Poem of the Week | May 19, 2014

This week we offer a new poem by Jennifer Luebbers. Luebbers has recent work in Redivider, Tupelo Quarterly, and Washington Square Review. She has held scholarships and fellowships at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, New York State Summer Writers Institute, and Indiana University, where she received her MFA in poetry and served as Editor-in-Chief of Indiana Review. She currently serves as the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.
 

Author’s note:

This poem emerged from two real events: when, in 7th grade, I got lice; and the desecration of a statue of Mary at a Catholic high school in the city where I grew up. These events became sort of metaphorical containers by which I could attempt to explore notions of purity and faith in their complexity. The images at the center of these two events (the mother using her hands to remove her daughter’s lice and to braid her daughter’s hair; the crowning of the handless statue) led me to think about bodies, how the line between them is blurred and complex, especially for mothers and daughters. It is a division that is never done at birth.
 
For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of Catholicism is the honoring of Mary. While Catholics do not worship her, she is called on constantly for intervention, and praying to a female entity, a maternal figure, always felt so natural to me. And though I’d never encountered the story of the Canaanite woman until I was in college, it has since captivated and challenged my understanding of women’s agency in Scripture.
 
I think too about the hands, the hands as something that can harm or heal, hold or push away. How hands have the power to break or fracture; how also they are capable of weaving or braiding together. It is, after all, the pain of brokenness out of which we can experience the beauty of wholeness. How even as a relationship with my faith may have changed from when I was young, there is a fidelity, a deep love that is almost primal, that bonds me to Catholicism even as I am deeply troubled by it, or feel confined by and disagree with many of its tenants. Writing this poem allowed me to articulate and in a sense discover what I think I’ve known in my heart all along. That is, what is most important: the imperfect yet unconditional love that causes a mother to do what she does for her daughter; the deep history of a faith that is larger than oneself, that extends backward and forward from a life. I wanted to pay homage to that complicated, wild, protective, powerful, abiding love.

 

Ave

 

All winter the statue stood handless—
her arms clubbed off by three men

 

the surveillance tape could not identify.

 

Marble robes still spilled around her
like water. She still bent her head,

 

eyes cast down, the way my mother,

 

when the school nurse sent news
of the outbreak, bent to her task:

 

snapped latex on her hands,

 

lifted a comb to search my hair,
coated the strands in chemicals

 

to suffocate the egg sacs, to kill

 

the mother-lice—their thoraxes
fat chalices swollen with wine—

 

drunk on the chance for their children

 

to live. Later, she would warn me about
the lacrosse boy I liked: he will use you

 

and leave you, and I would resent her

 

and ignore her. In the Scripture I love best,
the Canaanite woman won’t leave Christ

 

alone until he drives out her daughter’s

 

demons. After my scalp was clean,
my mother braided my hair.

 

That spring, we wove a wreath, crowned

 

the woman, still handless, in hawthorn.

 

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