Review | Inkblot and Altar , by Laura Van Prooyen

Laura Van Prooyen both intrigues and explains, amuses and shocks, leans toward and then all the way into the mysteries of desire and faith, love of the body and love of the sacred. In the struggle to reconcile, Van Prooyen bridges that difficult and nearly catastrophic gap. It is a book of spatial tension, literal and figurative, physical and psychological: where we are and where we are not, what we believe and what we want to believe, how we love and how we hope to be loved. 

Many of the poems are written from a strange and intimate “she;” the book works as a cohesive portrait of a single speaker on a literal level struggling with her identities as mother, lover, and Catholic, but suggestively and transcendentally wrestling with the distance between the person she is and the person she wishes she were or, more hopefully, wants to become. Here is the opening poem, “On the Shoreline”:

            Her vision is unreliable, as are her prayers.
            She begs the lake to guide her, but expects nothing
            more than this mantra of lapping. A boat
            trolls by, the fishermen nearly indistinguishable
            from trees. In this light, the great blue heron
            on the dock could be anything: a child, or lovers
            folding themselves into each other. It opens its wings;
            The span is alarming. It beckons, urges her
            to walk upon water. She offers her foot to the surface,
            and for a moment, she believes it is possible.

Deceptively simple, the poem takes a subtle but ingenious turn from musing to metaphor, and is emblematic of the struggles that will follow: the idea that one prays “but expects nothing,” is beckoned but may or may not follow, is filled with an awareness of the space between belief and doubt, the sacred and the flawed, so that, as poet Marian Haddad writes, “These poems lie somewhere between the body and the spirit…what is holy and what is sensual heightens the tension between faith and questioning.”

And sensual they are, with recurring images of fires and bodies and harvests, as Van Prooyen goes so far as to open “Convert’s Lament” with, “Oh Joseph. I never had a question about you / getting some love. Mary either, for that matter,” and delights in the risky associations of Joseph as “honorary head” that “shake[s] off the glow of that angel,” and wonders if “Mary would remain / the foretaste of the feast that would never come?” Sly and subtle, the rhythms of prayer begin to mimic the rhythms of desire. More explicitly, the metaphors take seemingly accidental sexual turns, as in “Ready Harvest” when the speaker, holding a peach, assembles a “bright hill / and there, atop its peak, splits open / her most enticing halves.” The combination of “peak,” the associations of harvest and the final enjambment cause the line between literal and metaphorical to become—skillfully and necessarily—blurred.

Many of the poems are less religious in diction and more reflective of lost love, illicit love, and the absence of love (though one suspects, at the heart of them all, the beast of guilt is watching). In “Together We Identify Few Birds” Van Prooyen writes, “For all / we know, the birdsong / we whistle is a warning, a call to take flight,” and are intrigued yet again by observation and metaphor, the poetic elements available to the poet’s ear, the figurative language that rewards close reading. Similarly, the poems often “revel in longing,” as the speaker “is less hopeful than a fossil / in a whirlpooling tide / left to erode, oh so slowly,” and “unfolds herself like a map for the loverless / lover, offers up her cobbled streets, / opens her museums, private collections.” Perhaps it is this discrepancy in what is considered “love poem” that makes the challenge of defining love itself so complicated.

Or maybe it isn’t so complicated. Many poems are dear and witty and strikingly original, in which the “she” is abandoned and love is compared to “something remarkable / like Texas, bigger than she dare consider,” and even compare the beloved to Christ, as in the final poem: “you are my life / you my water, I your wife / I drink to you, my potent wine / Christ, I adore you. / Christ, you’re mine.” Again, that line between the spiritual and erotic is blurry if it exists at all, and Van Prooyen explores that tension poignantly and thoroughly. The title poem, “Inkblot and Altar”—themselves two examples of symmetry or “harmonious halves” as in “Spiderweb and starfish,” or “W,X and Y”—is concerned with the balance and poise of love and religion, for “Even Christ / she sees hanging, head drooped to one side.” Its metaphor is the star that illuminates the challenges the book explores: the desire to believe versus real belief; lust versus love; real versus imagined identity.

Formally, the poems are tight and controlled without ever feeling over-managed. They are crisp and clear and true. Van Prooyen explores (and ponders the very nature of exploration while doing so) and re-explores the self, the challenging of the rules, and her work is filled with desire and questions, innuendo and prayer. She is a poet here to stay—articulate, brave, and honest. A real victory here; these poems strike bone.