Dictionaries give the word “reformation” roughly ten definitions. Katherine Bode-Lang’s book of poems, The Reformation, selected by Stephen Dunn for the 2014 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, draws on almost all of them. Bode-Lang is very good at titles, and you can’t help but feel her intentionality in the volume itself. With cultural implications of the Protestant Reformation resonating throughout, poem after poem falls under the egis of reformation—re-formings, restorations, redresses. These resonances are particularly striking in the ways she handles and interprets the expectations of motherhood as a woman, daughter, partner, and poet.
The book’s title poem, “The Reformation,” explicitly connects Calvinism and the radical changes in her own body due to vulvar vestibulitis syndrome, a condition that makes vaginal penetration incredibly painful. Both situations are presented against the backdrop of family dynamics. This is not as unlikely a pairing as it first seems. Like most church schisms, the Reformation has the whiff of a family fight: All parties intimately familiar with the balance of power and unspoken codes of conduct are grappling, and those outside the family either excuse or politely ignore the tussle. For the poet, a preacher’s kid, the Reformation is practically family history, with Bode-Lang occupying a front row seat to the in-fights and politics. Protestantism can be particularly demanding for women, its long silences punctuated by fathers imagining “V spelled wife” and stringent demands for virtue, purity, abstinence, and submission—such few threads with which to spin an identity. For those “raised under the hand of Calvin,” there is the additional layer of predestination, the belief that God has already elected those who will be saved, a finite number revealed at the end of time. Thus, in a few deft moves Bode-Lang’s titular poem recruits both the history of Protestantism and the particularities of Calvinism as givens in the book’s equation.
Although the book is dense with riches, the poems about relationship—to self, to family, and to a partner—form an intense metric and display much of Bode-Lang’s technical finesse as a poet. Bode-Lang repeatedly examines the family image in much the same way a sixteenth-century reformer would examine a Roman Catholic icon. With the same critical eye, she presents photographs and family stories of her parents as false gods, representations meant to be taken as gospel, as evidence for a permanence of character and emotional state that never really existed. Bode-Lang limbs these images with vivid clarity. Yet, even when reconstructing the image, Bode-Lang builds trouble and tension through her line breaks, like in “My Parents Getting Off the Plane in Guam, 1972,” where she writes:
my father’s arm. Her smile will catch
you first—my father is just saying
something funny, eyes blinking, teeth showing
as he opens his mouth to laugh. She, in blue,
Only after such meticulous work does she end, often with a coda that reveals the reality below the surface, one guaranteed to reconfigure the reader’s understanding of the poem. With the discernment of a righteous judge, Bode-Lang turns poem after poem in these final indictments, which ring in their brevity and starkness. “My Parents Getting Off the Plane in Guam, 1972” ends with “This picture—the only love story of theirs I know.” The final turn, in effect, gives readers two poems—the poem before the turn and the poem after—each equally well rendered and all the more stunning for the final impact. Other poems like “Snapshots,” “Sanctuary,” “On the Coast,” “Sledding in the Cemetery,” and “Passing,” do the same to great effect.
Against the tension of these images and her unflinching examination of the shortfalls in her own parents’ marriage, Bode-Lang examines her own partnership. There is an undeniable love and tenderness in any poem Bode-Lang writes for her partner, but she is just as willing to radically change her own and the reader’s understanding of this most treasured relationship. “That First February” is a beautiful love poem that lingers over a time when
. . . you wrapped me in your
big shirts when I stayed the night: the concrete floor
so cold beneath the bed we nested our bodies all night.
You brought me daffodils, the miniature ones
with their sweet yellow lips whispering of warm air
and resolves with a declaration that love could “stay, even through/the winter, even when the roof buckles under ice.” But, instead of letting that persistent love endure in the reader’s mind, the book immediately moves to “Spring Melt,” a poem that uses a friend’s divorce as impetus to reconfigure Bode-Lang’s own marriage. In “Spring Melt,” Bode-Lang shows the relationship’s imperfections and struggles, probes the doubts and daily choices to admit interior truths and reflect those truths in action. Although the poem ends with the decision that divorce wouldn’t be right for her own marriage, there is no implication that the decision is permanent. Rather, they “might always feel the frost/at the edges of our bodies.” The juxtaposition of poems like “That First February” and “Spring Melt” make it clear her own heart is fair ground for the reformist’s work, and if life does not demand this kind of reexamination, the poet herself will.
