Martha Silano, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception

Publisher: Saturnalia Books

2011, 90 pages, paperback, $14

martha silano’s the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize winner, works to coalesce the banality of everyday life with the absurdity of imagination. While the book lives in the exterior world, focusing on the experience of the everyday—raising children, cooking dinners, vacations, etc.—the true character of the poems lies not in the tangible world but inside the mind of the writer. In this way, the book is a very personal one. This is not just because the speaker names places, people, and events that are firmly grounded in personal experience; it is also because the reader approaches these topics through the mind of the writer. The epiphanies that occur within the poems do not always contain a universal to which a reader can attach. Instead, the epiphanies are like that of the experience: personal. Therefore, the poetry is like learning to understand and acknowledge a stranger, as it requires the reader to experience the recollections through another body, time, and place.

At its strongest, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception treads deeply into the existence between concrete experiences and imagined circumstances. It is here where the reader realizes that the world that the speaker lives in, remembers, and experiences is one in which both of these worlds collide. In her poem “I Wanted To Be Hip,” Silano describes carrying her children around while trying to be “hip,” combining the reality of the situation of ” [being] escorted to the elevator for the un-hip / child on each hip for the totally un-tuned-in” with the imagined world, the desire: “all of us wanted to emanate / snake skin pumps a sparkly amber shawl / […] wanted let’s face it the whole world to wobble.” In this and similar poems, Silano shows the ramblings of her own mind while tapping into a psyche that is prevalent among modern people: the mind that wanders while it is trapped in tedious experiences. As a result, the dull, exterior world contains people who are able to manifest and create other worlds even within the experience of everyday living.

In addition to balancing the exterior life with the interior mind, Silano also shows the conflict between contemporary Americans and imagined worlds. In her poems, she frequently illustrates the interaction between modern people and absurd occurrences. She does not simply answer the question: “how do people react in these situations?”; rather, she asks and responds to the question: “how would we [modern society] react to it?” For instance, in her poem “That Spring A Room Appeared,” she writes:

in their house, a room they hadn’t

been in, a room they didn’t know

they had. Maybe it’s a tent—easy to disassemble, poles

clearly marked, stakes pulling up with only the slightest

tug, though this addition—in it was a curtain rod

like a drum majorette’s abandoned baton. In it

was a cricket, incessant chirper (and what

was it chirping? fuck fuck fuck fuck…).

A room they didn’t know existed,

and in that room a couple could make love,

but when they did they closed their eyes

like wincing […]

Through this kind of storytelling, Silano goes beyond the interaction of the mind with the banality of real life and allows, instead, the mind’s imagining to become real and tangible conflicts for the speakers in the poems.

It is, however, when the imagined world of the mind does not quite meet up with the exterior world (or vice versa) that the poems in the book are the weakest. While the reaching towards this union appears to be a real goal in this book, there are several poems that rest in the banal without coming into conflict with the imagination’s worlds. However, despite there being some instances where poems do not quite do the required work to create the union between the tangible world and the world of the inner-mind, the goal to do so within The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception is admirable; and the instances of its success make this book worthy of a read. Through its successes, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception allows readers to see, and in the space created for the interior and exterior, experience.

—Andi Boyd