Book Review: “Divination with a Human Heart Attached” by Emily Stoddard

Divination with a Human Heart Attached by Emily Stoddard
Reviewed by Mikaela Ryan
Game Over Books, 2023


Spiritual longings are not solitary. They are contingent, performed to and for our most intimate relationships. In intimacy’s nest, who can say whether prayer is a blessing or a curse? Netted in familial obligations, how can one’s view of god be independent? These become our “first fooling,” which poet Emily Stoddard says she “might never unloose” (26). Foolings are Stoddard’s fodder in her debut poetry collection, Divination with a Human Heart Attached.

The book is divided into three sections, each opening with an image of a magpie. The magpie refuses shelter from the ark, abstains from song at the crucifixion, gulps satanic blood, and, at the end, gazes at its mirrored reflection. Defiance, defilement, denouement. Throughout, it’s difficult to tell what is human and what is animal—an intentional confusion. The speaker alternates: the magpie, Petronilla (daughter of the Apostle Peter), and a contemporary woman. Stoddard’s persona poems, written in Petronilla’s voice, call to mind Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine and Marie Howe’s Magdalene, a lineage of female poets giving voice and flesh to quieter characters in scripture.

This is a story of family. “The only story, told in many ways,” writes Stoddard (10). Fathers feature prominently in Divination with a Human Heart Attached. First, Apostle Peter prays for his daughter Petronilla’s partial paralyzation to ward off “beguiling” men. Through Petronilla, Stoddard considers spiritual manipulation disguised as love. The poems tremble with doubt. In three separate acts, “Petronilla tries to imagine her father’s prayer.” In act I, Petronilla is pictured “at the moment my spine / went cold / I was running to my father” (12), conjuring a closeness between father and daughter. She wonders “which part of my body most worried him, was it the eyes / my shoulders” (11), naming body parts with piercing simplicity. According to Petronilla, Peter was well-intentioned. This is hard to believe. In act II, with forgiveness and generosity, she says, “the prayer he chose for me was not cruel—it was just the most he could imagine” (15).

 How do the women respond to the men’s lack of imagination? Petronilla’s mother lights candles, kisses Peter, and touches Petronilla’s side—tending wounds left by Peter. Despite whatever grief lies between them, Petronilla cleans fishing nets, refastens stones, and dries linen, dutifully employed by Peter’s fishing business (42). Her steadfastness to her father, considering the pain he inflicted, is both tender and concerning. In the line, “every year, I find a little more of the broken / alien inside of him—” (36), “him” seems to have double meaning, referring both to Peter and the speaker’s father. Recognizing fault as nothing more than broken alien is an act of great mercy.

Petronilla, with her sticky family relations, cautions and shepherds: “The daughter knew before I did…Her father could not speak to her, knowing only the language of before and after. / She whispered to me about always and again” (10). These lines appear in the second poem. Whereas the father is bound by linearity and binary, the daughter understands a truer dance of circularity and renewal. “Always and again” is a refrain echoed toward the book’s end: “always and again, the garden greens / harder in the eyes of her exiles” (62).

Daughters, mothers, and wives play along with male heroes. Speaking from a modern vantage, Stoddard writes, “Like Jesus in Gethsemane, my father did not want / to be Jesus. He said he wanted to be Peter…my father has never / not wanted to be the hero” (35). Heroes plant flags that remain buried long after the initial conquest. “Something of my first marriage / is still a buried flag” (26), says the speaker. Both Petronilla and the speaker in later poems have complicated father-daughter relationships: “They want whatever their father is having but they want to make it / in their own image” (19). The impulse to both run and retain is natural. In fact, it is “the human / predicament—to go in search of freedom but refuse / to let its smaller heroes die on the mountain” (19). Small heroes, and their flags, are comforting to keep by one’s side. Eager to rid herself of flags, the speaker longs for a private garden.

Stoddard explores matriarchal lineage, saying of a grandmother, “because she seemed the most holy person in my life, / that is how I tried to form my prayers” (17). Holiness is learned by imitation. The poem, “Inheritance Rosarium,” is structured in alternating, indented doublets, like a rosary clutched in grandmother’s hands. Imitation is generational: “The generations ask for equilibrium, safe harbor. / None are ready to leave behind what’s in their hands” especially when it’s a rosary (10). The speaker confesses, “I’m a good daughter, but I’d rather be a gilded wing” (51). Wings, feathers, everywhere. The magpie, appearing throughout the book, represents the wiser, animalistic instincts that cower under obedient, civilized selves. From freedom’s perch, the magpie crows. Acknowledging her limits, the speaker says, “I do not have wing enough to save anyone” (10). It is unclear she even has wing enough to save herself. It is unclear whether saving is necessary.

But Stoddard is not only pointing a finger. Instead, aware of complicity, she shows us how love can drive us to self-betrayal. A note of jealousy is almost detectable in the lines: “the magpie refused shelter / in the ark, chose to stay outside” (7). Not everyone can stay outside while the waters rise. Not everyone is flood-proof, alone. The speaker wonders what she could have become apart from the church. “I might have been a botanist…if I had not been sent to the chapel,” writes Stoddard (24). Botanical details—Latin plant names, seasonal gardening tasks—intersperse the collection, like a new skin. What is left when devotion consumes? The garden, apart from influence, is private—a place to find oneself. But old allegiances compete with the garden. In “Magpie Says,” Magpie assumes a devilish role, seducing the speaker away from the church. The speaker struggles. She wants to leave, “but I love this gold circle / like a fallen home, and I do not know / how to be an exile yet” (21). Divination with a Human Heart Attached mentors exiles.

And where is god as the garden greens? Stoddard writes, “if it’s true, if god is there at all, she kicks us from the inside” (18). By breaking the line at “she,” Stoddard draws attention to god’s femininity with the image of a kicking, womb-enclosed baby. Always and again, Divination with a Human Heart Attached peers around corners and tugs at the divine found in the dark—especially when the divine is housed in a uterus.

Mikaela Ryan lives in Santa Barbara, California and is currently studying creative nonfiction at Antioch University’s MFA program. She is a lead editor for Lunch Ticket Literary Journal. Find her on Twitter at @bymikaelaryan.

Image description: Cover of Emily Stoddard’s Divination with a Human Heart Attached.

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