Another nexus for reformation is motherhood, and the way motherhood manifests in the poet’s relationship to self, parents, partner, and church. The poet’s identity as a woman—especially a woman who grew up in the church—means negotiating a life lived under the cultural assumption of motherhood, even and especially now that motherhood is present in the poet’s life by omission. Bode-Lang interrogates motherhood in its absence from the start, a “should” in the face of “without.” “The Reformation” opens with
When my mother asks, tell her the fucking is fine.
Eight years, and we still have to love the tender parts of me
like a colicky baby.
No babies, though. None of the rollicking
that would make them. Just you.
The boldfaced recap of her sexual and reproductive life reminds readers of the personal questions and assumptions they bring to the manuscript—about women, about married people, about the measures used to quantify a full life—and her language offers unapologetic offense as the best defense. Even in poems like “Note to My Cervix,” where her potential children are addressed tenderly, the same intimacy that satisfies also shames readers’ assumptions about what the poet should want and feel based on her biology.
Some of the poems’ tension comes from the poet’s own anger with the promises of her childhood and the ways they have not manifested in adulthood. Yet, a deep attention, creativity, and nurturing manifest when the poet addresses her childhood self as subject, and often, these emotions act as reparation for feelings not allowed or expressed in the past. Of her many family poems, “Daughter” and “Daughter II” revisit her childhood relationship with each parent and acknowledge the relationships’ limits with statements like
I am my mother’s shoulders,
the piano she never learned
to play, her little sister stillborn.
In statements like this, she balances a clear-eyed adult vision with vulnerability and tenderness for the child she was. In many ways, the poet’s task becomes mothering that child, to bring the “little sister stillborn” into life by acknowledging the lack her parents saw, now bridged across time with the physical lack created by her medical condition, and accept herself as valid, whole. In the process, she finds poetry, voice, and agency: she creates herself.
Although the poems about family, partner, and past are evocative and dense, the poems about Bode-Lang’s own body remind you that everything else in the volume comes out of a person—not just a mind, but a body. Novelist Robin Hobb said, “We live in our bodies. An assault on that outside fortress of the mind leaves scars that may not show but never heal,” and you get a sense of this when reading poems that address Bode-Lang’s relationship with her body such as “Note to My Cervix,” “Diagnosis,” “When I Miss Paris Most,” “Burden of Proof,” “Fever,” “The Names of Snow,” “Translation,” “How Far We’ll Go,” and “Second Note to My Cervix.” Often, these poems include language about silence, phrases like “listening for the shine of sound,” “Therein lies our sadness, the quiet in our mouths,” and “Each window a gaping mouth without a tongue / our noises rumbling up from deeper down.” Particularly poignant is “Burden of Proof,” a poem grappling with the seeming unreality of a medical condition with no agreed upon treatment. In the poem,
they tell me again,
it’s all in your head. Watch my body prove,
year after year, as long as it must:
it is not, it is not, it is not.
Always, when addressing her body, Bode-Lang makes room for body, mind, and an echoing resonance between. Amidst a clear reformation of identity on a cellular level, what is implied in that silence is the technical marvel, the weight of the unsaid carrying the ballast of each poem’s emotion.
Among the many reformations in the volume, the central schism of family, self, and partnership most often shows the range of tensions and narrative movement driving the book. When correlating these poems, what resonates is compromise. In the pursuit of truth, Bode-Lang compromises the iconography of family and the sanctuary of upholding its mythology. To live fully in her own body, Bode-Lang gives up physical, emotional, and psychological comfort. To hold on to truth, Bode-Lang willingly embraces absences and remains. To birth these poems, Bode-Lang nurtures both salvage and reclamation. These fierce compromises are summed up in the final lines of the volume; they are the “lock you will undo / to let out the air, let in the air.”