Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity is an astonishing example of a contemporary epic poem

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Amy Brown‘s debut poetry collection, The Propaganda Poster Girl, was shortlisted for the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book in the 2009 Montana NZ Book Awards. It introduced a fresh new voice, and Amy went into my head compartment of poets to watch. Her second collection, The Odour of Sanctity, moves into different territory and forms part of her Doctoral submission on contemporary epic poetry. She is currently teaching at the University of Melbourne.

This new collection is challenging, intricate, assured. It takes the reader on a roller-coaster trip through the lives of saints, but these six saints are not what you might expect in a catalogue of sainthood. You have Jeff Mangum from the indie rock group Neutral Milk Hotel (nowish), Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (150 years earlier), memoirist and mystic Margery Kempe (four centuries before that), Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1231), Saint baby Rumwold who spoke nonstop during his three-day life (662) and Saint Aurelius Augustine (300 years prior to that). This backward trawl through time nets some surprising results.

I am no scholar of Catholicism, but I am a student of poetry. The central ways in which this collection acquires an invigorating poetic force are through juxtaposition, (metonymical shivers), acute detail (anchorage in the real), shifting narrative voices, political under-and-overcurrents, and a vital heartbeat (providing little emotional kicks). Each candidate represents his or her own minefield of difficulty and strength, but the compounding effect of goodness and weakness is to be found in the gaps between the candidates.

The six cases fit into a structure of six parts and an envoi that might well echo the formal pattern of a sestina. Such a structure calls for semantic ripples, musical rhyme, and rebound at the level of feeling. And so it is, as the collection pivots and swivels on notions of good.

Jeff Mangum is making music to save himself, using his obsession with Anne Frank as fuel. He imagines unbearable loneliness. In Amy’s words, ‘Music is everything. God is nothing.’ Yet this drive to make music unwittingly unmakes him — leaves him stranded and unable  to participate in the world. Daringly, Amy selects the way Jeff might be awarded sainthood (even though he is alive) in his struggle to be good. She picks the way his music kickstarted a dead heart back to life as the miracle.

This might subvert the Catholic criteria for sainthood, but it also might be the point. Read this as a poetic narrative, but also read this as a challenge to orthodoxy. The word ‘odour’ lodged so tauntingly in the collection’s title underlines the way that this book is as much about stench as it is about sweetness. Goodness, miracles, humility, compassion, and faith can be located in the grit and grime, and everyday detail. The church itself has a history of goodness (compassion, forgiveness, charity) that can also be matched by a history of foul play (treatment of women, corrupt relations with political power, greed, abuse). In other words, Amy places ‘goodness’ under a critical spotlight. What is ‘goodness’ when it comes to ‘sainthood’? Is it a matter of piety, eating frugally, caring for others (and animals), compassion, sacrifice, humility, an erasure of ego and desire, chastity, a state of holiness and piety, an ability to perform miracles? It seems to me, a contemporary epic poem is the perfect place to reconfigure notions of good and sainthood (albeit in a secular fashion).

To read Amy’s six saints is to read them outside as well as within Catholic doctrine, along with the history of the Catholic faith at the level of ordinary lives and within the Church hierarchy. The life of Christina Rossetti, for example, raises the thorny issue of woman as saint. This woman writing is not simply an object of beauty (a muse), but a woman who struggles, creates, contemplates, resists and makes choices. There is the shadow-ladder of Neo-Platonic thought  that ascends to divine ideals (think beauty). In Christina’s narrative, the steps are both divine and actual. For the woman writing, ‘my voice is a bird,/ my words are weeds,/ poetry is a garden.’  And before, ‘my throat sings/ like a toad or a mallard;/ I groan of things/ that should be loved and changed/ and my mouth stings.’ The words are the ladder that embody grief along with feminist seeds (in this account). Thus Paradise ‘must be/ a place of mothers and sisters/ where there are no demands on one/ but to be cheerful and no reason/ to groan.’

The Odour of Sanctity offers much on an intellectual level along with the poetic veins that I signaled earlier, but it also takes grip of your heart as you enter the unbearable world of the candidates. There is the dissolution of Margery as she wants to be without stain, supplicant to God, to be bodiless and celibate. Yet she bears countless children and countless wounds from her husband. She stands in for female suffering, and as you hold her case close, the yearning for such erasure is both heart wrenching and unfathomable.

Amy has delivered a collection that takes hold of you on numerous, overlapping levels. To me, it is a collection that will provoke and prompt numerous arguments on what it is to be good and what it is to be a saint, whether male or female, dead or alive, religious or non religious. There is a sextet of voices at work (so beautifully crafted by Amy) and more (for example, the contemporary witnesses, God). It is in the rub of this voice against that voice, that the pathos, the grief, the pain and the sour smell of humanity unsettle the sweet potential of good.

The Odour of Sanctity is an astonishing example of a contemporary epic poem. There is a plainness of language that gives birth to a sumptuousness of effect. I am not interested in what the collection does not do, but in what Amy has chosen to get it to do. I loved it.

Amy Brown, The Odour of Sanctity  Victoria University Press 2013  $35

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