Mother Mary Comes to Me: a Pop Culture Anthology – a Review by Sarah Law


MOTHER MARY COMES TO ME: A POP CULTURE POETRY ANTHOLOGY, edited by Karen Head and Collin Kelley. 113 pp. Madville Publishing.  ISBN 9781948692427.

Although it might sound like a curiosity, it was a pleasure to read this new anthology which places Mary (as in the Blessed Virgin Mary) at the centre of contemporary concerns. Most prominent in Catholic culture and spirituality, Mary persists as mother with child on traditional Christmas cards, mourning mother in famous pietas, and as a tenderly smiling woman in a variety of kitsch statuary. As a feminine aspect of the divine, Mary has enduring appeal. In fact, it’s quite astonishing how many Marian apparitions there seem to have been, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She remains a figure of popular imagination, and a source of comfort and paradox even beyond the explicitly spiritual. This anthology isn’t a selection of devotional poetry, but the human responses and contexts included provide much food for thought, and Mary is the thread that runs through them all.

After a thoughtful editorial introduction, the opening section, ‘Ave Maria’ does contain poems with a devotional echo – work here is imaginatively lyrical, frequently blending imaginative use of Mary’s own voice with a sense of mystery: 

God is a hum, a note I know
In my heart. Hungry and full.
I am simultaneous
All the time.
('Anointed' by Ivy Alvarez).

Mary is also found in the specifics of ethnicity and geography, always among the disenfranchised rather than the privileged: 

...where would 
she be, a brown-skinned girl,
a migrant, going to put her name
on a register? 
('La Madonna de las Naranjas' by Lee Ann Pingel).

Mary is increasingly viscerally imagined, for example in Chelsea Clarey’s ‘Fear Not’, in which she is a girl who ‘did not fear the lamb’s blood’ but instead ‘stood in a gory portal/ and felt something deep’. Mary in this section is profoundly connected to the earth, especially in Lara Gulate’s ‘White City’, Linda Parson’s ‘How Soft the Earth’, and Trebor Healey’s resonant ‘Black Madonna’ where ‘All the dark mountains are her/ and she sits within them/ as if within a shawl of snow…’. Specific locations are highlighted in Lincoln Jaques’ ‘Our Gospa’ (referring to the ongoing Marian apparitions in Medjugorje) and Larry D Thacker’s ‘Thrift Store Gods’ where a statue of Mary both reveals and prompts an act of generosity. The prominence of Mary in Latinx culture is acknowledged in many poems, for example Gustavo Hernandez’s ‘Formas Sagradas’. These place-based poems are juxtaposed rather wonderfully with the homage to various US poets in ‘Mary Pays Homage’ by Jill Crammond, which starts: ‘The art of mothering isn’t hard to master’, and riffs on lines from Bishop, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver and others. I’d really like to read a BritPo version of this cento-esque poem: would anyone like to oblige?

Section Two, ‘I Am Woman’ imagines various subversions of Mary’s traditional story: what if Mary had not consented, her Fiat a fiction? ‘Legend shows me acquiescent. / Don’t believe a word,’ says Grace Bauer’s Mary in ‘Mary: A Confession and Complaint’. In Pablo Miguel Martinez’s ‘ Adiós, O Virgen de Guadalope–’ she is ‘headstrong as only mujercitas/ her age can be’. In ‘Triptych’ by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, a notably pop-culture poem, ‘Mary tried to fight off the Angel (#MaryToo),/ her womb full of snow, sky, and bickering clouds’. Elsewhere there is blood, the ‘ordered thud of blood’ in Catherine Clark-Sayles ‘Self Portrait as Annunciation’ and a ‘wrench of red bubbles’ in Ann Cefola’s poignant sketches of loss in ‘Theotokos’. An adulterous Mary is depicted in Tyson West’s ‘The Carpenter’s Wife’. All balanced with the delicate maternal absences in Jana Schledorn’s ‘Upon Realising the Absence of Mothers’: ‘(she calling, a call I could not catalog)’. 

Section Three, ‘Along Comes Mary’ contains more poems specifically merging Mary with contemporary culture, including a pregnant Mary hankering after decaf lattes in JC Reilly’s ‘Stopping at a Starbucks in Egypt’, and a superhero Mary, ‘dressed in a powder blue body suit,/ thigh-high boots, and cape connected to a swab-shaped helmet – ‘ in ‘Mutant Mary, Mother of Doom’ by Robert Siek. Madonna (singer) as well as Madonna (BVM) appear in Jennifer Martelli’s ‘Madonna Triptych, 1984’. Meanwhile, twenty-first century social media Mary is all pervasive in Donna McLaughlin Schwender’s ‘Follow Me @HailSocialMary’. For the theologically, as well as poetically inclined, I thought that this poem’s casual comment about live-tweeting the Assumption could surely inspire a poem of its own. Back to technology, P.F. Anderson’s ‘Our Lady of Code’ posits a Mary whose

is Boolean, her heart
is fuzzy, her heart
is false and true. 

However, even when misspelled, as in the tattoo described by Alison Pelegrin’s ‘Our Lady of No Regerts’, Mary is there. 

Section Four, entitled ‘Don’t Stop Believin”, modulates the poems towards a more spiritual hunger: ‘as if/ as if’, in Rupert Loydell’s meditatively spacious ‘a Confusion of Marys’. Miracles and Marian apparitions flicker amidst the paraphernalia of contemporary life: Mary on a tube station, as a stain on the wall, and conjured by ‘some nearly unnoticed machinery of grace’ in Blake Leland’s ‘Annunciation’. Perhaps, some poems suggest, the gift of perceiving Mary’s presence is in us, readers of the world, rather than in the fabric of our surroundings: ‘God bless/ the human brain for the hardwiring/ that sees the face everywhere’ declares the splendidly titled ‘Pareidolia, or “If it Makes them Pray, that’s Okay”’ by Tina Kelley. It’s followed by the fifth section, ‘How Great Thou Art’, which dips into the ekphrastic mode with poems celebrating both the beauty and absurdity of artistic representations of the Virgin. ‘She never seems surprised/ to have given birth to an old man’ observes Danielle Hanson’s ‘Lemon Breast of the Virgin Mary’. 

The sixth and final section, ‘Like a Prayer’ is arguably the most spiritually focused of all, as traditional Marian devotions are woven into our contemporary worldliness and religious resistance. Several poems literally intercalate lines of prayer with contemporary narrative fragment. I was struck by Rick Campbell’s ‘To All Those who Prayed for Me’, and its agnostic honesty: ‘I believe/ in believing in something’. And I was moved by Janet Lowery’s ‘Statue of Mary’ which documents how a simple statue helped preserve the speaker’s sanity through an abusive childhood: ‘Where could I go for help except the divine?’ 

I’ve not been able to mention all the poems that strike a chord of collective or personal memory but I can conclude by saying this anthology is a strong one. In much needed contrast to recent reactionary interpretations of Marian apparitions as minatory and censorious, Mother Mary Comes to Me is a spiritually open, as well as a poetically refreshing book.

1 Comment

  1. kim4true says:

    Thank you for that thorough and thoughtful review, Sarah.


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