The poetry of Anya Krugovoy Silver infuses the domestic and the daily with the language and presence of the divine.
The Macon-based English professor begins her book The Ninety-Third Name of God with an ecstatic blessing for a common household device. In “Canticle of the Washing Machine,” she offers praise “[f]or the flange, which shakes the floorboards, / sends the cat beneath the bed” and “for the delicate cycle, / in which lace and wool can eddy.” The poem celebrates parts of the washing machine as humble servants carrying out God’s will.
In the book’s first section, the poem “Fireflies” describes Silver’s ongoing discoveries of the mystical in the commonplace. “To me, they were traces of magic / in the ordinary dusk,” she says and depicts them as “brighter than snowflakes / and floating not down, but up.” This contemplation eventually leads to a sensual memory of dancing to “Glow-worm” with her husband in their first house: “how I swished / my skirt around my thighs, while the empty rooms gleamed around us.”
The poet’s interest in the domestic, the sacred and the awakening female body takes a dramatic turn in the second section. Starting from the first lines of “Biopsy” — “The pathology report an icon; the tissue / staining the slide, God’s kaleidoscope” — the divine now saturates her diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer, which she received when she was five months pregnant. “Why not praise cancer, relentless, blind, / that seeks and finds the lymph and blood?” she asks. “Because if I accept this gift, / I will change, I will vanish from the earth.”
In poem after poem, Silver grapples with the “gift” of her diagnosis, vacillating between anger and gratitude, despair and wonder, doubt and faith. “O Lord, forgive me the words I hurl against you. / Do not despise me for the wrath I bear you,” she rails in “Lamentation.” But in “Persimmon,” she expresses gratitude and praise even in her suffering: “Because when your body bruises and softens, you are perfected. / Because your soul, persimmon, is sugar.”
With the language of prayer and the logic of poetry, she writes about her body and its losses (“Blessing for My Left Breast,” “After a Mastectomy”) with harrowing honesty as well as with tenderness and compassion. She memorializes other women who have died of cancer (“Black Friday,” “Everything Is Perfect”) and women in treatment whom she doesn’t know (“All the Others”). In “Ode on Porcelain,” she gives her husband a set of instructions on how he should clean the toilet after she dies: “Remember that you made her visits here / more bearable by rubbing her back, / by holding her up in her weakness.”
Silver’s associative way of thinking through a poem often results in surprising juxtapositions. An unrhyming sonnet called “I Hope My Nurses Remember Playing Records” begins with a description of slipping vinyl records from sleeves, placing them onto a turntable and lowering the needle. But after the first eight lines, the poem turns: “Big stick, the nurses say, before the needle / enters muscle, or drains the open vein.” We jump from the needle of the record player to the syringe. Her illness and treatment hover over even joyous, ordinary activities such as playing records and dancing.
In the book’s third and final section, the specter of cancer still shadows the poems, but Silver has survived. She turns her attention to her family’s past, her pregnancy, her son’s birth and her husband and child, “still loving,” as she says in “Rapture,” “the mess and tawdriness of life.” “French Toast” moves from lyrical culinary description to love poetry: “Like spongiest challah, dipped in foaming cream / and frothy egg, richness drenching every yeasted / crevice and bubble, that’s how sodden with luck / I felt when we fell in love.”
In The Ninety-Third Name of God, Silver takes the breadth of her life experience — the raw suffering of her cancer diagnosis and treatment, her turn to religion, her fears about death, her gratitude for her life — and transforms it into thoughtful, intelligent poems. She writes with particular fierceness about painful subjects, yet her language is painstakingly delicate and careful. The poems embrace a complex range of emotions and tones: generosity and harshness, honesty and rage, wistfulness and wit. Especially compelling is the way she treats her changing body with unflinching candor, and yet she maintains her dignity, always insisting on the body’s fragile beauty.
[Editor’s note: Photographer Constance Thalken deals with her own struggles with cancer in a searing exhibit at Whitespace gallery. Read our review here.]