bk of (h)rs
Apogee Press ($12.95)
by Catherine Daly
A number of texts which relate to books of hours, heretic testimony, cabinet plays, and other early vernacular writing have recently come to press. Pattie McCarthy's new book, bk of (h)rs, joins Cole Swensen's Such Rich Hour and a new translation of Rilke's The Book of Hours. Because books of hours automatically problemetize time, text, and prayer, all of which have a relationship to the internet, there are poetry books of hours online: Charles Alexander's A Book of Hours, Wendy Battin's Lucid Dreaming, and the collaborative The Book of Hours of Madame de Lafayette edited by Christy Sheffield Stanford. McCarthy and her publisher have generously made samples of this book available online: look up the poems to see how wonderfully they occur. Buy the book because it is a beautiful book which has been devised as a book.
The first section of McCarthy's book is focussed on beauty, and is divided into matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline, as the monastery day is marked by bell-ringing and prayer. The section is entitled "bell (h)rs." The "(p)salter" of the second section refers to the psalms in the bible. The psalter is relevant to new poetry because it has a peculiar genre or genres. The third section is entitled "bk of (h)rs." It is poetry in prose. The poems in the three sections are visibly different, and each has its own texture. Each weaves medieval words, timeless scenes, and contemporary ideas together. In the first section poems, displayed in two columns, odd words like "pirn" and "pluvious" complement more ordinary survivals like "groan." Etymology appears again and again as an idea and as a strategy. A heretic is mentioned in passing by date, "burned one june thirteen-ten" (Marguerite Porete, in "lauds" ). The second section is the most disjunctive, because detail with a particular modernity is used: a factual comment, such as "the great vowel shift c. twelfth," is followed by an image which can only be from the twentieth century, "cigarette dinnertime. in the year of nostalgic cellar / wartime American swing." In the third section, each poem begins with an observation which blurs into a statement about poetics and language: "gun moll complex (or loose adaptation thereof). chance-medley of signs, chorus lines." or "alphabet of houses along a canal. and the alphabet of tools that made and unmade them."
McCarthy joins a post-confessional focus on information of various sorts as content in poetry with the still-increasing awareness that non-canonical texts from the middle ages, renaissance, and "early modern" baroque period were written, spoken, or used by women. She calls attention to survivals in the language which indicate survivals in the way we perceive our days and read old texts. She first immerses us in language, and a particular language of time and special case, creating a sense of intimacy and identification rather than identity. "[T]he clerestory as choice & not-choice" in "matins" is also a window in a cloister. A woman becomes "anyone who grew up behind / the wreckage of a pastoral screen door" in the following poem, "lauds." The word "door" changes the screen of a harem window, a Japanese Imperial Court, or a monastery into a contemporary screen for keeping the outside out and the inside in, the screen on the doorway of the sublime. Then she matches and mismatches her present situations, what she knows from experience, with images from the past, what she knows from reading and studying language. She is both writer and reader: her subject matter is both public and private. Finally, McCarthy establishes what she thinks about the women she reads and writes about, "glances and hair down, their bodies produce no sound." Their images, languages, and writings speak through McCarthy's prophecy of survival.