Although I love a lot of poetry, it is unusual for me to read straight through a collection, and even when I do I don’t know how to write about them. I can say that I really, really love Wendy Cope, Goethe, Carol Ann Duffy, this specific poem by Caitlyn Siehl, and this one by Seamus Heaney. I also know that I don’t much care for ee cummings or Hera Lindsay Bird, but I don’t know how to articulate why. I’ve been following the Youtube channel Ours Poetica for a while, which has introduced me to a lot of new poets (and I think poetry is normally best read aloud anyway), but I still don’t know how to actually talk about it. All which to say – I don’t think I’ve ever tried to review a poetry collection here before. I’m going to have a go, though, at reviewing Even the saints audition by Raych Jackson. I first heard of it through Ours Poetica, where the author read her poem Church girl learns to pray again (below). This whole collection is about Jackson’s relationship with faith and with the church in her teens and as an adult, and that relationship is so different from my own that I wanted to hear more about it.
The collection is very different from what I expected going in from the excerpts and blurb. It runs in a roughly chronological order, starting with the narrator as a young girl who is perceived as too curious in Sunday school, and ending in what seems to be relatively contemporary time. Jackson keeps returning to, and reevaluating, the biblical book of Job, growing increasingly disillusioned with God over the course of the collection. Her frustration with the church and with the version of God it preaches is exemplified in her evolving responses to the story of Job:
I return to the Devil asking
permission to torment.
I can’t overlook God saying yes.
The structure of the collection is thoughtful and intentional. There are poems that on their own seem rather trite, like instagram poetry, playing with form for its own sake – and then a few pages later, another poem will suddenly hearken back to it and it will take on a whole new meaning. In general when I have read poetry collections, they really do seem like collections – assorted poems, probably organised in that order for a reason, but not a reason I am personally able to discern. This is much more of a cohesive narrative. Over the course of the book, I developed a picture of Jackson’s family home, of the church where she grew up. She keeps circling back to the same few themes, some of which are familiar to me as a fellow church girl (the church is getting much better about how it thinks and talks about mental illness, but it is definitely not there yet), some of which seem very specific to the American church (I’ve never been to a church funeral, but I’m guessing there would not be a cheery gospel choir, relentlessly clapping instead of mourning). Even the fact that I’ve never been to a church funeral makes my experience different to Jackson’s: nearly everyone I’ve cared about who has died has either been one of my grandparents or one of my patients. Her loved ones pass away at a horrifying rate, and I think that grief informs this collection almost as much as her relationship with faith does.
There is mature and graphic content here – much more than I was expecting – with themes of drug addiction and sexual desire threaded throughout. Jackson’s guilt and confusion at her emerging sexual feelings as a preteen, for example, are worked into several poems. In other places the collection gets extremely dark. One in particular that stood out was after church she gets high again, where Jackson starts off by talking about the fun aunt, the aunt she admired. Partway through, Jackson gets a call to tell her that
the fun aunt is dead. Killed herself in search of another party
when she was sad. Died alone with confetti clogging her throat.
Coughed and the colors blocked her view. Her & the car,
an incomplete mosaic on the tree. I hang up the phone & return
to the concert. My heartbeat finds the music I swallowed.
When she gets the call, Jackson is just coming up on her own high, and the poem concludes with Grateful it mixes with the hum of my pills. Grateful for the dance she taught me. The tone is chilling and inevitable. I think the poems about addiction in this collection are some of the strongest – but also the hardest to read. There is some graphic drug use in this book, and I’d advise approaching with caution if you think that’s something you would find difficult to read about.
And yet, if you have watched Church girl learns to pray again, you will know going in that there is a lot more to the story than that. All of a sudden, towards the end of the book, there is hope – not just hope that Jackson will recognise and recover from her addiction, but hope that she is herself starting to feel hopeful – about her own life, her relationship with the church, her relationship with God. As I said before, the collection keeps coming back to the story of Job – but at the very end of the book, for the first time, we hear about a different Bible story, and for the first time Jackson talks about the Bible with a degree of affection. She switches her focus from Job to her namesake, Rachel, and this poem is more joyful than any that have gone before it. Though in that video Jackson talks about Church girl learns to pray again being where the tone shifts, for me it was this poem about Rachel, which occurs at the very end of the collection*. I would love to read a follow up collection in five or ten years, to hear how Jackson’s views and beliefs have continued to develop over time.
I am not good at talking about poetry, and I am probably not very good at reading or understanding it either, but I am glad I read this. I think this is useful reading for anyone who has grown up in the church and processed their own questions and doubts – whether the result of that was leaving the church or staying, I think that there will be something in here that is familiar. My own experience is very different to Jackson’s – crucially, I always had people around me that actively encouraged me to ask questions and talk through doubts – but I could still recognise some of the content in my own church upbringing. There is also plenty in here that was unfamiliar to me, and it’s always good (if painful) to get a critical perspective on your community. Even though I don’t think I am likely to keep returning to this, the way I do with some of my most loved poets, it was definitely worth reading.
*I don’t know if it’s okay to include spoilers for what goes where in a poetry book? I would not have wanted to work my way through this book, which is so bleak in places, without knowing there would be some hope at the end.