REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 100

God Loves You

by Kathryn Maris


God Loves You is Kathryn Maris’ second collection of poetry. Her first, The Book of Jobs was published in the US in 2006. As such, her voice arrives to UK readers fully formed, her tone frequently suspended between anxiety – hysteria at times – and a sense of controlled, polite resignation. The shift of power from the anxious, private self (the ego) to the guarded, public self (the super-ego) enacts what many of us experiences every day – that often deep anomaly between our public and private selves. These sorts of anomalies, however, are fertile ground for Maris, who writes: ‘[Y]ou must live with discrepancy. We all live within a discrepancy.’

Maris’ preoccupation with discrepancy is most systematically realised in the poems on God in sections two (‘God Loves You’) and three (‘Praise Him’) of the book. These poems explore the idea that we must live knowing we are forsaken by God, while at the same time experiencing the (irrational) need to be loved by Him. In ‘God Loves You’, for example, Maris writes ‘And lo, I knew I was not loved by Him and wept. And I knew shame.’ In the same poem she writes: ‘I prayed that God might look on me in my search for signs of love in His great world.’ According to Maris, the need to be loved by God isn’t diminished by the fact that we live in a godforsaken world. Belief is pitted against knowledge, but the outcome is not doubt; rather it is a stronger desire for love.

The other great theme here is guilt, which Maris interrogates with verve in the first section of the book, entitled ‘What Will the Neighbours Think?’ Several of these poems – ‘This Is a Confessional Poem’, ‘Darling Would You Please Pick up those Books?’ and ‘Will You Be My Friend, Kate Moss?’ for instance – are thrillingly and genuinely hilarious. But Maris’ humour – as in the best of the confessional poets – is not simply adjunct to her tragic mode. Instead, humour is the inevitable and necessary by-product of a self trapped by impossible circumstances. ‘Will You Be My Friend, Kate Moss?’ engages with the power of celebrity – another external force which exerts a pressure on our lives – and suggests the extent to which celebrities have replaced the gods of the past in our cultural imaginations. But Maris deepens her satire on gender and extends the focus to society more broadly. ‘You were The Waif,’ she writes, ‘that’s what we aimed to be – / and yet it’s so unfair you got the blame / for all that teenage anorexia.’ In the absence of God, Maris suggests, we turn to flawed human substitutes.

Importantly, Maris’ writing differs from the confessional school in its treatment of the individual. Where Berryman, Plath and Sexton saw the world as something to be conquered by the will of the subject, Maris sees the individual as being at the mercy of external forces or ideas. The possibility of being loved by God leaves the self open to a series of everyday sins. The problem is, these ordinary sins must be interpreted in God’s absence, which makes every lapse a potential catastrophe. In ‘This Is a Confessional Poem’ for instance, Maris lists her transgressions.

I took an overdose at a child’s 6th birthday party.
I was born in a country which some have called
The Big Satan. I abandoned the country for one
that is called The Little Satan. I wished ill on a woman
who has known me for years and yet never remembers
who I am – and now she’s involved in a public scandal.

Here, Maris’ concept of guilt extends to facets of existence (eg nationality) over which we have no control. Added to this, her misdemeanours are chiefly trivial – from ‘thank-you notes I never wrote’ to being ‘awful to someone’. In this way, she suggests we are all guilty because life demands that we live in an ugly world ‘full of guilt’. Yet the poem sidesteps simple parody and opens up a post-confessional space – one that is self-aware, but which refuses to sacrifice genuine emotional content. The loose, colloquial mode of address is offset by a tight, rhythmic control over language. But perhaps most impressive is Maris’ exploration of our fraught emotional lives which yields a poetry of pathos, irreverence and humour. It is, after all, easy enough to write wry, cosmopolitan poetry. It is much more difficult to grapple with the big questions of existence – love, death, religion, society – and locate them within the specific emotional geography of a contemporary context.

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previous review: She Inserts the Key
next review: The Moss Gatherers


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