The Gold Thread by Sarah Kennedy (Elixir Press)
There’s nothing like the lives of saints to spin a tapestry as beautiful as that found in Sarah Kennedy’s seventh full-length poetry collection The Gold Thread. The author introduces an extensive chronology of women Christian mystics, outcasts, and seers, from the second century A.D. to the 1940s. And, as with any tapestry, the glory lies in enhancing the finest details, a task for which Kennedy is uniquely suited.
Understanding the title is vital to knowing how the author approaches the subject. Kennedy quotes Ursula King, author of Christian Mystics: “. . . communion with God runs like a golden thread throughout the Christian centuries . . .” However, this explanation only partly reveals Kennedy’s intent. The poet, as in her previous volume A Witch’s Dictionary, confronts contemporary issues including The Global War on Terror, The Patriot Act, and electronic surveillance. The gold thread Kennedy really traces is the ongoing communion between fear and individuals living in its omnipresent shadow.
At its core, the volume dissects a universal crisis of female sexual identity. Kennedy’s saints categorize their gender as a disease which must be escaped, concealed, disinfected, defeated. The poem “The Gold Thread,” a six-part exploration of the lives of various early women mystics, addresses the necessity of escape on several levels. In Part I, the speaker announces,
escaped as men, equals,
free of Rome, of names, of
all wealth. (3)
In Part III, Anastasia the Patrician urges herself to
Run farther. Faster. I fear
my monk’s garments will not
conceal me from Justinian’s eyes. (5)
One of the great contradictions Kennedy examines is the desire to escape men by assuming their identities. “While you dwell / among men, live whole,” (4) Eugenia of Alexandria advises in Part IV. Part V gives voice to Blessed Woman Marina, who disguises herself as a man until death unveils her secret in the fifth century:
To whom can I turn with this?—
this body I have judged, tormented—
who should have been my brother—
no, my sister—what shall I call
her? Dead and—how can it be?—
female under my sinful gaze,
her soul flown far from me. (8)
While the author discusses the power of faith in the lives of women, she also considers its corrosive effects. In “The Ruin at Pompeii,” the speaker, a pagan servant girl, errantly, and fatally, places her faith in her master’s gods. “They would never abandon him, / his home, / if we knelt before the altar’s / light and prayed / against the great / fist of cloud rising from that old mountain.” (11) Further, in “Lacrimae Rerum,” Kennedy opines how the unseated gods occupy their time:
the gods are dethroned, disbursed, they’re sitting
in the senate, they are bailing out banks,
they’re stuck in traffic, complaining about
the price of gas. (13)
These lines address the indifference of authority figures, a sentiment echoed in Kate Daniels’ 1988 volume The Niobe Poems. Daniels sums up their detachment with a deity’s curt dismissal of pleas for mercy: “He’s god,” she writes. “They’re a bunch of dumb assholes.” (38)
Catherine Sasanov examines the morbid, relic-filled aspects of female sainthood in her 2002 book All the Blood Tethers. She explores shreds of ancient humanity possessing holy power, focusing on, “. . . coarsely ground bone / tweezered into lockets, locked into droplets / of glue, then covered with crystal.” (13) Kennedy, on the other hand, transports the reader to the living, wretched, sinful flesh. “What won’t / fit definitions / must go,” (36) she exclaims in “Tribade.” Her saints do not wield medicinal or purifying authority. In fact, they cannot even heal themselves of the affliction of womanhood. In “The Visions of Margery Kempe,” the saint admits, “I chewed / my way to the bone / of my own / hand, / and the wound festered.” (23)
As the volume progresses, it shifts focus from saintly to common women. Naturally, violence follows. “The Changeling” records a brutal case of domestic murder. Shortly thereafter, the speaker entirely abandons spirituality and mysticism. In “The Wail of the Banshee,” the spirit asks:
Who hears me cry
these days? Days of money,
of heat and storms, of empire.
They used to have the vision
to see me . . . (54)
Kennedy never ventures far from political statements, often couched in the context of the lives of medieval saints. In “Julian, in her Cell: 1405,” the speaker reveals:
. . . the image of a king—how leaderly
he acts. I see him playing the religious
man, called by God to battle. (21)
The next poem, describing the torture and execution of Sir Thomas Moore, could just as easily occur within a CIA black site:
. . . the shoulder
joints so quickly disarticulated,
the parentheses of the hips cracking—
what does he have to say now?—the cursive
bowels unwound in a patriot’s hand. (38)
Immediately thereafter, in “The Witches of Wales,” Kennedy touches on the rendering of unknown prisoners from American custody to nations which then disappear them. “No names, no crime. No way to unsay them.” (39) “. . . [T]he message is always death / when an earthly empire speaks.” (34)
Early in the volume, danger is a cleansing agent. The internal struggle between good and evil is cathartic. There is something always at stake, worth combatting, like “the fiend squatting under / my twisted heart . . . / panting / with his silver tongue.” (28) By volume’s end, however, Kennedy perceives a jarring disassociation, a disinfection, from the intrinsic value of struggle in “Reenactment: Lexington, Virginia,” where she observes, “It’s not real, / a boy complains, that dead guy / rolled over. Shouldn’t there be some blood?” (60) In “The Patriot Act,” women are told, “[D]on’t write about / yourself, write about the flagpole, or my / filing cabinet, no one wants to hear that / / confessional stuff anymore, no one / cares about story.” (58) Kennedy records the decline of pain’s redeeming qualities in modern American society. “A Thousand Words” recounts, “. . . that story / about those Pentecostals . . . – the preacher / tried to kill his wife via serpent’s bite. / The prince is getting married again. High / / schoolers on steroids: an epidemic.” (62) By the volume’s close with “American Evangelical,” danger and violence are instruments of nihilism. What long ago invoked spiritual experiences now is powerless, un-redemptive. “Fluted. hollow-boned,” (66) the author writes. It is so weak, in fact, that the poet doesn’t even possess the will to capitalize the initial word in the last sentence.
The Gold Thread contains much more open space than A Witch’s Dictionary, where extremely tight margins help create a claustrophobic feel, an unusual density. The author is more willing to let The Gold Thread breathe on the page. Conversely, however, this construct, this stitching, resembles not so much a tapestry as a net behind which the speakers peer, trapped and entangled in their circumstances. The poet’s narrative arc spans from Pompeii to modern America. But she links the eternally debased status of women with the spread of this disease to an entire society of both men and women. She identifies and tracks the gleaming threads of fear which hound and chase and lash at our ankles, which overtake, ensnare and, eventually, entomb us within our empty lives of ease and safety and wealth.
Daniels, Kate. The Niobe Poems. Univ. Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA. 1988.
Kennedy, Sarah. A Witch’s Dictionary, Elixir Press, Denver, CO. 2008.
Kennedy, Sarah. The Gold Thread. Elixir Press, Denver, CO. 2013.
Sasanov, Catherine. All the Blood Tethers. Northeastern Univ. Press, Boston, MA. 2002.
Paul David Adkins grew up in South Florida and lives in New York.