Salt and Song: If Mother Braids a Waterfall by Dayna Patterson, Signature Books 138pp
Review by Sarah Law
This beautifully written collection is equally beautifully structured and presented, as voices and time periods are carefully overlaid to evoke and explore the profound contradictions of female experience in the Mormon tradition. Poet Dayna Patterson traces her own lineage through more than a century of ancestors, and while both male and female figures are vividly sketched, it is the role of women that is highlighted – and interrogated – the most; these female voices create the braided reams of water, language and light making up this collection’s essential energy. ‘Dear Ancestress, Matriarch/ Root: I want to taste your song, hear your salt,’ declares the poet (‘Dear Ellen, 1863’). Fine historical photographs and a helpful family tree will help the reader feel at home too with a complex weave of character and narrative.
The book is loosely divided into sections, each of which begins with a particularly strong piece, a prose poem or lyric essay, engaging or disengaging with Mormonism – the overarching historical, cultural and religious framework which informs the work. I was won over by the very first of these: ‘The Mormons are Coming’ is a piece crackling with imagery and imaginative tensions and the autobiographical threads which also play an important part in subsequent unravelling narratives. Narratives, rather than narrative, not least because plurality and multiplicity are essential to the Mormon past traditions of polygamy.
The outer and inner lives of Mormon women equally fascinate in these poems. In one, Patterson asks her grandfather about his experience of having three wives: ‘Was it like trying to read three books at once/ shelving and reshelving/ the plots entangling?’ (‘Dear Charles’). There is humour in this poem, and a hint that polygamy may have its advantages for women as well as its obvious downsides. Patterson’s metaphor of entangled plots doesn’t detract from the poem’s acknowledgement of the youth of these teenage brides and the ‘hierarchy of heartache’ that will inevitably set in. Each wife has her own formidable qualities, and a necessary will to survive.
The survival instinct of the wives, of Patterson’s mother in particular, is passed on to the speaker herself, a ‘grandgirl clacking her claws’. (‘Dear Grandpa’). Childhood experiences of growing up Mormon provide some resonant vignettes: daunting responsibilities such as door-to-door evangelising are re-cast through childhood eyes as the visiting of harmless dollhouses in the soft blurring of snowfall (‘Missionary Work in Kanata, Canada’). This poem is poignantly followed by ‘Proselytizing by a Marian shrine in Quebec’, where we meet, by contrast, a Catholic flourish of femininity. The encounter leaves an impression: ‘In my mind/ a feminine goddess, throneless/ wanders.’
Patterson’s attention to language equals her attention to narrative fragment, and I particularly liked the way familiar imagery is subverted, re-purposed: ‘Apples’ is a sharply-sweet lyrical piece of juxtaposed sections, using the fruit, ‘Eve’s calling card’ to mark the painful stages of a woman’s life. ‘I can’t wrap my hands around this dolor – white/ weight, skin smooth, cold core. Blood and sweet.’ (‘Apples’). Apples are not the only figure of speech to receive a visceral re-imagining. The collection’s second section opens with the prose-poem ‘Post-Mormons are Leaving’ and describes them bearing family trees ‘on their shoulders, the weight of generations, roots raking the earth.’
This stand-out piece explores the differences between being ‘ex’ and being ‘post’ a heritage, a belief system, a way of life. To be ‘Post-Mormon’, Patterson suggests, is to acknowledge your roots, to mourn and move forward rather than simply discard. There are further wonderful poetic metaphors throughout this poem to tease out the concept, with sounds and syllables called into performative service: ‘Post-Mormons are leaving the harsh x (like hex) of the Ex-Mormons and gathering their sorrow into the O of Post.’ In ‘Ring Tricks’ comes another beautiful Post-Mormon statement: ‘Our orthodoxy/ changed, etched over, effaced// by our palimpsestual selves.’ I loved the neologism ‘palimpsestual’, suggesting a plurality of textual, not just sexual, transactions.
Patterson’s Post-Mormon perspective has not effaced her sense of the Divine completely; merely changed it – in some ways reversed it – from the patriarchal reverence that all too often dominates religious systems. Instead, her ideal deities are childlike and celebratory, ‘the smiling kind, the rolling laughter, the squeal and clap after candles/ blow themselves out,/ cheering for our little light.’ (‘I Could Never Be a Jehovah’s Witness’). With this perspective, entering your sleeping child’s bedroom becomes a visit to a hallowed place, a nightly act of ritual in a ‘quiet sanctuary’ (‘Moses Removed His Shoes’). Post-Mormon spirituality also allows for a wide-ranging catechistic celebration of various faiths and spiritual figures, a wonder-filled plurality (‘Former Mormons Catechise Their Kids’). Then again, there is the intensely practical but also deeply symbolic shedding of Temple garments, the all-protective Mormon underwear, eventually discarded ‘like the carcasses of doves’ (‘The Disposal of Mormon Underwear’), leaving the non-wearer experiencing both freedom and vulnerabilities hitherto unknown.
Interwoven with these Post-Mormon observations are poetic reflections on personal relationships, including love and marriage, and how they bring a unique joy. Surprisingly, one of the best love-poems in this collection (‘Pon Farr’) draws its language from Star Trek mythology, later matched by the wonderful ‘Study for Belief with lines from Star Trek: the Original Series’. Perhaps the juxtaposition of sci-fi, faith and poetry should have seemed odd, but to me (a fellow – should that be sister – Trekkie), it felt instead quite delightful.
Patterson’s experience of her mother’s own earlier sexual rebellion (read the book to find out more) prompts an open-minded, daring revision of scriptural certainties, a ‘queering’ of gospel narratives that juggles risks and insights in ingenious poetry such as ‘Vestigial’ and ‘Our Lord Jesus in Drag’. Nothing is sacred, finally, in the traditional sense, perhaps, but in a wider, poetic sense, shot through with grace, everything is. The collection ends with the glorious ‘Still Mormon’: in this superb list -poem of imaginative similes, there is even an echo of the previous Trek-based poems: ‘The way a tethered astronaut turns to face the deep black of space while loving the sun on her back…’
To conclude: I thoroughly recommend basking in this unique collection – it will leave you vertiginous with Patterson’s poetic talent, and deeply engaged as a reader.