Queer Hagiographies by Audra Puchalski
Review and interview by Jen Rouse
I have always wanted to use the word visceral in a way that truly gets at its meaning in the way the word visceral would want itself to be meant. Audra Puchalski’s Queer Hagiographies is a visceral book. It is a book that is felt in all of one’s internal organs. As deeply as feeling goes. In organs. Think of that queer root within you. And know that all that comes from that root also lives in this book. Rooted. Because if that queer root is in you then you are rooted in the queered lives of this glorious book of hagiographied saints. You are intimately tied. You are aflame. You are desire. And you are ensnared, regurgitated, and remade in the mouths of all that is (un)holy.
Having drifted through the pews of Catholicism as a child, I have carried with me a love for all that is embedded in the mysticism and wildness of sainthood. And it is with much excitement that I began digging into this collection and all its beauties. Puchalski puts us straight into the mouth of a serpent when we meet our first brave saint of learning and culture, and some say, poetry—the very wise and highly sought out Saint Hilda. Hilda is no joke. Hilda will tell you it is easy to turn the pesky snakes plaguing the village to stone. She says,
My throat fills up
like a balloon, fills with venom
and the curse spills down my chin, dirty water
from a flooded gutter.
But, even better, we find that Hilda is vanquishing snakes for another woman, a beloved who takes her to that place beyond, that place of magical everything she remembers from childhood: “an open door opening on openness, a sky with no top / no floor but a sheer scrim of shimmering vapor.” O this love. This love! And this poem is unapologetically Stein-like in the way its language rolls like fingers over a rosary, over a body.
Puchalski is deep. Into. Saints. Some of them bookish, writerly, out of canon, even, but revered and challenged, perhaps, more because they are the wild ones. In this collection, for example, we find Emily Dickinson as untouchable as ever and Puchalski herself slips into the tortured humor of Saint Lawrence—not necessarily the saints we are expecting but certainly so needed here.
Also. Puchalski is deep. Into. Craft. She layers voice into image into form in the way that the cream cheese frosting of sexuality holds together a cathedral made of cake. You just want to get that high on all that sensual suffering and the poetry of it. And it’s impossible not to. It’s impossible to ignore the sectioned hagiography of Saint Isidore. So don’t. Immerse yourself in the way an enjambed line declares belief and in the next section begs the question: “what if this bundle / unravels?” Follow the verb fire through the field of the third section. Hang on. It will unravel you. In the hagiography of Saint Jude, the same attention to voice, image, and form beg the binding connection of Jude to Jesus, Jude admitting to being the “Disciple to his desire / disciplined to his wishes / his breath.” It’s brutally beautiful.
Of course, Puchalski’s saints are also vainglorious vandals, virgins, and rock stars. In our truly exquisite moments, we are most vulnerable, most undone. And those who stand there with us in that embrace, we count on as our followers. As we stand with these saints, we find that things are sodden and blooming and juicy and licked. I, however, am a girl who loves to see what hands can do, and Puchalski’s saints do not disappoint in their reach.
I was compelled, in fact, to reach out by email to Puchalski to talk a bit more with her about her saints, craft, and the art of publishing. She generously obliged.
Jen Rouse: What inspires your work when you think about form, imagery, voice?
Audra Puchalski: When I’m drafting a new poem and it’s working well for me, there’s a spirit of improvisation, experimentation, and play, a.k.a. fun. So I’m not really thinking about form, imagery, or voice at this point. I may be doing form, imagery, and/or voice but it’s probably mostly unintentional. It feels beyond my control—like whatever happens, happens.
Revision is where I think about things like form, imagery, and voice—but do I? Or am I still mostly feeling around form, imagery, and voice? I’m honestly not trying to be enigmatic, I legitimately don’t know what I think about or what I do. I’m sorry that this is such a ridiculous answer!
JR: Also, I see in your twitter info that you consider yourself a nature poet. Tell me a bit about that, if you don’t mind, and how it influenced your look into the worlds of these saints.
AP: I started calling myself a nature poet when I was on a long streak of writing nature poems. It’s a little ironic, because the idea of “nature” is so strange. Like, that thing over there, that thing we can point to, that’s Nature, and that thing over there is Not Nature. But on the other hand, it’s completely sincere, because nature is endlessly fascinating—there’s literally endless weirdness and beauty and horror and decay and fecundity. And facing climate catastrophe as we are now, there’s also a lot of dread, and I get the urge to poke at that.
As for how it relates to the saints, I think queerness is extremely natural, and I think for a human being, throwing every demand and expectation of your society in the trash while welcoming intense pain, suffering, and death is relatively unnatural, but that’s exactly what a lot of these saints did, according to the stories. It’s badass, as well as disgusting and full of magic. They say when Saint Eulalia was beheaded (after a lot of gruesome torture), a dove flew out of her severed neck. What the hell! So yeah, nature is like that.
JR: If you would like to give some real-life context to why these saints, I’m all ears. I feel like I read you went to a school where Hilda was the patron saint of the school, and then last night I was certain I’d dreamt that.
AP: I wish! I was raised Catholic, and I’ll probably always have the impulse to venerate. Catholicism also taught me to love graven images and to be polytheistic. Then when I was in grad school at the University of Michigan, I was a grader for Gina Brandolino’s class about medieval women, and her unit on virgin-martyrs honestly snapped right into my brain-wiring and stayed there, lurking, secretly writing poems, probably.
In terms of why these saints, I actually didn’t usually start out with a particular saint in mind, although once I was deeper in the project, I occasionally did. A few times, I realized that a poem I had already written, before I started consciously working on this project, was a saint poem. For most of them, I wrote a first draft without thinking about saints at all, then researched saints associated with the imagery or concepts I was already working with. That research would then influence the next revision. I had to surrender to the slight chanciness of the process, and that was exciting and fun.
JR: Why Headmistress Press for this book? How has it shaped your thinking about publication and future publication?
AP: I didn’t know anything about publication—I’ve had poems in journals and made zines for my friends, but I had never worked with a press before. It was a wonderful experience, and I’m so happy with the result!
Audra Puchalski is from Michigan. She earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Poetry. Her work has appeared in Bat City Review, Juked, Salt Hill, The Rupture, Cutbank Online, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Oakland, California.
Jen Rouse is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cornell College. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Gulf Stream, Parentheses, Cleaver, Always Crashing, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. Rouse is a two-time finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize. Headmistress Press has published her books Acid and Tender, CAKE, and Riding with Anne Sexton. Find her at jen-rouse.com and on Twitter @jrouse.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.