables, which are interspersed throughout the canticles. She avoids utter didacticism in her parables, which explains why they succeed. They work because of how closely she echoes the language of the Bible, especially that of Song of Solomon and Christ’s parables. This is not to say they are simply derivative or imitations. These parables have obviously grown from a great appreciation for the Bible’s language. “Canticle of the Bridegroom” ends with “Truly, I tell you, she replied, I don’t—none of knows you.” The parables retain a moving mystery even after multiple readings: “It is like ten girls who took their lamps and went to wait in the / dark all night for a husband.”
Atkinson’s Canticle of the Night Path work contains the sacred, secular, playful, and serious all at once. She knows that the solemnity of her work must be tempered with a playfulness in language. In “Canticle of Rhymes,” she writes, “Quill with quail, quell, tail feather, ether, either, other, love or, hover, power, forever and ever.”
—Carter Mason Guthrie