REVIEW by Jack Pugh

NWR Issue r14


by Maria Apichella

This debut collection and winner of the Melita Hume Poetry Prize 2015, brings into question faith, love and doubt. It is a kind of retold book of Psalms, songs of praise and pain addressed to God, in which the poet falls in love with a man, David. While the poet (or Psalmist) is devoutly religious, David is a staunch atheist. It is from this tension that the collection takes flight. The Psalmist, who we imagine is Apichella, finds herself stuck between a magnetic, earthly love for David, and a deeply rooted, spiritual love for God. In the way that this collection plays between belief and its renunciation (in the name of love), this is Psalms reimagined as agnostic, or as skeptic (though the biblical Psalms also contain frustration against God, coupled with a deep love). Apichella, then, invents herself as a modern-day King David - constantly playing between praise and profanation.

The expansive themes of faith, love and doubt are met, and tempered, with the more mundane. Food is important, and its preparation is meditated over. Where spiritual and physical loves meet, the preparation of food becomes, through careful and direct use of metaphor, a spiritual act. Of David, Apichella remarks, ‘You don’t / dwell on the invisible, you eat / your mushrooms raw.’ Heathen!

Apichella’s talk of food contains her most striking use of imagery – striking mainly in its simplicity. For example, ‘David’s a good man, soothing / as tea, strong as a leather arm / chair,’ or, ‘Blessed are they who are picky / with friends… / They are a flask of chilled water, poured / into empty cups. A bowl of washed apples / next to puffs of pink candy floss.’ There is an unpretentiousness here, coupled with such original images. It suggests a real experimentation with the technique of metaphor itself. At another point, David knocks a jar over, and ‘Toast-flecked honey [inches] / across the breakfast table / like dense sunlight.’ Somehow, this honey comes to form stars in the sky, glistening and making their way across the universe. The directness of this imagery points to its very material nature. At the same time, it allows the spiritual in and gives it room to breathe. It is a generous imagery – later on in the ‘toast-flecked honey’ passage, ‘anyone else would have scooped it back in,[...] / yet he let it spill.’ This image, too, spills through the pages. In this way it becomes spiritual.

When Apichella talks of God, ‘he blasts outwards, / glints catching in all places’ (an image itself not a million miles away from sunshine on honey). When she attempts to ‘frame’ God – to box him in, or work out his structure or nature (as in the archaic definition ‘frame’), ‘he blasts outwards’. God is defined as that which refuses framing. He is instead that which illuminates by ‘glints catching’. Things are not necessarily clearer in God’s light, Apichella seems to be saying, but instead draw us in – a diamond rather than a floodlight.

While God remains distant, David’s pure physicality, even physicality itself, is exalted in Apichella’s poetry as something Godlike. Yet she remains conflicted. As she says, ‘all loyalty but the numinous / fails’. The drama and force of this poetry comes precisely in this tension between God’s spirituality and David’s physicality. One cannot be loved without the other being forsaken. It is a tension that ends unresolved, unsatisfied, which the poet herself comes to realise: ‘There are things never to be satisfied: / Self-pity. Hell. Fire. / The both of You.’

Apichella’s poetry is brave. It is deeply honest. At times it is painfully confessional, to the point of blushing. It is a brave subject, too. Very unpopular (as David reminds us) to talk about the spiritual as though it affected our day to day lives – his incredulousness at Apichella’s worship in one poem is testament to this. Yet for her, the world is spiritual in a very physical, real way, attested to by her direct and powerful use of metaphor. In this way, David and God are reconciled. So too the material and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane.

Jack Pugh is an MA candidate at Cardiff University.


previous review: The Elephant’s Foot
next review: Long Pass


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