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It’s far too easy to see an elision of religion and sacrilege in the title of L. Lamar Wilson’s bombshell of a collection, Sacrilegion (Carolina Wren Press), and thereby overlook the third member of a trinity: legion.
In a multi-voiced gospel, transcribed–as if in tattoo inks– from searing experience, religion is the presiding Father, sacrilege its rebellious Son, and legion the holy swarm of ghosts, revered ancestors and fallen angels, that haunt a kaleidoscopic narrative. These include the speakers’ own matriarchs and patriarchs, Claude Neal (victim of a 1934 lynch mob), Seminole forebears, murderous hustlers, Michael Jackson, Henrietta Lacks, and the lovers who, while physically accessible, might as well be “two oceans away from this bed where I seethe.”
Wilson is a gorgeously organic channeler, and perhaps because personal, as opposed to institutional, spiritual practices create a zone where “foreplay and torture blur,” his stylistic gestures enact this inextricability, often with syntactic twists. In “Dreamboys” the speaker’s nephew disrupts a patriarchal line with his effeminate performative flair, but is captured in the moment where he realizes this isn’t
how brown boys win favor. Searches
my eyes for answers. Mirrors
a sadness no song can shake.
Characteristic of the mileage in Wilson’s enjambments, “mirrors” is, heartbreakingly, both noun and verb. Typically, Sacrilegion’s fusions of meaning, with masochistic innuendo, engender erotic alarm: “Learn/ to lie, son. Lick the salty stream/ as it drips from nose to philtrum to lip” (“Woe Unto You, Sons”). What seems deliberately evocative of palpitating climax actually describes blood still running from bullying fists in the locker room. Eros is possible: but pain is inescapable.
Sonically, Sacrilegion is a delicious Sunday meal – even in moments where chillingly medical lexicons diagnose bodily and spiritual maladies. In “Cystoscopy as Transfiguration,” the speaker observes “…the clamp he places around my head/ after its Betadine & Lidocaine bath./ Maybe because of the lick of his lips as he sheaths my lap/ in protective plastic, my shaft at half-mast, the rest of me shifting…” Or try “My left hand jerks like a catfish, hooked but/ not yet dead, all nerves,” on the triage table of “Giving Up the Ghost.”
God the traditional entity is notably absent from the picture, and so is Lucifer – rather these appear as notions to be wrestled with in their various earthly aspects, as in the hair-raising visionary couplets of “Tarry,” with their skeptical conceit of Nepalese boy-Buddha. Likewise, the concept of immortality finds its most explicit reference in a monologue by Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells have lived through generations of research, HeLa becoming healer.
Wilson’s techniques are brilliantly mimetic. Visually, his use of the vocative “O” evokes the rondure of two polarizing celestial bodies over his psychic landscape, moon and sun. The sun “exposes us,” while the moon presides over ambiguities of interiority. “O lover,/ in this full moon light, teach me how/to hide inside the embrace/ of three-quarter you,/ half-you, quarter-/ you, full of me” (“Ratiocination”). Such gestures recall Plath’s lunar “O-gape of complete despair,” with its similar ironic play on notions of agape, or deity-love; Wilson, more erotic, writes: “Our heads crane, mouths agape, both begging/ for communion.”
Wilson’s devious sense of arrangement brings a smile to the reader. The startling, reflexive “Drapetomania,” a short monologue turning in on itself from “If I kill these white men, can I go home to my husband?” to “I will end this war. I must kill myself” deepens when a reader unfamiliar with the titular condition learns it was a pseudoscientific explanation for the motivation of runaway slaves. But placement between “We Do Not Know Her Name,” in which Seminole history becomes “reduced to a trail,” and “You Da Only I Man I Loves, Daddy: Lot’s Daughters,” with its playful Gershwin epigraph, The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so, provides its own commentary: the racist pseudoscience is as dubiously authoritative as any Biblical tale. Elsewhere the chilling “Legion: Human immunodeficiency Virus” ironically segues into Section III’s savior-suggestive epigraph “the blood/ that gives me strength/ from day to day.”
“Resurrection Sunday” is the stunningly lurid altarpiece of the collection, looming as high and ominous over Sacrilegion’s hometown as the oak of the Claude Neal lynching in Marianna, Florida. Its tercets stretch and wander like the thoughts of the congregation at the service its title evokes (any poem with a Sunday morning title ought to be long and contemplative — Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” anyone?), in a grisly fusion of eroticism and atrocity.
I swell more still
& remember I should be studying
what Nietzsche says God isn’t.
The courthouse towers there,
in the center of that town, & that oak,
mostly limbless, looms. Still.
Soon, its flaccid branches will shade
I am not afraid to say
I am a man, searching for a man
whose flesh will rise, only for me…
What strikes aside from the poem’s gory details (Neal’s fingers and toes for sale, the speaker’s voyeuristic sexual exploration with a hustler on film) is the importance of text: “their script a shroud over faces suddenly/ childlike, each crease around their eyes/ a dog-eared page the boy can never read.”
This is no coincidence. Some of Wilson’s quasi-autobiographical speakers repeatedly reference the symptoms and treatment of Erb’s palsy, a paralysis of the arm due to early nerve damage. The vulnerabilities, both physical and spiritual, of inhabiting their mutinous and othered bodies possibly offer the key as to why the utterances themselves feel so fully achieved as active, tactile containments of crisis and eros, as rhythmic circulatory systems.
Our bodies fail us in many ways, but we also fail them. How alive, how electric, are we willing to be inside fully functional circuitries of nerves? Our bonds often break more easily than our bones. Both oral and oracular, one of Sacrilegion’s most striking achievements is the assertion that in its dexterity, its ever-able capacity for reaching, for repose, for resurrection, language is the body that lasts – and is legion.
By L. Lamar Wilson
Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series
Paperback, 9780932112934, 88 pp.