Island of the Innocent: A Consideration of the Book of Job, by Diane Glancy. Brooklyn, New York: Turtle Point Press, June 2020. 224 pages. $17.95, paper.
Diane Glancy’s new collection of poems and hybrid writing Island of the Innocent is a grand work of what my tradition calls midrash (elaborating on, weaving new stories into, the canonical texts) on the Book of Job. An acclaimed writer of Cherokee descent, Glancy brings the ancient text, via a Christian, King James English, into conversation with Native American experience. I was raised on the Hebrew text and an assumed identification of Job’s suffering with millennia of Jewish wounds; it was a thrill to experience the story freshly as it crossed borders of time, space, and culture in Glancy’s particular mashup of a Christian lineage of Job and Native experience.
Across the book’s eight sections Glancy investigates in depth the slight narrative frame (about four of forty-two chapters) on which the Job author stretched some of the Hebrew Bible’s greatest poetry. Glancy, a prolific writer with dozens of novels, plays and books of poetry and nonfiction to her name, works prolifically too at this project: at over 200 pages, Island of the Innocent is a sprawling work, almost an anthology—inclusive, maximal, multifaceted. This is an expansive poetics, along the lines of Whitman, Ginsberg, or Alice Notley, and as such it stands apart from MFA dogma that prioritizes “economy.” Glancy allows herself to experiment, to keep coming at her questions from many angles.
However, generalizations break down in such a wide-ranging collection: many of the poems are models of economy. “I don’t care about trouble. / I care about trouble more than anything,” begins “Dormer,” at the beginning of the book. With short endstopped lines, Glancy makes a frame of paradox. “Suffering,” the poem continues, “is true. / It is wise.”
Job is an ur-text about the paradox of suffering in a universe which also posits God, and in the lyric mode Glancy’s image-making moves fluidly in this terrain: a plain surface in which contradictions sit next to each other matter-of-factly, as if items from a shopping list, while things are askew: “The horses cows sat at their little chairs and tables. / The chickens in their smallest barn. ‘You have heard of the patience of Job.’”
Another facet of the book’s expansiveness is Glancy’s Catholic approach to form: besides “free verse” the collection includes truncated and full sestinas, at least one villanelle, and a variety of hybrid prose forms. A number of the poems are partly or entirely composed of quotes from the Job text, which is reminiscent of shibbutz, a poetic technique in the centuries when Hebrew was not a spoken language, in which Hebrew poems were made in a kind of mosaic from phrases of Biblical text.
Among the prose forms are a kind of reverse Haibun (“What she cooked in white lard on the wood stove”); prose poems; and numerous essays, historical, autobiographical, lyrical, often sprinkled with verse interpolations. “Versions of the Many-Versions of Greasy-Grass” wraps lyric prose around multiple perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn. A whole prose section is devoted to a poetics of the project of the book.
In this relaxed compendium of experiments, many of us can find our way. For me, when Glancy is loosest from the Biblical text, and native and biblical figures blur together, the book is most haunting, as in these lines from the prose poem “Storiation”:
They are standing on the bridge though there is no river. They feel however they have been swimming. They are without children now. They are shadows of themselves. Their shadows disconnect from their bodies.
The anonymous, beset “they” of this poem could as easily be survivors of one of the blights in the Job story, or refugees from the United States’ campaigns of genocide, or refugees from any violent dislocation now or then.
Different kinds of writing in the book encompass different modes of thinking. Thus a prose essay “Job in the Interstice I” contains sentences such as “To accept Christ is eternal life [Christians believe],” as Glancy wrestles with her faith in relation to the pain and confusion of the book’s subjects—and ends with an assertion “yet I put my trust in [the notion of God].” Her writing is expository, rhetorical, when that is the task she calls it to.
On the other hand, a dozen pages later, comes “The First [Observed] Black Hole Cygnus x-1. The First Hen [Raphaella],” a poem that elides black holes (as an ultimate instance of nihilism) and a farm family slaughtering its chicken. She returns to her short lyric mode, endstopped lines each punctuated with a period to heighten their joints, their separation from each other, while the language finds connection after connection. In a farm scene where the family would be eating the hen which has been slaughtered:
Quasars ate fuel until expended.
The coal bucket of the farmyard’s black hole.
A troubled Job shining after his sorrows.
In twelve short, glowing lines quasars eat like a family, a coal bucket is a black hole, and Job’s suffering has made him star-like. The family makes a pillow from the hen’s feathers, and in the farmyard the trees drop their “plumage.” As the poem closes, history is blowing in “all that history,” and some intuitable, elusive aspect of existence is both restoring “what was lost,” and
“Eating all the nearby stars.” Glancy in her lyrical mode of interrogation discovers a nuanced, mysterious picture of a universe that contains food chains, death, suffering, and luminosity: which draws in and holds paradoxes we can’t quite parse.
Dan Alter’s poems have lately been published in Burnside Review, Field, Fourteen Hills, PANK, and ZYZZYVA, among others. He lives with wife and daughter in Berkeley and makes his living as an electrician. He holds an MFA from Saint Mary’s College. He can be found online at danalter.net.