Hope of Stones: Poems
by Anna Elkins
Press 53, $14.95 paperback, 92 pages
“A poet, a nun, and an architect walk into a bar” could be the set-up of a novelty joke with the kind of offbeat cast that many of us might expect to swap ironic comments or puns before a punchline delivered by the bartender. But replace “walk” with “are summoned” and “bar” with “book” and you have one arresting cross-disciplinary collection that delivers lessons on Western Europe, humility, holiness, and wonder. While all three of our characters (the poet, the nun, and the architect) inhabit different nations, different time periods, and different roles as visionary builders, Anna Elkins sews a beautiful thread through them so that their distinct voices form a harmony in the celebration of great works that are created away from public view.
To understand this book, we have to define the three distinct personas that inhabit the collection. The poems within this collection are bookended by a prologue and epilogue for context, frequent epigraphs help us connect similar poems or know where we are in a rotation of settings, and a series of extremely brief definition poems guide us to the essence of each different character as an archetype and individual. As the prologue informs us, St. Teresa was a former Jew who converted to Catholicism during the 16th Century and the Spanish Inquisition. Even as she “experienced ecstatic spiritual encounters” she had to write about them indirectly to not draw attention to her converso (convert) past. Eventually, she composed The Interior Castle to describe “the invisible dwellings of our spirits” and established her own religious order that sought a simplified Catholicism. Around 150 years after her death in 1582, enter Charles-Axel Guillaumot. Guillaumot was a French architect who saved Paris from collapse by consolidating layers of abandoned quarries beneath the city itself, ultimately creating enough corridors that they would stretch over 200 miles if aligned. Eventually, he lived to see the French Revolution from 1789-1799 before he died in 1807 having survived well into his seventies. Like St. Teresa, his work was a hidden architecture and he wrote about it in a long series of pamphlets and diaries throughout his life. Both characters’ own documented words (by way of translation) are frequently intertwined with those channeled into persona poems by The Poet.
Let’s talk a little about The Poet, because without her I’m not sure how I would navigate between these two other characters. In many ways, this book is like a séance where The Poet is our medium. The Poet converses directly with our two historical builders of the spirit and the subterranean. She dreams of them; she asks them questions. In the poem “The Poet to the Nun,” she remarks:
You left us a spirit
Did you know
have tried to capture
that bliss in a pill?
Watch how she brings us from the nun’s world quickly to our own. After this poem, we hear from the architect for a poem before The Poet returns with more questions. In “The Poet Asks the Architect”—a poem that shares the setting epigraph of “Paris, April” with the previous poem “The Architect Assumes”—The Poet is full of questions in quick litany:
Did you prefer red wine or white?
Or did you think only of the unstable stones
deep beneath the city?
Did you wear your wig far back on your forehead
so you could feel the nearness of a ceiling?
Did you love infrastructure even as a boy?
It is The Poet’s voice that returns us to the present moment, the questioning of history, the quest for faith, structure, and wonder. Even though it is literally The Poet who is our medium that brings these dead voices back from their graves, when she is speaking as herself she becomes like us, a denizen of the twenty-first century without the intimate knowledge of the memories that these ghosts usher forth. Regardless of whether The Poet is at home in Oregon with wildfires and plums or traveling to Ávila, Spain and Paris, France, there’s a strong sense of place as a foreground for these internal revelations. Even many of the poem titles and declarative and expository for the reader: “The Poet Writes on the Banks of the Chetco”; “The Nun Covets”; “The Architect Dines with Bread & Relics.” Sometimes we have a form that repeats with each character as with the poems “PRAY,” “BUILD,” and “WONDER” which are used as two line definitions for “Nun,” “Architect,” and “Poet.” All of the characters have their own poem entitled “The [Nun/Architect/Poet] Wonders.” It is in this quality of wonderment—be it metaphysical or concrete—that the characters most obviously overlap while keeping their own identities.
Even the way each persona graces the page has a distinct visual style that helps emphasize each separate narrative. For example, the poems in the voice of St. Teresa—the Spanish nun—are all justified to the right-hand side of the page and consist of many short lines that jut out toward the left of the page. There is a spaciousness and isolation to them as they serve in a tower within Teresa’s own spiritual castle at the right hand of God. Guillaumot—our Parisian architect of the underground—has left-justified poems, but each one has been pushed as low as possible on the page while still being kept unbroken. His poems tend to be shorter in terms of line count (all but an eight-line piece fall within a ten- to twenty-line range), and they have the appearance of being squat and stocky, as though the weight of Paris has compressed them or driven them underground. The Poet has the most range of styles, but all of her poems (whether they be standard left-justification, prose poems, or more experimental visually) are placed in the very center of the page, being that she is the intermediary for all three voices.
In speaking to other people about this book, I’ve dredged up the information that Anna Elkins has a background in visual art as well as poetry that likely contributes to this decision-making, but rarely does she break from those three poem orientations until the final two poems of the book, establishing strong patterns before breaking the poem open to larger designs and considerations. The final poem “We Build a Kaleidoscope” perhaps has the most experimentation with the visual forms of a poem as it moves from its first prose section to a drift of free verse phrases making full usage of the white space of the page. In refracting the imagery and themes of the earlier portions of the book, the poem has been able to both incorporate the spirit of its characters while also transcending them in a now-collective voice.
My fear in writing this review is that I make the book seem overly complicated, difficult, or niche in its obsessions. It is a book that I believe found its best form as a collection of poems, but in its lyrical exploration of these characters it still doesn’t lose sight of its reader. The Prologue and Epilogue are brief, but informative and give a lot of context and finally a conclusion to their stories. The foreign terms are used sparingly and receive attention in a brief glossary. The companion poems are clearly labeled by either their title and/or epigraph. They often follow each other in succession so that one is fresh in the mind as it encounters the next. Each poem also functions as a stand-alone piece of literature, so don’t be intimidated by the prospect of having to take this all in one sitting. It’s a collection that needed over 200 years before there was a poet to write it. Take your time with it. Luxuriate in it. Read it a few times. If you end up as charmed as The Poet was by these lives and reviewer by these subsequent poems, there are over twenty texts in the Bibliography that range from works by master poets Czeslaw Milosz and Wisława Szymborska to contemporary studies and biographies from architectural scholars and religious philosophers. This is a book that has been born from craft, passion, and research but doesn’t lord its knowledge over anyone nor does it intimidate its reader. Where this book ends may only be the beginning of something more personal, and I endorse the journey. It’s been a trip.