Upheaval: A Review of Mary Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency by Ross Losapio

“Upheaval: A Review of Mary Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency” by Ross Losapio
Black Lawrence Press, 2013

O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2013) by Mary BiddingerIn her third collection of poetry, O Holy Insurgency, Mary Biddinger develops two central figures that bring about their own style of chaos with little help from the world around them. A Bonnie-and-Clyde-like dynamic animates many of the poems as Biddinger deploys portentous action and energetic characterization—hallmarks of her oeuvre—while advancing the text’s thematic agenda. Rather than naming the speaker’s companion, an ever-present “you” pervades O Holy Insurgency, and the evolving relationship between the speaker and this presence serves as one of the collection’s defining characteristics. This stylistic choice, though, necessarily fashions a learning curve for Biddinger’s audience. We’re taught, as careful readers, to be especially wary of the elusive and wily second-person perspective—not to assume it is merely the speaker’s alter ego, to be suspicious of it invoking the plural and often tepid universal—and so some trepidation accompanies the first handful of poems as we seek out and consider alternative meanings. Ultimately, though, the consistency of voice and narrative traces throughout the collection evoke an increasing familiarity with these two characters, which has the simultaneous effect of rewarding second and third readings of the entire text. An affectionate, but combative relationship emerges between Biddinger’s characters. In “Ode to Your Innocence,” the speaker states, “I had your innocence all afternoon. After / the afternoon I had your innocence again.” Compare this expression of control to the first line of “Disturbance Near an Unnamed Creek,” later in the text: “We both took turns holding me down.” An affinity develops in which the struggle for dominance and domination thrives and gratifies. Desire draws these two together, even as they seize and relinquish power over one another.

The nuance and duality of the speaker’s relationship with the “you” mirror the highly personal and frequently violent way that they interact with the world around them. “They had barely started / boarding up the window,” begins “A Pact”:

Thunderbird fragments daggered
the revolving cake case,
though only one red velvet died.
We didn’t mind the spilled gasoline
and you kissed me. I pulled all
of the broken glass from your jacket.
You liked its sheen, but it wasn’t good
for either of us.

Broken glass becomes an increasingly important image over the course of the collection, its menace and attraction feeding both characters. “Soon people were sacrificing two times / the admission just to touch our glass,” the speaker of “A Diorama” states a few pages later, embodying the shards. As the pair brings the world crashing down in their wake, though, they simultaneously create:

There were wonders, but we didn’t know
they were wonders, or that they belonged

to us. The watermelon we tethered in a maple
with fishing line, just to see who would look up.

A dare involving teeth. Sentences we’d write
to burn.

Spontaneous and mischievous, these acts please their creators in a way so pure and unadulterated that they don’t even think to claim their work. “Craftsman” begins, “The Northern Lights were never enough.” [18] Such a concise and dismissive statement draws an immediate reaction from the reader (Never enough? According to what measurement?), but brooks no argument. Ultimately, perception is relative; the phenomena that the speaker causes or feels—that pendulous and looming watermelon—genuinely delight and thrill, responses that transmit directly to the reader.

Among the poems’ many achievements, the greatest feat of demolition and reconstruction of O Holy Insurgency occurs within the speaker herself, in the collection’s title poem:

Overthrow me. It’s not hard
unless you say it is. Gone:

envelopes with nothing inside,
paprika burns on a tongue

that invents its own reverse
chronology. Nothing left

to mend, but that’s not so true.
Every night we remake us

as our skin transubstantiates. [60]

Flesh morphs and does so by her own design, not the caprice of some higher power. Biddinger’s unrelenting imagery and description flood the senses in this poem, and her technical prowess serves this central declaration of autonomy in its undercurrent. The natural syntax breaks as the reader progresses from line to line, generating tension and divergent meanings that mirror the agenda of insurrection.

The concepts of birth and birthright come to inform Bidinger’s authorial choices as the speaker’s relationship with the “you” develops and her inner uprising mounts. “Metropolis” most clearly manifests the connection between O Holy Insurgency’s figures and their origins, transforming and transposing them:

In the city where you
were born, lights don’t stay on
all night. My city walks into
a bar, and admires your city’s
belt buckle. Never before such

a herald of sparks. Everyone
knows my city: slaughterhouses
and red sequins, the rivers so
still that nobody can truly break

the surface.

The poem reveals a complicated conception of the world into which the speaker is born, concurrently romanticizing and estranging it. The speaker’s city inspires pride, but also presents itself through dangerous and uncontrollable chimeras. Agency shifts from place to person, and in “A Genesis” the speaker becomes a font of life and knowledge:

You began when you saw my thigh.
My thigh could educate entire
districts. My left breast knew more
than the average philosopher.

Her ferocious independence takes bodily form and the speaker envelopes the city, becoming her own patrimony and power source. “The city sent us a letter asking / to harness our heat for infrastructure / development.” This sentiment resounds throughout the collection and echoes a foreboding declaration from “A Gauntlet,” early in O Holy Insurgency: “In our next life / we would decline a next life.” While religion, philosophy, and science contend with each other regarding what occurs after death, Biddinger skillfully renders the point moot with this simple assertion.

From the outset O Holy Insurgency erupts in upheaval that sustains throughout the text. Its first poem, “Dyes and Stitchery,” opens with disorientation and a barely remembered past:

I flipped out of my grandmother’s hammock
and landed between stones the first time
I saw you. But you were just a sprig of asphodel

then. Seven-year-olds could buy cigarettes.
Dogs were trusted behind the wheel of a Jeep
when the owner was adequately drunk.

But the poet conjures velocity and agency over the course of her project, arriving, in the final poem “Rip Current,” at:

Baguettes trembled. Knees
turned on themselves, then

on each other. Except mine.
In the center of volume ten:

a map, in color. The kind
of prayer we made with it.

Simultaneously plea and answer, these poems call out into the darkness and come to rejoice in the resounding echo. Mary Biddinger’s latest collection delivers on the promise its title makes, bombarding the reader with miraculous acts of rebellion while seeding a sense of the epic that provides context and reason for revolt. It moves from Anno Domini to Ave Verum Corpus in its two sections, and that single gesture may contain the best understanding of and impetus for the collection. Beginning with “In the year of the Lord” grounds the text in Christianity, the gift of Jesus Christ’s death and the debt that it implies. “Ave Verum Corpus” is a hymn that translates roughly to “Hail, true body” and assigns redemptive significance to the suffering of all. In making its way from the former to the latter, Biddinger’s poetry becomes an anthem for recent years. In times when all seems at the mercy of natural disaster or religious intrigue or political partisanship, it reminds us that rebellion and resurgence are potent instruments of change, should the individual take them up. The central figures of O Holy Insurgency eke out the meaning in their own trials. They create an imperfect system that, through courage and stubbornness, works perfectly.

—Ross Losapio

Ross Losapio, photo by Patrick Scott VickersRoss Losapio is a graduate of the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the recipient of the 2013 Catherine and Joan Byrne Poetry Prize, and his poetry appears or is forthcoming in Copper NickelHayden’s Ferry Reviewthe minnesota reviewThe Emerson Review, and elsewhere. His reviews appear in BlackbirdRattle, and Verse Wisconsin.