Book Review

The poems in Prelude by Brynne Rebele-Henry strike like lightening on the night sky, with imagery so spare and halting that my own imaginings stunned me to inner silence as my pencil starred passage after passage while I read, marking many worthy lines.

This poetry collection comprises the imagined exploration of gay female sexual experience and attraction through the story of Catherine of Siena, a prominent fourteenth century Italian figure of medieval Catholicism. Catherine was a mystic, activist, prolific author, and also considered a saint.

The collection’s first poem, “Prelude to Becoming Holy,” surmises:

Catherine, at night,
you know the air holds
a place for girls like you.

Stars are beautiful only because
of their absence in the rest of the sky,
because of that stretch of new emptiness.

So, you think you’ll let the dusk
turn, like a rotting pear,
until it’s as soft and full as teeth?

The imagery? Stars, all variety of sky, salt, softness, ribcages, blood, teeth, fingers. Corporeal imagery of the body, the body, the body appears as variation on a theme, effective throughout, the repetitions leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. Were I teaching contemporary poetry, I’d be tempted to use linear logic to string the uses of language together into sensible themes. No need. The images reveal something deeper. Together and individually, the poems are moving us, brewing an intoxicating elixir of sensuality and feeling from two women—Brynne Rebele-Henry and Catherine of Siena—who lived centuries apart from each other. As I read, I wanted only to imbibe more of this beauty dipped in truth dipped in beauty.

Rebele-Henry lays the groundwork for sexual revelation by recounting certain events from Catherine’s life, thereby making known deeper, more personal aspects and motivations. The poem “Orchadiae” depicts the death of Catherine’s twin sister shortly after birth, lines consistent with the physicality predominant in the book:

I ate my twin in the womb. Her eyes
were supposed to be little violets.
In my mother’s barren stomach,
the two of us were half-fish, gold and dust.

More relevant to the topic of gay female sexuality, when Catherine was sixteen her older sister Bonaventura died during childbirth. Catherine’s parents arranged for her to marry her sister’s widow, whom Catherine rejected, dramatically setting herself ablaze during a church service, claiming to have received a sign from God. Catherine resisted a life defined by gender, including marriage and motherhood as well as becoming a nun (she was a lay member of the Dominican order).

From “Bonaventura”:

In another life, you don’t spend your days
teaching the neighborhood girls how to kiss with tongue,
your heart a breakable thing you think they could hold.
Your sister’s body in an unmarked grave, the dirt hasn’t settled.
In another life, you don’t brush your broken fingers over a match,
don’t lean back to see what happens to your body in the flames,
if you’ll go up, or if you’ll stay.

Rebele-Henry’s poems express Catherine’s life of rebellion. In “Miraculae,” the poet asks and answers: “Why do we compare girls to birds? / Their clipped wings.” While the sexuality expressed in Prelude is riddled with guilt and shame, this rebellion, a bold defiance, punctures the forbidden frontier of gay female sex. Again, from “Orchadiae”:

All we would ever be was in the darkness.
In the stone room with her hand in me,
the taste of her. The salt in our hair.
All I ever wanted was to be nothing. To cleave
the girlhood from my flesh. To purge myself of this
unholy want, this dampness, my own fallow clit . . . .

Look at my blackened teeth, my fingers slicked
with her cunt.

I’m not sure a man could write about clits and cunts and get away with it without being reviled for debasing women.

In “Desiderare” (Italian, to desire/to want), the poet writes, “In the darkness, I whispered hymns like they could keep me / from becoming what I already was . . . .” And in “Sessuale” (Italian, sexual), she states:

. . . I pretended not to see my body/its hideousness/in the dark/she
pretended to believe me when I said/I’ve never done this before/her head
between my legs/and me as ugly as I would ever be/training my face to the
sky/watching for something I could pretend to understand as some kind
of sign from God.

From “Aubade for a Glass-Boned Saint”:

Regarding your desire:
for women, unresolved. A collection of nights you feel pressing in the back of
your chest, the softness. Something you ache for, her fingers hooked in you, how
for once you understood why your mother and sisters found sunsets beautiful:
not the start of an ending but the fact that it ever existed at all.

The truth shall make you free. In telling all, Rebele-Henry liberates herself, confronting readers and then daring them to blink first.

Only after finishing the collection did I learn that Brynne Rebele-Henry is twenty-two years old and a 2021-22 Fulbright Scholar. She published her first book of poetry, Fleshgraphs, in 2016. Her poetry collection Autobiography of a Wound won the AWP Donald Hall Poetry Prize in 2017 and was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle Audre Lorde Award in 2019. I paused to wonder whose work I had just read and enjoyed so thoroughly. I thought, this poet has maturity beyond her years, and immediately dismissed the cliche. My reaction to Prelude is astonishment. I had been struck by lightning. Brynne Rebele-Henry’s poems are not only an expression of gay female sexuality but also communicate about human connection with Divine consciousness through love, reminding us that when we’re struck by what is truly lightning, our humanity stitches us together.

About the Reviewer

Suzanne Schoenfelt is a poet and author whose work has been published in Antenna, Bear River Review, Evening Street Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Writes, Princess Kay and Me, San Diego Poetry Annual, and the Southwest Journal (poetry section). She spent her career as a medical writer and editor, and through her work tries to bridge worlds as various as science and art into greater art.