The divine: what a dilemma.
Substantial credit is due to Katie Ford for her efforts to contend simultaneously with both the more gnostic aspects of her chosen Christian sets of reference, as well as their theologies and the affinities and constraints those theologies suggest. To approach “Christian” poetry, as well as poetry concerned with Christianity—the verse of devotion as well as the verse of definition, as it were—is the very essence of gnawing off more than can happily be chewed. The miracle of Deposition is that Ford seems aware of this; rather than dodge the difficulties embedded in her task, or distill them down to nodes pristine, she flings at her material every skill she can muster, master, steal or invent. Indeed, her failures here strike me as no less intrepid than her successes; in order to catalogue both, however, I have to forestall direct quotations for a brief foray into the preconditions of her work.
Ford’s catholicity (apologies) of style and strategy is so compelling that I find myself tempted to review this book by steps as opposed to sweeps; it is as fascinating to watch the poet dip and dodge from one poem to another as it is to savor or criticize those poems in terms of both their local and global effect. To yield to that temptation, though, would be tantamount to glossing or annotating the book; in lieu of that, I default to trying to determine what collision of factors sets Ford the kind of task that requires such a various and periodically unwieldy tool kit.
Pathological readers of contemporary poetry will notice immediately that Deposition is one of many current manuscripts that seeks to navigate the cataracts between what I refer to as ideas and heuristics. Ideas are those ideological inventions that either beg application or have in fact already been applied; in the latter case, the idea contains not only its germinal ideology but also the accretions consequential of that idea’s application. Christianity, then, is an idea, but also a practice and the history of that practice.
A heuristic, alternately, is not an idea but a grid or apprehensive device designed to be set upon an idea and its accompanying histories. Heuristics, while useful and necessary, have the unfortunate effect of appearing more elaborate than they really are.
Consider, for a particularly goofy example, the Spirograph—a Kenner and Hasbro toy! You remember: a set of notched plastic geometrics that, when placed one inside the other and administered to a piece of paper and progressively tracked by pen, produced patterns of delightful intricacy. If you examined these etchings with no knowledge of how they were rendered, it would be easy to mistake the draftsperson for a hybrid creature of unimaginable rigor and fancy. Really, though, what you are looking at is complexity that can be derived, as every child of the Sixties and Seventies knows, from repeated and simplistic actions that can be performed by, well, a child.
The ideas that Deposition confronts are ideas of Christianity; Ford pursues them with imagination and a dogged, often touching curiosity. Her heuristics, however, are sometimes no more provocative than a Spirograph plate, even if their use can produce superficially dazzling results. In interviews, Ford has cited a host of theological concerns correspondent to the rituals and echoes of liturgical Christian practice. She has also made reference to “violence” and “the body.” “Violence” and “the body” are not ideas; they are machines, devices the employment of which flatten history and experience.
(I should note that a core of these poems began at Ford’s period of study at Harvard, where she was both studying for her graduate degree and beginning work with Jorie Graham. Graham’s influence is appreciable and in many ways negative; she has, after all, made a career of replacing ideas with heuristics, most notably in terms of sloughing off history in favor of !!HISTORY!! One can only hope that Ford’s willingness to risk will provide her a measure of resilience to Graham’s methodologies.)
What this scroll of terms and observations means in terms of Deposition itself concerns the book’s structure: the overlap between Ford’s tactical choices at the level of the line and section, and the way those choices embellish or obscure her more thematic issues. It seems like the most basic set of criteria and an obvious index for reading her work, but the work itself is so alive, so ensorcelled with possibility, that I depend upon these criteria to begin figuring out what works and to what end.
Ford’s most conspicuous motif—and the one most evidential in her global structure—is also the centerpiece of the three sections into which the book is divided: the Stations of the Cross. In her responses to the traditional prompts each station offers (condemnation, adoption, fall, and thus proceeding through all fourteen stations to entombment) Ford oscillates between explicit topical address and more discursive, associative poetry.
In the former category, for example, we have at Station the Sixth (A woman wipes his face) the following:
This comes out of folklore.
Invented because tenderness at times
must be written in. There was a woman.
There was a cross. But in fact
they have hung him too high
to be touched.
This is deceptively simple: brief, plain in affect, devastating. Here, Ford most resembles Frank Bidart in her sense that the most appalling of human conditions are implacable, unadorned, impossible in their equanimity.
Contrast, then, this Station with its immediate predecessor (The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene):
The sun down. The maple relit
by the streetlamp.
A photograph of a bonfire.
Someone’s put a cement block on the edge but
partly in the pond. A girl
sits on it. The water seems
to rise and sink
like the shoulder of something sleeping,
and so forth. The sparseness of the language is equivalent to the subsequent poem, but then there are those numbers, the function of which is not clear until I reveal to you the title of the poem. Ford does not title the poems in this section by their respective stations, though she does include them above the titles she’s chosen. And the title she’s chosen for the piece excerpted above is “THE HISTORICAL METHOD”.
It is in hopes of explaining the effect of this choice on my reading that I elaborated terms at the start of this review. Because the effect of this choice is irritation; I reject the creeping advancement of the heuristic into the hard-fought territory of the idea. What’s especially exasperating about this structural redundancy is that it seems designed to shore up weaknesses that Ford simply doesn’t have; it’s a supplemental strategy that discredits the poet’s impressive achievements. These heuristic retreats are unnecessary. Indeed, the whole of this center section—which contains much ingenious and effective writing—would be improved by the removal of the scaffolding of the poems’ titles and whatever other (de facto) distractions the poet has manufactured.
The other conflation of heuristic and idea that is distributed variously throughout Deposition are those poems, appearing in the first and last sections, the titles of which begin with the words “Last Breath”. These generally (but not uniformly) rely on two signature attributes: the use of the couplet and an enjambment- and punctuation-recklessness that essentially demands that the poems be vocalized. It is sometimes prudent to heed this demand:
I have emptied am the earthen vessel no mementos no barrier make
Straight the way of the Lord they said letters soaked with rainwater drifting
Towards the city and twine a new twine binding me binding.
(“Last Breath in Snowfall”)
It’s all here, compressed into these several poems: Ford’s capacity for a breathlessness that achieves articulation by ache, as well as her periodic reliance on academic lacunae that undermine the elegance of what’s quoted above. Ford’s couplets are emblematic, I think: at their best, they become avatars of longing. The lines wrap around each other with the force of need; they sustain by desperation. It is the ache implicit in these loose-limbed marriages that best describes Ford’s commitment to multiplicity, to a fidelity that is inclusive, rather than a devotion that proves as forbidding as the theologies she so rightly mistrusts.
It’s important to note here that I’m not seeking to flense Deposition of its chosen switchbacks and complexities; one of the features I most admire in this generally admirable and seductive collection is Ford’s capacity to make hairpin turns of both language and sentiment. She is suspicious of conviction that appears without the elements essential to its decrementation; this suspicion is one of her most powerful arguments against a progressively ossified theology. Her empathy is with both those mangled by this beast of tusk and bone, as well as those lost in its origins. The poems that come from empathy and scrutiny are persuasive, often acutely realized, and evidence that Ford’s ambition is also a promise she seems well able to keep.