by Catherine Pond | Contributing Writer
Courtney Kampa’s Our Lady of Not Asking Why (New Issues Press) and Essy Stone’s What It Done to Us (Lost Horse Press) set the bar high for autobiographical verse, sending missives from two disparate corners of the American South: Kampa from the dream-dark suburbs of Northern Virginia, Stone from the poverty-torn hills of Tennessee. Both collections struggle to reconcile family, religion, and sexuality, while touching on the difficult task of loving men “without irony or condescension,” as poet Marie Howe put it. Both Stone and Kampa recognize that the South is a paradox, a haunted place, and their poems serve as remarkable portraits of a complicated region.
“While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted,” wrote Flannery O’Connor of her native region, and Essy Stone, raised in an evangelical cult in Appalachia, can certainly attest. In her gritty, heart-breaking debut, What It Done to Us, Stone describes a brand of worship that volleys between gospel, exorcism, and violent spectacle. Gone is the patient prophet Jesus. In his place: a vengeful God, and “Lucifer disguised … as the Serpent.”
In Stone’s collection, the only thing scarier than the holy father is the speaker’s real father, an abusive, bigoted alcoholic with a crass vocabulary. In the poem “Among the Prophets,” the radio is “Christian,” the television is “homosexual,” and “Yes, daddy, we’d be dead without you,” our speaker sighs in defeat. The speaker in general describes the characters of her youth with a mixture of fear and disgust: “… the KKK chopped my daddy’s wood for him, winter 1968—damned if they’d see a white boy freeze.”
At 14, she runs from an unstated terror (presumably an abusive episode by the father) and faints in a drainpipe. Finally, she hears her friend Josh calling her name:
… so I climbed up
from the earth & Josh took me to the truck stop
where we hung with the other runaways & smoked meth
back when we still called it crystal.
In seeking to escape one unhealthy situation, our speaker often winds up in another. In her teens, she enters into harmful relationships, seeking for, as she says, a “god / near enough for me to touch.” Between babysitting, waitressing, and sex work, she chips away at the early years of adulthood. In “They Come Looking for Blood.” the speaker asks, “What’s this gig pay? & they said / in exchange you get a nice life & nobody will beat on you no more unless / you ask questions.”
In adulthood, forced obedience gives way to fear, anger, and grief. At times the speaker appropriates her father’s cocky Southern dialect as her own, a way of reclaiming agency (“Ellis Howard’s deadbeat dad / calls me fairy princess, grinds stubble into my shoulders, / and I’m like Lordy mister & don’t the wings gimme trouble!”), although the speaker’s confidence can be short-lived. She is, in these poems, still trapped in the feeling that “We was all aware that no one wanted us.”
Despite repeated traumas, there are moments of softness and beauty in which our speaker feels connected to the land of her native Tennessee. In “Chattanooga Wedding,” Stone describes the bride’s dress “with its decadent beading like snow / powdered on pine limbs,” how its “crystal train / recalls the shiny underbellies of trout.” But even in beauty she cannot always find comfort, and the old nightmare comes creeping back. Butterflies have “thoraxes pierced with fishing line,” something scarred deep within, and one is reminded the work of Franz Wright, such as these lines from Wright’s poem “Letter”:
When I step outside the ugliness is so shattering
it has become dear to me …
The humiliation I go through
when I think of my past
can only be described as grace.
We are created by being destroyed.
Wright’s lyrics here, like Stone’s, are filled with a fraught psychology and an urgent, heightened awareness of the world. In Stone’s poem “In Front of the Abortion Clinic, The Street-Corner Preacher Warned of the 4 Horsemen.,” the speaker reveals the ways in which love, pain, and God have become disturbingly intertwined:
… The last kiss
was long & dark as a dream of orgasm, gunmetal hard
& cruel, & when it was finish the Spirit said,
this is your covenant, & He slid from my flesh—
His Weight rolled from mine like a tide.
