This review of The Lives of the Saints by Suzanne Paola appeared in The Women’s Review of Books Vol. 20, No. 12 (September 2003), 11.
Suzanne Paola’s grim, visionary third book of poems speaks in multiple voices about morality, faith, nature, human nature, and science in the age of the Human Genome Project. The characters (these are mostly persona poems) range from the medieval anorexic St. Catherine of Siena to Patient No. 6, victim of the 1940s Human Radiation Experiment in which scientists at the University of Rochester injected uranium into human subjects to investigate the results. In The Lives of the Saints, sacrifice is what binds the medieval world of the old saints to the Atomic Age. Images flash strobe-like from religious to scientific, from “Jerome/turning restlessly on his nails” to a vomiting bald man pictured on a No Trespass poster in New Mexico beyond which lies a nuclear Waste Isolation Project. Paola’s central, recurring image is the mutilated body—burned, gouged, starved, poisoned, cancer-ridden, incarcerated, shot, flagellated. There’s lots of puking here (for one saint, “meals of vomiting and celery”), and lots of bleeding (a mother riddled with cancer tells her daughter how she “bled like saffron threads”). The voice of reason belongs to St. Paul, that old moralist from the New Testament.
I am a secular person who basically believes in science. In addition, I did not grow up in a Catholic tradition. So I come to this work familiar with the science but not with the saints. (Catholic readers, practicing or lapsed, will enter The Lives of the Saints with a different set of associations and will likely come away with a different experience) Catherine of Siena, a leading character here, was unknown to me before I read these poems. The historical St. Catherine lived in the 14th century. She refused to marry her sister’s widower as her family demanded, starved herself, crammed herself into a trunk-sized space and refused to emerge for three years, criticized the Pope, got involved in politics, helped the desperately poor and pustulated sick, and attempted to get herself killed as a martyr. Instead, she died of self-starvation at the age of 33. To my secular and feminist mind this strikes me as an interesting rebellion but also as irrational, masochistic, self-destructive, and well, sick. What Paola’s morality play with its morbid and wounded cast of characters does is to build the devastating argument that it is the nature of science and of ourselves in the 21st century to be exactly so.
Images of faith, sacrifice, and science overlap and intermingle within each poem. The speaker of the title poem, a former Catholic high school girl, declares, “When I first learned about atoms in high school/nothing seemed more ridiculous than life/if that’s all it was: tiny, disintegrating, empty, all-the-same./Dustdots streaming/toward an even larger collapse.” After science, the students went to seventh period religion where they studied the lives of the saints. The saints, mortifying their bodies, journeyed on purpose from living form to dustdot. The saints were the “first atomic scientists.” They “… blew up/the world around them./Like they had to start that way, freed electrons,/so the way in front of them could be clear.”
Sainthood and its sacrifices are also contemporary. The dying mother of this same poem, sacrificing one organ after another on the altar of modern medicine, finally “grew the look” of the saints:
“It emerged, a new life, from her face.
The one where you smile & it’s real
but the rest of your face does
something else completely
Looks beyond the room, your eyes heavy
with the weight of two existences.”
Paola gives St. Paul four poems, letters written to advise and moralize as he does in the New Testament. His first poem is titled “The First Letter of St. Paul to the Clones.” St. Paul is not a booster of the Human Genome Project:
grinds above her legs, stalled
Volkswagen of flesh. Frayed cells
eight years older
than her age, straight for senescence
at 3. (p.7)
It is a fact that the first cloned mammal Dolly (who was put down this year after she got lung disease) had premature arthritis: Her cells were older than she was.
It is proper that Paola clothes genetic experiments in Old Testament robes, since each of our genomes, carried forward from prehistoric times, is more ancient than the oldest religious tale. St. Paul explains that Dolly’s makers don’t botch the genes themselves, but can’t control their expression. (Genes express various amino acids, which make up the protein of body tissue, from liver to eyeball.) In this new world of manipulating the creation of life itself, recessive genes can leap forward, “Heading out now,” as St. Paul warns, “new land, new covenant” Or, as another of Paola’s saints declares, “Meddling/at the heart of things. Year two-thousand. /Epoch twenty-one, the end of adolescence,/time to go into the Father’s business./Dolly in her pen.” New life-forms, created by new makers, under new agreements, making new sacrificial lambs.
