Reliquary of Debt by Wendy Vardaman
published by Lit Fest Press, 2015
I want to thank publisher Jane Carmen for sending Grab the Lapels a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
*Guest review by Kathline Carr
Mapping a course through Vardaman’s Reliquary of Debt, one has the sense of moving backward and forward in time—through layers of years, hungers, cities, states of wonder and tourist queues—her observations accompanied by personal threads weaving the written tapestry of her experiences. We are reminded of the past’s present as a cultural preoccupation, and the present’s past as family tensions punctuate the narrative.
As if to signal the insignificance of order in the travels of our lives, Vardaman begins with a poem entitled “Postscript”: We were driving our children/crazy, but we didn’t/ know it…(15). Painted frescoes stand shoulder to shoulder until they begin to overlap in the mind: …a mass of ill-defined/ edges, blurred shapes, transparence stacked one/on top another so that this Virgin’s face bleeds through that Eve’s thigh—(59). The exhaustion that familial life can cause blends with oversaturation in the face of so much beauty. They are linked, and her poems suggest the connection with surety, and a wistful humor.
The poems in their varied forms address the relationships and realities that go beyond travelogue and into the psyche of a woman in unfamiliar territory. Though a seasoned traveler, the end of her children’s youth signals, for her, a loss that is at once inevitable and confounding. We are folded into deep curiosities about place and memory, as well as the everyday tourist milieu she often finds herself in: [tourist umbrellas]…never outlast,/ like treaties, the storms for which they’re bought—and why should/ they? (64). The passage of time is reiterated in deftly rendered lines again and again, but none are so effectively presented as the subtleties of the emptying nest’s last sheltering voyages.
Through the stories imbedded in lush stanzas, we witness ancient pumpkin seeds placed in the delicate hand of the Marchesa of Mantua, Isabella d’Este (47); the perfectly preserved countenance of mummified Saint Zita (97); Carravaggio on the run, selling paintings to bankroll his prison flight (66). In the midst of these scenes, illuminations rise in sharp relief of a son leaving for college: drives away/ without a wave, and I’m left/ with everything that takes his place,/that fills the empty/ room, that sits on the stripped/ bed among the heaps of unbagged trash (69). The undercurrent moving through the work is the poet’s own heart, ready to be dazzled, broken or deserted in turn, with a recklessness empowered by understanding—not just of language and love, but their shortcomings.
Vardaman handles language playfully, with humor and grace, allowing the possibility for awkwardness: she is not afraid to use an emoticon, for instance, in one of a series of Skype poems. With these Skype works, and others, such as “from Mantova, Italy, a Wikiprosepoem” (43-52), she entertains a kind of techno-poetics, combining stream-of-conscious communication with historical fact and a post-modern penchant for experimental form. And the crowning jewel in her experimentation is the giotto, in “GiottO : Jesture : Sleights of Hand : Arena Chapel.” The giotto, Vardaman explains, are stanza units inspired by the painter’s work. She states:
I wanted the form to capture and imitate the way that individual paintings in a fresco cycle stand on their own but connect with other paintings to create a larger story, sometimes playing off pieces painted above, below or across from each other (81).
The architecture of the giotto, structured in a circular pattern, makes the poem an adventure, one you must wander through in different routes. They can be read in any order, to form new and interesting juxtapositions, and this can be said of the book as a whole. The work within invites a lingering, wandering perusal and brings the reader back to their own present with references such as Wes Anderson, Harry Potter’s Platform 9 ½, and Ikea, to name a few. As one of the stanzas in “GiottO” expresses:
or not, he decides,
there’s room here for all, and God,
In the midst of travels, there are tensions, past and present. An argument with her spouse over seeing the Chartres Cathedral smolders; a disagreement regarding asking directions results in many circles in Venice. Then, a reunion with a former lover is referenced in “(Florence. Hotel Cimabue. 10/12/2008)”: The scientist I did not spend/my life with sits—two days after Iceland goes/ bankrupt—across from me, first time in twenty-five years,/ in the lobby of the hotel he’s staying/on the way to Pompeii with daughters who are not mine (89).
No regrets here, though; we feel her regret, however, in her resistance to graffiti the window ledge in the house where Shakespeare was born, as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats before her were unable to do (29). Though it’s possible—she reveals in glimpses—that regret is not a finite thing. We inherit and pass it on, recipes passed mother to daughter for longer than any memory, like seeds (18). On the site where Shakespeare’s birth occurred, there is a tree: a huge, gnarled tree,/ sprung they say from a shoot of vanished parent (27). So it goes. There is only regret in the life unlived, and clearly Wendy Vardaman’s work expresses the fullness of a lived life, on and off the page.
*Kathline Carr is the author of Miraculum Monstrum, forthcoming from Red Hen Press and winner of the 2015 Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize. Carr’s writing and art have appeared in Alexandria Quarterly, Calyx, CT Review, Earth’s Daughters and elsewhere; she has exhibited in the Berkshires, NYC, Boston, Toronto, and at artSTRAND Gallery in Provincetown. Carr received her BFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, VT and holds an MFA in Visual Arts from The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. Carr lives in North Adams, Massachusetts with her husband and sometimes-collaborator, figurative painter Jim Peters and daughter Mercedes.