Stone’s is an unbearable South, a dark bleeding place, that cannot repent for “what it done.” She is a story-teller in the old tradition of the American South, and writes with a lacerating wit. “Survival is triumph enough,” novelist Harry Crews once noted, speaking of his own troubled childhood in the South. In Stone’s case, survival, and a powerful, gut-wrenching book.
Attempting to live up to her parents’ Catholicism, a stoic lifestyle rife with guilt and repression, leads Courtney Kampa on a personal and spiritual odyssey in Our Lady of Not Asking Why, a collection of tender, perfectly made poems. In this book, each lyric aches, illuminating the way that prayer and ritual can impact a life, and even hinder it.
Kampa finds solace in her three sisters as well as a lens through which to examine the world. Sometimes the sisters serve as foils and antagonists to the speaker. Sometimes they are angel-like, untouchable. The mirror image disconcertingly reflects flaws as wells as virtues, and the speaker indicts herself in “this love, sister” which “we hold / like household scissors / against each other’s throats.” At times righteousness becomes a competition between the girls. In “Mercy,” the speaker describes playing a game during mass, in which they squeeze one another’s hands as hard as they can: “The winner: whoever hurt longest / in silence.”
Men cut complicated figures in Our Lady of Not Asking Why. They are often a source of anxiety, discomfort, or, at best, an interruption in the otherwise safe valley of sisterhood. In “The Rules,” the speaker describes her summer job at a ritzy golf course, where she endures sexual harassment at the hands of one particularly lecherous tennis instructor. She responds to the unwanted attention with despondency:
… even at eleven I was barely
there, my ribcage the circumference of a Folgers coffee tin
and Tony was lifting my shirt to put his hand
on the harness’ angry red marks, asking if it hurt, and no,
I’d say, it feels like nothing, it felt like nothing at all.
Less ominous encounters with men still threaten to create rifts among the sisters. In the poem “Replica,” a relaxing night with one sister (“Hip beside hip in the same bed, our window opened / to a dark Virginia rain”) is interrupted when the girls hear, on “the street outside, a boy / calling one of our names, or the other, or both.”
Sally Mann, celebrated photographer and fellow Virginian, describes her own photos as “silver poems of tone and undertow” and this would be an apt way to consider Kampa’s work as well. Like Mann’s photos, Kampa’s poems are sultry and atmospheric, familial and haunted, and they exist on both a literal and metaphorical scale. In “Driving into the Lilacs,” Kampa could be describing a car crash or the cause-and-effect of desire when she writes:
As could be expected, the flowers had grown
so thick in their beauty they needed to be shaken
to feel anything … arranged
across the windshield like willis
in the dark. What was crushed grew more fragrant
In suburbia, violence is a steady echo, though shrouded in the mundane. In “Baby Love,” the speaker loses her first crush, a young boy named Gregory when “his winking face [is] fed / into the teeth of a triple car wreck.” Dropping her youngest sister, Grace, off for an equestrian lesson, the speaker eyes the horses and notes the “puckered, 6-inch scars / guttering their flanks, gashes that look worse / in person than they did in the daily paper.” Later, the horses set off with their young charges, “each body half on fire, the other half in flame.”
In “Law of Large Numbers,” our speaker, having left the South by now for New York City, is still haunted by the silent spaces between women, and admits,
… I don’t know what
I’d have said yesterday had I spoken
to the girl on the other side of the blood stain
on the A – C – E platform. I am slowly unlearning
my own story. Slowly surer
people introduce us to ourselves.
“People,” in this phrase, could easily be replaced with “love” or “disappointment” or “loss.” Psychically observant, gifted with a heavy, unnatural wisdom, Kampa is a poet at times nearly crippled by empathy for the world around her. Our Lady of Not Asking Why is an eloquent collection from a poet whose gifts suggest a long and inspired career to come. Kampa writes true to her own experiences, and in doing so, transcends them.
Catherine Pond‘s poems have appeared in Boston Review, Narrative, Rattle, and many more. In 2016, she was a finalist for Narrative’s 8th Annual Poetry Contest and the recipient of a residency at the James Merrill House. She holds an MFA from Columbia University where she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013. Currently, she lives in Los Angeles, where she is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.