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Review of Our Lady of the Ruins

Poems of the Vague Apocalypse: Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins

In her sophomore collection, Our Lady of the Ruins, Traci Brimhall crafts a fractured set of

legends for our time, a collection of story-poems that look at us from our near future, all presided

over by the subliminal presence of the titular icon. It’s a rare feat. While post-apocalyptic or

dystopian poetry certainly exists, collections that sustain this theme and mood as their central

concept aren’t common, and that’s got a lot to do with how hard this mode is to sustain. Poetry

often works as a space of conceptual solace– even if its content is distressing or challenging, it’s

nonetheless a place we retreat to, and return from refreshed. A speculative work about our near

future imagined as a grim collapse of what we know, though, isn’t so much refreshing as it is

cautionary. These works tend to feel like odd, spectral warning signs, missives from artists who

see what could be. So, to create a poetry in a genre of warning signs and to craft small fragments

of beauty in the midst of horror isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. Through poetry, we’re afforded the

chance to witness dozens of different narratives, and to witness the individual revelations and

sufferings that take place in any time of strife.

In “Prelude to a Revolution,” Brimhall offers an evocative portrait of this future world, writing,

We go to prison windows and pass cigarettes, tangerines

and iodine through the bars. Anything we think

could heal a man. Assassins kiss our fingers.

Mercenaries sing us songs about unbroken light

as we mend their shirts. The bilingual murderers recite

lamentations in one tongue, and in another, young myths.

We fold and unfold our shawls, and the men squint

into the sunlight, dumb with hope. Some days they confuse

the walls of their cage with their skin. Some days,

the sky. They see their deaths in the sweat darkening

our dresses. To sweeten the hours we share scandals

from the city, how curators removed an elephant's heart

from the museum because it began beating when anyone

in love looked at it, how the coroner found minnows

swimming in a drowned girl's lungs. They ask if it's true,

if slaves are chained together on ships to prevent suicide.

We say they'll never be free. They warn us one night soon

the judge will wake to find his bed alive with wasps,

while across town the night watchman will stare stunned

at the moths circling before he realizes he's on fire.

As this poem reveals, the collection isn’t so much a post-apocalyptic text as one set during an

apocalypse. It isn’t Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where any hope for a meaningful

reconstruction of society is lost, but it’s conversely a world much further devastated than your

average dystopia. It balances delicately between ambiguous circumstance with very definite

consequence. Brimhall writes so eloquently about her motley assemblage that we don’t care

about the cause as much as the effect: it’s the fallout that matters, and the many portraits of

women in the aftermath. The poems reveal that while we may not know exactly how the world

will become one of ruins, we can guess the kind of harms that will be inflicted. What is a world

fallen apart, Brimhall asks, for women? There’s a poignant awareness surrounding her topic–

namely, that women are very often relegated to less than equal positions even in the most

progressive of places, even in what we until recently believed to be the most progressive of

times. The collection provides a portrait of the world in a future that seems eerily familiar, but

through the eyes of many individuals, whose unique experiences reveal the dangers and the

possibilities in a broken apart world. Our Lady of the Ruins is a somber, lyrical, sublime

reminder of what the world could be, and of the way our species could exist in that world.

Our Lady of the Ruins. Traci Brimhall. W.W. Norton & Company, April 2012.

ISBN 978-0393086430. Print. 96 pages. $15.95.

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