Review of O Holy Insurgency

O Holy Insurgency, Mary Biddinger (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin

Love among the ruins trumps all in Mary BIddinger’s O Holy Insurgency. Descriptions of bucolic neighborhoods roll along peacefully, only to suddenly be enjambed with fantastic creatures and sightings: “I flipped out of my grandmother’s hammock/ and landed between the stones,” the book opens, but quickly rushes ahead to “Seven year-olds could buy cigarettes.  / Dogs were trusted behind the wheel of a Jeep / when the owner was adequately drunk.”  This first poem also marks the entrance of the larger-than-life “you,”this “you” who was “born to step into a pawn shop and rip / all of the guitars off the wall.” Later, “You wanted an archipelago / so we made one,” Biddinger writes, displaying the sway that the beloved holds in addition to some amount of magic. Elsewhere, more standard romantic lines dot the poetic landscape: “your cheekbone settles into the exact deep of my palm,” Biddinger’s speaker reminisces.  This love occurs in the most ordinary of cities, as described in “Metropolis:” “In the city where you were born/snow hovers gray like chain link /and skies ignite.”  Meanwhile, Biddinger writes “Everyone / knows my city: slaughterhouses /and red sequins, the river so/still.”

Despite the absurd imagery that abounds in O Holy Insurgency, Biddinger is a careful poet and doesn’t take many risks with form or content.  Further, emotion in her poems is generally constrained; readers rarely know the impact any of the happenings has on the speaker, and the flat affect can mean one poem leaves the same impression as another.   What this book lacks in pathos is counterbalanced by the original imagery that permeates the volume, as in this excerpt from “Confluence:”  “ Countless fish surrounded her face /like crinoline, then scattered at once. / […]  I felt her when thunderheads dipped/ past the ridgeline, or if you startled / in sleep and couldn’t find the light.”