You likely remember Claire Åkebrand from your studious rerereading of Fire in the Pasture. I’m happy to say you can now add an all-Claire volume of poetry to your shelves.
What Was Left of the Stars came out earlier this year from Serpent Club Press. I’m not sure how aware the Mormon poetry-reading public is of her collection, but I fear the release of this volume has been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for Mother’s Milk (which I am currently about a third through and will write about when finished).
Now, I’m not about to claim that this is a “Mormon” book in the way some books are—this may be by a Mormon, but it’s not exclusively for Mormons nor indeed is it even about Mormons unless you know The Code.
But with that in mind, I’m going to do a Mormon reading of the collection’s first section, which is heavily centered on the Garden of Eden.
The first time I read this first section, I was amazed by how every poem was a distinctly Mormon look at Eden—or, to be more specific, how the poems seemed to be about the Endowment. Not just the Endowment’s version of that tale, but the actual physical act of being in the temple and “doing” an Endowment.
Rereading those poems, I wonder if my first read wasn’t a tad overread, but certainly that reading is valid and it’s the angle I want to present now.
(Incidentally, scripture is one of Åkebrand’s go-tos in the collection, even beyond this first section—among others, expect startling appearances from Lazarus, Lot’s Wife, and the angels of Revelation.)
Let’s start with titles:
Book of Genesis Rejects
This is decisively the shortest section in the book. Decisively. And later poems set up trends and patterns and motifs that ultimately make a stronger impression while reading. But the quick blast of first-ancestry in these six seems to have left the more lasting impression on me personally.
Here’s how they work as a group:
“Rejects” visits Adam and Eve as they fall asleep and share with each other what little they know—and what they misunderstand. “Etymology” tells us “The garden wanted / them out” (1-2) and that as soon as they did leave, the garden “cowered / away in a shadowy corner” and “slung off all their names / like slugs” (17-18, 19-20). “First Actors” shows the actors who played Adam and Eve changing into their street clothes and returning home “hoping to be remembered / for good or ill” (13-14), and thus raising the question of whether these actors are the Adam and Eve we met in the earlier poems. “House” leaves the Garden behind entirely, revealing instead two girls playing in nonparadisiacal woods, imagining rocks are bread and fish, and fashioning themselves into parents. When they must go home, they “have to spend the rest of [their] lives / filling until it covers us once again like trees” (26-27)—a life spent yearning for that lost innocence and perfection (an Edenic connection made clear by its placement among these other poems). Then we have Cain who hearkens back to “Etymology” (“Help me unlearn names / for garden, words / for falling” [15-17]), and, lastly, “Dusk,” composed of images from several of the preceding poems: falling night (“Rejects,” “Actors,” “House,” “Cain’s Lullaby”), unfurled cloth (“House”), bread (“House”), order of creation (“Rejects”), the collision of mysteries with the everyday (each and every one).
It’s this last point—particularly as viewed through “First Actors”—that pushes me into my Endowment comparison.
The Endowment is, arguably, the holiest space in Mormon life—at least that can be predictably arranged and experienced. And yet, for all its sacred reality, it is highly artificial. Whether live or film, the Endowment just does not qualify as “realism.” And because of that, no matter how emotionally or ecstatically (or sleepily) one might engage with the Endowment, we are always aware that we are participants in ritual, that after Adam and Eve speak their “last line … / the grass carpet [is] rolled up” and they “[change] into their street clothes” (“First Actors” 1-2, 5). And not just this, but they are humans, one of whom must catch “her breasts in a brassier” as the other “[buttons] his jeans” (7, 8).
They both fell asleep
that night tossing
in their separate beds,
hoping to be remembered
for good or ill. (10-14)
This is what we all do, exiting the Celestial Room, having decided, insanely, to act as saviors on Mount Zion.
None of this is to suggest that Åkebrand’s collection is primarily focused on these specifically religious questions. As said above, this is a small section of the entire collection and the rest of the book presents even more interweavings creating even more possible connections. The poems have their individual charms, but the collection demands each reader perform their own curation—and a Mormon lens is only one of many available to begin that process.
In short, What Was Left of the Stars is a rich and provocative work, one that will take you … somewhere. It depends which road you take and how far you are willing to travel.