A Door with a Voice
Agape Editions / Sundress Publications, 2016
Free PDF download
Reviewed by Noh Anothai
Stained Glass Mosaic: An (Informed?) Look at Katie Manning’s A Door with a Voice
On the cover of Katie Manning’s latest chapbook, A Door with a Voice (Agape Editions 2016), a vaguely feminine figure appears to cradle an infant in one disembodied arm, with another’s head resting where her right shoulder might be. Upon closer inspection, however, we notice that the fragmented figure is itself composed of other, smaller shapes: of doves and hearts, leaves and handprints, even a set of Mickey Mouse ears. The poems in A Door with a Voice were written in the same way. Like Sappho in reverse, Manning “[uses] the last chapter of one book from the Bible as a wordbank” for each poem. She thus shatters the world’s most widely read religious text and creates sixteen miniature mosaics out of the broken pieces.
What first drew me to A Door with a Voice was the premise with which it was written. “I am tired of people taking language from the Bible out of context and using it against other people,” Manning states in a short introductory note, “so I started taking language from the Bible out of context and using it to create art.” As a homosexual man in the United States, I often face the rhetoric of the Christian Bible—or is it its interpreters?—against my identity, both explicitly—on billboards along rural highways or signs at Pride parades emblazoned with specific verses—and implicitly, in that unfriendly air that settles upon conservative spaces when two apparently extraplatonic men arrive. Not being Christian, I’m not sure to what extent such rhetoric really applies to me. In reviewing A Door with a Voice, however, I did question whether my cursory knowledge of the Book, gleaned mostly through osmosis from living in a largely Judeo-Christian culture, would prevent me from fully appreciating Manning’s poems. Found poems typically illuminate or subvert the texts they come from and thus require a knowledge of those originals. In my inexpert opinion, the found poems in A Door with a Voice do neither and both.
Reading the collection, I focused especially on those poems taken from Bible chapters I did recognize, the most famous or the ones most often leveled at me. The first poem comes from the latter category: the Book of Leviticus, re-worked into “The Book of Evil.” (Manning reduces or rearranges the letters of each Bible chapter to produce the titles of her poems. Most left me tickled pink and are among the collection’s greatest charms.) Known most famously from a homosexual perspective for its injunction against a man lying with another “as he would a woman,” the poem seems straightforwardly to refute its predecessor’s rigid gender prescriptions: “make / a person / a male / a female / a person” it demands. Yet, as the poem reaches an end, this didactic tone starts to unravel, and we enter the elliptical rhetoric that dominates much of the collection: “anyone/ too poor / will /make / an animal / such an / animal must / wish / to / be / something holy.”
Moral of the poem: If you’re unwilling to view a non-heterosexual individual on equal terms, you might think of him or her or them as something “animal,” less than human…but with the potential for spiritual redemption, to become “something holy”? Perhaps. Equally likely is that I’m viewing “The Book of Evil” too narrowly, understanding it only through the lens through which I’ve experienced Leviticus—as the final word on the legitimacy of my sexual self-expression. But then this is the generative idea behind A Door with a Voice: that taken out of context, and perhaps taken in ignorance (like I do with the chapbook, mostly), the Bible’s stained glass becomes a polished mirror reflecting the biases and subjectivity of whoever looks at it.
Accordingly, most of Manning’s poems in A Door with a Voice elude any attempt to coax out a pithy lesson or a linear plot. Take “The Book of O,” all that’s left of Job, that remarkable interrogation of the nature and purpose of human suffering, perhaps the only Bible chapter I’ve read in full. With Manning’s refusal to use punctuation, it’s impossible to determine who is speaking and who responding here—if indeed more than one speaker is even present:
who is this
The aura of a vague fairy tale hangs over this poem, or of a half-remembered dream, and in others like “The Book of Dues,” the remnants of The Book of Judges:
come out to join in the dancing
the LORD said
early the next day
was to be put to death
“The young women / settled // everyone did”, the poem closes, folding in on both meanings of the verb: of dancing bodies coming to rest, as well as the complacency of people in a post-God world. Is this illumination? Subversion? Both or neither? Many of the poems in this collection work similarly, by suggesting then withdrawing, intimating but withholding intimacy, sounding strangely familiar while being very foreign.
However, a few seemingly more straightforward pieces do appear in the collection. “The Song of Sons” (from The Song of Songs), from which we get the title of the chapbook, could effortlessly be read as the genuinely heartfelt address of a son to his mother: “wake / mother // place me / over your heart…a / breast / is a door / with / a / voice”. Likewise, in “The Book of Ma” (Mark), a maternal figure seeks out the tomb of a lost child, “a young man / in a white robe / who / is not / there”. One thinks of the female mourners at the tomb of Christ. And though what Manning has produced in A Door With Voice may strike some as heretical, in several of the pieces there seems to be a tone more reverent, even celebratory, than not:
[Notice how Manning subtly turns the traditionally masculine and paternalistic image of God on its head.]
has been a mother to me
—“The Book of Norms”
should surprise you like
—“The Book of This Season”
you know that
—“The Book of Hind”
It’s hard to read such lines, when they appear, in a subversive light, the reversed gender roles of God notwithstanding. But Manning herself avoids defining the tone of this collection for the reader. “This is either the most heretical or the most reverent thing I’ve ever written,” she says in her note. As with the Bible itself, or any religious text for that matter, she invites you to do the research, read A Door with a Voice, and decide for yourself. Otherwise, you would be simply regurgitating the fragments of someone else’s review—and who knows how well-informed he might be. Readers more familiar with the Bible or actively raised in a Christian tradition might hear different voices than I have emerge from the chapbook’s doors.
A Door with a Voice is available as a downloadable PDF from Agape Editions, an imprint of Sundress Publications focused on literature that “engages…with some aspect(s) of the Numinous”, as part of an attractive and on-going digital chapbook series.
Noh Anothai grew up in the American Midwest, but is based currently in northern Thailand. His full-length translation of the classical Thai poet Sunthorn Phu, Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint, is forthcoming in 2016 from Singing Bone Press. He teaches for the online MFA in Writing program at Lindenwood University.