But wait. Is there nothing illuminating or promising about the Human Genome Project? Is it not exhilarating to learn, finally, that we descend, each and every one, from one single woman who lived in Africa some 150,000 years ago? Aren’t some of the forthcoming genetic cures fervently to be desired? Maybe we are playing God by creating new life-forms. The dangers are apparent. But doesn’t the Human Genome Project also offer possibilities for healing and self-understanding?
Not according to even one voice speaking in The Lives of the Saints. These poems sound the gong of doom.
Science is portrayed as perilous but also murderous. Our knowledge of anatomy, for example, originated in murder. A ghastly vision shows Renaissance grave robbers supplying corpses to the first dissectors, “Some cadavers/coming to the dissecting table oddly gouged & warm.” But murder is not the fault of science; it’s part of who we are, part of our genetic inheritance. St. Paul states:
I sound harder on you than I mean–
You never did anything but what
your forty-six chromosomes
cried out for, in their carhorn piston voices
From the first murder, gentle
slaughtered by Homo sapiens
(Cain). You did
what we asked you to do. (p. 16)
Violence is natural both to human nature and to nature. Consider this gruesome tidbit about kangaroos:
Once in evolutionary time
everything was marsupials, but the
earth broke up,
so they survived in Australia….
Still giving birth to embryos they
carry in pouches like letters,
too weak, wiped out
on other continents by newer
stronger species, & a mother
kangaroo will throw her babe
to the reformed, mammal
body of a dingo, rather than die
herself. (p. 53)
To turn for just a moment to the poetics: This kangaroo passage is a statement, but is it a poem? Some lines seem flat and arbitrary. What makes “on other continents by newer stronger species, & a mother” a line of poetry? Certainly, the poet knows how to write a line. Note “too weak, wiped out” with its alliterated inside words corralled by two three-letter words that open and shut with a “t.” Note also the b’s and d’s thumping in “babe,” “body,” “dingo,” and “die.” But such lines of poetry, as I call them, are separated by fairly long stretches of flat statement snipped arbitrarily, as far as I can tell, into lines. This contrasts sharply with the lush musicality of Paola’s previous volume, Bardo.
I also want to quarrel with the idea of the killer kangaroo. If a mother kangaroo under attack does pitch her fetus to the dingo, why place this in a moral framework? Isn’t nature about survival? By naming the kangaroo fetus a “babe” the poet gives the scene a right-to-life edge. Death is rampant in the natural world. We eat, and we are eaten. And if life on this earth has its killer side, isn’t it also Wonderful Life as the late Stephen Jay Gould called it in the title of one of his books?
Paola’s view of nature, including human nature, is that it is essentially sadomasochistic. In a marvelous, multi-voiced poem titled “Caterinati” (meaning followers of St. Catherine), a Madame M provides clients with S/M experiences. Madame M has this to say on the nature of human nature:
We call ourselves players & in the animal world
play is always a predatory act. Who leads, who
feeds? The one who gives pain
knows precisely what to give, the one who takes
plays the minor chords of his body as he wants to.
He will call me Mistress a word that
is power & powerlessness like
Saint. (p. 32)
Madame M proposes the religious idea that power resides in submission. “Let me read you something,” she says. There follows a quote from the historical Catherine of Siena quoting the historical Paul to the effect that one should “mortify” (torture) the body whenever it wishes to combat the spirit, that the will should be “dead and annihilated in everything, and subject to My will.” Madame M concludes, “In this submission, Catherine writes, is freedom,/& my players call & ask for my nun routine.”
The beauty of this work lies in its intricate interweaving of medieval voices with modern voices, of ancient times with our times, of archetypal story with news story. This is no loose batch of poems but a single work made from interrelated poems. The multi-voiced chorus recites—in soul-shuddering and very real terms—the terrors of our own time.
Earlier this year, First Lady Laura Bush cancelled her White House symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” because a number of the invited poets planned to raise their American voices against the impending American attack on Iraq. Bush, according to her press secretary, cancelled the event because “some invited guests wanted to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum.” Perhaps Laura Bush feels that art’s role is to provide rest and recreation from the “real world.” The rebuttal has been made. Significant art—and The Lives of the Saints is significant art—engages with the vital concerns of its age. Paola’s work offers a profoundly disturbing vision of who we are as demonstrated by the history of the 20th century and all that came before. It is a vision of blood-sacrifice, cruelty, and extreme pain.