Reviewed By John S. O'Connor
- Penguin Random House (2019)
- 80 pages
Spiritual Exercises, Mark Yakich’s rewarding fifth collection, takes its title from Ignatius Loyola’s sixteenth-century book of the same name (Exercitia spiritualia), a work that hoped to offer a way of re-examining one’s life through a series of prayers and contemplations. It’s a wry and wily title since, while Ignatius sought to discover “God in all things,” Yakich is keenly aware of the tension between the material (there are poems with titles like “Circle Jerk,” “Antidepressants,” and “Unoriginal Sin”) and the spiritual (e.g. “Agape,” “Epistemology,” and “My Faith”).
Considering the weightiness of the subject matter—identity, love, language, and the limits of understanding—this collection is impressively and tidily organized, divided into three sections of roughly equal length. The poems are short but philosophically potent. With only one exception, the poems all fit on a single page.
There are also some concrete poems embellishing each section. The opening poem is one example—a stunning poem in the shape of a tombstone, marking the earthly remains of his birth mother. After forty years, the speaker (the author, I assume) discovers his identity: “I am the son of a nun / the production of more passion / than guilt / more love than proof.” Too, the speaker discovers his mother’s identity: his biological mother who “gave [him] away” now “is working clods / light parts under bark / flowers of the / unmeasurable tree / no meter for grief / like that growing / inside / me.” The repeated vowel sounds here (tree, meter, grief, and me) underscore the buried and burrowing roots of loss and identity.
Another concrete poem, “Rosary,” offers the following words in the shape of prayer beads: “After a briefest struggle he masters the child proof lock.” Child proof locks on, say, a bottle of Advil, can confound long beyond childhood, but the religious reference of the rosary recalls the almost universal struggle with faith and the degree to which the speaker, as an adoptee, was locked out of the knowledge of his own past. The beads—the words—here form the contours of an empty speech bubble. Even having “unlocked” language, Yakich wonders how can we express ourselves and our feelings toward those we love. This book illuminates the instability of relationships—with language, with others, and with our selves.
Through poetry, though, Yakich can address his birth mother directly, as in “Son of a Nun,” where he explicitly focuses on her physical and emotional presence:
. . . Had we ever met,
I’d have kept even her belly button
Lint and ragged toenail clippings.
I have but her habits: hyper-tidiness,
Afternoon gin and tonics, midlife
Panic attacks. . . .
How much of our identities are the product of biological inheritance and how much are our own invention? Hard to know since, as Yakich points out, “nature is an asshole.” And, as he reminds us in a devastating line break ending a later poem called “Forms of Love”: “These selves we are / So full of are full of holes.”
As a parent, too, Yakich seems to mourn interpersonal distances even with—especially with—the people he most loves. In “Baby Daddy Song,” for example, he writes from the point of view of an infant:
. . . who looks
Up to you now, his sky & favorite
Star, someday he’ll discover who
You were and who you really are.
Here he takes the infant’s point of view, for whom the parent is the center of his solar system (again recalling the sting of the abandoned orphan above). As always there is a necessary distance between the person the father was and who he “really” is, though such identities may be uncertain at best.
Identity is also on his mind in the poem “Autism,” a brilliant portrait of his daughter that playfully uses Edenic language (“snakes,” “yard,” “apples,” “curse,” “punish[ment]”), suggesting the difference between knowledge and understanding. It ends with these lines:
At night, she sings her brother
To sleep with words like inchoate and caliginous.
And when she loves, you had better pay more
Than attention, because she does it like a curse
And will punish you for simply bearing witness.
His daughter seems to have a huge vocabulary but those words in her “song” evoke hazy mystery and perhaps a developmental delay—hers, his, theirs, ours?—in understanding. And, really, how helpful is a diagnostic label like autism in describing an individual human being? In the Bible story, naming is a power conferred before the enormous blessing and curse of knowledge and self-consciousness, which, following the expulsion in that story, serves as a different kind of confinement.
This sort of confinement is evoked by the title “Solitary,” a poem from the final section, that ends with lines that sound like a prayer: “May you live one day forever / With no knowledge of it.” It is not clear whom he is addressing here—his reader, himself—or what the speaker is praying for – a return to reasonless Eden? An ironic dream, of course, since poetry, like prayer, is a kind of spiritual exercise in that sense, a quest for something deeper than knowledge, something more like understanding.
This distinction between knowledge and understanding is at the heart of any discussion of literature, and surely a major concern for Yakich as a teacher. But what does it mean to understand a text, to understand one’s students, or one’s self? “Critical Thinking,” a sonnet, and one of the last poems in the book features a speaker who questions a teacher’s suppression of “critical thinking”—in this case the thinly drawn portraits of women in an otherwise beautiful and moving novel such as A Lesson Before Dying. Yakich always seems ready to split open the superficial veneer and to question all of the precepts he has ever held as true. Sounds like torture; sounds like the life of an intellectual.
That poem ends with the speaker admitting, “There’s something about literature / I’ll never quite understand. Take this simile: Hope sits on the students like sweat glistening. / It doesn’t really. The AC is just out again. / And our teacher doesn’t have the nerve / To tell us to wipe it off because she knows / Soon enough it’ll evaporate on its own.” Yakich knows that the simile isn’t quite “true,” but it contains a truth if the reader is willing to make a leap of imagination (if not a leap of faith). Maybe the teacher simply understands that sweat evaporates in dry air, but hope only evaporates when our passions dry up.
And maybe it is impossible to understand our experiences and our relationships fully—to undertake the spiritual exercise of making the numinous world solid and graspable to ourselves and others through art—but Yakich’s poetry is simultaneously so self-assured and so rigorously self-interrogating it offers a model that glistens like hope.
John S. O’Connor is a public school teacher and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He is the author of two books on writing, Wordplaygrounds and This Time It’s Personal, as well as a chapbook of poetry, Rooting. His poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East, RHINO, and Cortland Review. His essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Under and Sun, and Schools, and have been named Notable in Best American Essays and Best American Sportswriting. O'Connor is also the creator and host of Schooled: the Podcast.