Book Review: Saint Agnostica by Anya Krugovoy Silver

Saint Agnostica by Anya Krugovoy Silver
Review by Megan McDermott
LSU Press, 2021

::

In one of Krugovoy Silver’s strikingly titled poems “Hating the Healthy Poets,” she asks God: “Lord, shut up these poets. Stop their pens. / Let there be exceptions only for those who humble themselves / before the mystery, who crawl like communicants …”

As one of these “healthy poets,” I come tentatively and reverently—perhaps a bit self-consciously—to Silver’s work, particularly this final collection, published posthumously by Louisiana State University Press in 2021. Throughout her five books, Saint Agnostica included, Silver explores her experience with cancer and consequent confrontations with her own mortality.

Like all my favorite poetry, Krugovoy Silver’s work shines in part because of its brutal honesty. “Hating the Healthy Poets,” along with her other poems, refuses to soften things for the sake of the readers. Instead, Silver strives to capture the essential and disturbing realities of human experience.

Saint Agnostica especially does not seek to comfort the religious readers that Silver likely accumulated over years of producing writing that profoundly—and often positively—engaged with faith. Poems such as  “Among the Losses” capture a relationship with God that feels emptied of presence and hope: “Many days, I want to throw my fists against God’s body. / But nothing, nothing.” “Three Songs for Doubt” suggests that a loss of faith might actually be a good thing, with lines like “It was a relief, setting faith free” and “Unbelief came upon me like a wind / and held me like I’d always hoped that God would.” Admittedly, even as someone who laps up poetry about doubt and religious angst, I found myself momentarily taken aback by this turn in Silver’s writing; her ability to go there—where people of faith like myself might step back or turn away—is a part of what makes these poems so valuable.

In one poem “Open,” Krugovoy Silver directly engages with a quotation from the biblical book Second Corinthians. The quotation is an admonition, from St. Paul, that the people he’s speaking to might “open wide” their hearts. The rest of the poem appears to be a refutation of those verses—or at the least, a qualifying statement that an open heart isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the words of the poem itself: “My heart narrows and narrows… / I shouldn’t be able to count the people / whom I love on my fingers.” Both illness and parenting (which Silver also references in this poem) are things that we often culturally associate with growth in empathy and open-heartedness, but Saint Agnostica challenges those assumptions—exposing both illness and parenting as sometimes-constricting realities.

Saint Agnostica’s uncomfortable honesty extends to almost every topic it tackles. For example, the poem “Being Ill” dismantles the ways that people dealing with serious illness are treated as inspiration porn. “There’s no heroism to it,” the poem opens. “Like getting dressed in the morning, / it’s just practice… / I’m just a limp sock in a dog’s mouth.” Meanwhile, another poem, “Poem for Dr. —,” exposes the brutality of the medical system by accusing a callous doctor of inhumanity through this line: “I want to watch her face turn human.”

Honesty does not equate to pessimism, however. Saint Agnostica, along with Silver’s earlier collections, also makes space for faith, beauty, joy, and hope. The poem “Kindness,” for instance, describes small moments that allow the speaker to continue in the face of her trials. While the poem acknowledges the fleeting nature of those kindnesses (calling them “brief streaks” that “vanish”), it also specifies that they are what allow the speaker to “live again with the ache.” In the penultimate line of the poem, Silver writes, “Kindness is my mother.” Though this collection does not shy away from the brutality of cancer and impending death, it also remains in relationship with kindness.

Elsewhere, Silver finds joy through the act of writing, as captured in  “‘So Look, So See!’” and through the equivalence of her vulnerable self with a “split-open geode, / its quartz exposed and radiant” in “How To Tie A Chemo Scarf.” She finds comfort in the “narrating of a Lego battle” by her son in the poem “Sacred Moments” and becomes nostalgic for that time of girlhood, before the intrusion of “glossy lip and tape measure,” as she watches a young niece emerge from a pool, in the poem “After Swimming.” A tender poem called “Home Repairs” argues for the immeasurable value of a family’s home despite its need for expensive repairs.

Saint Agnostica clearly holds space for the wide spectrum of human experience—and does so beautifully. Ultimately, though, we might ask ourselves: where does Saint Agnostica land when it comes to weighing the good of life versus the bad? Of course, poetry does not function as argument in the same way some other genres might, but as readers, we still might be tempted to seek a cohesive summary of what beliefs Saint Agnostica suggests.

While any answer I might give might be unsatisfying and shallow in comparison to reading the book itself, there is one poem that directly addresses this tension, titled “‘Knowing What You Know Now, Would You Choose To Be Born?’” The narrator does not seem torn in their own assessment. The conflict is about what is permissible to say to others (or perhaps, to some degree, what is permissible to say to themselves): “…Don’t admit / that gold-sponged April isn’t  enough, / that the first milky sip of coffee or fuchsia / bougainvillea on a Greek patio don’t provide / moments that make life worth its worry.” Although this answer seems to be a resounding “no,” the poem’s message is complicated by its pithy penultimate line: “Truly, if not for love, I would choose oblivion.” Oblivion is the choice that makes the most sense for Saint Agnostica. However, life goes beyond sense, as does Silver’s poetry. “If not for love” is an echo throughout Silver’s work—not just Saint Agnostica. Love creates a painful complication for those who suffer by keeping them tethered to this life, rather than allowing them to easily write it off.

Ultimately, though, the final two poems of Saint Agnostica do not spend their lines contemplating or philosophizing about life, suffering, and death. Instead, they express the experience of those things through visceral, loud language. While the second-to-last poem “Metastatic” is written primarily about personal anguish, the last poem, “Crow’s Funeral,” turns its language toward the reader: “Cluster, beloveds, around my urn. / ….Scream until alarmed birds rise….”  Saint Agnostica gives voice to the poet’s experience and invites the participation of all people (including the “healthy poets” among us) to join in on lamenting their fellow humans’ suffering—suffering that is the birthright of us all. 

All of Silver’s collections have their own unique offerings for those who want to say “yes” to that invitation. For example, the collection Second Bloom features a poem titled “How to Talk to a Sick Woman” that confronts readers on their faux pas in relating to people who are sick, while the collection From Nothing takes us into joy through “After a Favorable PET Scan” and even into mundanity that one reaches after diagnosis through a poem called “Dannon,” where the speaker finally finds yogurt commercials acceptable again, rather than infuriating. The Ninety-Third Name of God, meanwhile, includes a poem “Nothing” that asserts the speaker would change nothing about her life, even the suffering of cancer, because of the blessing of parenthood. Taken as a whole, the multiple collections bring us through the often contradictory mental, emotional, and spiritual states that accompany the ups and downs of a years-long journey with serious illness. If you have not yet given Anya Krugovoy Silver’s work a chance, consider this your encouragement to scream with her and to love with her; to believe with her, and even to disbelieve.

::

Megan McDermott is the author of chapbooks Prayer Book for Contemporary Dating and Woman as Communion, as well as a forthcoming full-length collection Jesus Merch: A Catalog in Poems. Megan double-majored in religion and creative writing at Susquehanna University, in her home state of Pennsylvania, then continued exploring connections between creativity and faith at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. She is now a parish priest living in Massachusetts. Connect with Megan more at meganmcdermottpoet.com