Martha Silano: Review by Barbara Crooker

The Little Offices of the Immaculate Conception by Martha Silano (Saturnalia Press)


Silano Cover




Martha Silano’s third full-length collection, The Little Offices of the Immaculate Conception, contains poems that are simply out of this world. That’s not hyperbole; almost two-thirds of the poems in this book deal with some aspect of the extraterrestrial.  But these aren’t poems with their head in the stars; rather, they’re firmly grounded in crumbs, crickets, and the stuff of daily life with two small children, a blend of what Campbell McGrath calls the “quotidian and celestial.”  These poems veer from the galactic (“I Live on Milk Street,” ie, the Milky Way) to the down and dirty (slugs attacking pole beans).  Silano shuffles poems about the cosmos and the existence of God with poems about the everyday (“This Parenting Thing”), and she does this with panache, humor and wit.  Reading Martha Silano is like ripping open a bag of pop rocks; words explode in the mouth with juice, jive, and fizz. Some of the ways she makes this happen are via diction and word choice, syntax, strategy, rhythm, and humor.  But always, she keeps in mind her larger themes:  the strange and the alien, the earthly and the terrestrial, family and parenting.

     Silano often uses titles to announce these themes, beginning with the other-worldly:   “They know all about us on Andromeda,” “Crickets, God, Phan Ku, Pickles, Synergy, a Wayside Church, Anaxagoras, Anaximander, More Crickets, the Cosmos,” “What I Will Tell the Aliens,” “My Place in the Universe,” and the aforementioned “I Live on Milk Street.”  She might set up a poem like this, anchoring an image in one spot, then letting the poem open outward, finally ending up someplace else, reversing expectations:  “Because I knew you’d understand this—you, me our sibling // earthlings, our sibling citizens of this swirly world, / which only grows bluer the farther away from it we get.”  (“Because I Knew”)  “Sibling/earthlings” echoes nicely, while the image of Earth as a “swirly world,” again with an ear to sound, follows the motion of the poem as it telescopes outward.  Having the earth grow bluer as seen from space moves the emphasis from the earthbound to the ether, giving the poem an interesting shift in perspective that purposefully keeps the reader slightly off-kilter.

     The poems in this book slip back and forth from the cosmological to the liturgical.  Barbara Hamby says that “Martha Silano is jitterbugging with the gods,” and that is an apt summation.  Her engagement with the ineffable is not via orthodoxy, but rather, the wonderfully irreverent.  Silano can go from the title poem, which includes these lines, “Hail, Queen Spermicide Dodger!  Hail, Mistress / of the Quicker than Quickie!” to the more profound musings about what her brother told her:


     God is waiting for you.  He loves you; he wants you to accept his love.                                      

     But the only time she summons Him, catches a glimpse of his glimmer,


     is when she dips into there are roughly 100 billion galaxies, each containing                

     100 billion stars.  It’s enough to leave her lurching for a banister


     or a deity, though really not much different, in terms of lurching.   


          (“Crickets, God, Phan Ku, Pickles, Synergy, A Wayside Church,

          Anaxagoras, Anaximander, More Crickets, the Cosmos”)


     In another poem, Silano offers a quirky take on the resurrection:  “Her poofy pink dress had a hole in it long before Jesus staged / His annual comeback, her Mary Janes brown with Ozark mud // before there was even a rumor of rising.”  She fuses “colors non-existent except at Wal-Mart,” with “wind-up chicks” and “a long-haired, bearded / sheet-swathed, half-naked guy encircled in beams of light and clouds,” ending with nature, rising:  “all the while every spring beauty, each / poking-from-the-duff morel:  we’re back, we’re back; we’ve come back to life.” (“Easter Visit”) 

     “Poor Banished Children of Eve” takes delight in playing around with liturgical language:  “I believe in the dish in the sink . . .and I believe in the holy in the hole in the toe / of his feet-in pajamas. . . the resurrection of peace-sign pasta three nights running. . . .” “Glory be to dishwashing liquid / and the sponge glory to the microwave and Mr. Coffee.” Here is a new litany for the 21st century.  With these  juxtapositions, Silano seems to be finding that both the theological and the astronomical are equally vast and equally unfathomable.

     Teetering from the heavens back to earth, the collection’s other major theme, parenting, includes poems ranging from the hilarious “She Had Some Tantrums” (“She had tantrums like a flock of turkey vultures on a road-kill squirrel.”  “She had tantrums emitting the sulfurous fumes of Vulcano.”) to “This is Not a Lullaby” with its tender embedded quotations (“If I was big and had a blog I’d fill it with lupine and paintbrush.” “ Why are we whispering, mama?  Do you not want / to wake up the moon?”).  The self-conflicted “This Parenting Thing” begins, “Which I love which I hate / the love part easy not torture at all,” then goes on to say, “But that’s the least of it / barfing croup a temperature of 105 // the day he mistook motor oil for bubble bath,” ending with “my whole life snatched away for procurement forms / for reading him Goodnight Moon and Click, Clack, Moo // for lifting her up to the doctor’s scale / watching the numbers line up.”  It is this dose of dailiness that weighs down and counters the flights to Andromeda, the infinite number of dimensions, the Magellanic Clouds, that grounds things in downward-facing dog and mashed peas and rice on the silver and turquoise spoon.

     Silano has a full poetic toolbox, and wields it with a deft hand. She can leap from “stretch Lycra” to “stretch limo” in a single line. (“Where’s Our Dignity?”)  “What I Will Tell the Aliens” has a rollicking careening rhythm:   “I will tell them . . .  all about our tchotchkes, our temples, / our granite-counter kitchens.”  “I will show it a great / humanitarian gesture, 10,000 tents // when 600,000 are needed.”  “Let me pray with the aliens for the ice // to stop melting. . . / . . . .for a gleam to remain. . ./ long after the last greasy French fry is gone.” 

     Silano’s signature moves are in her word choices; she must collect these phrases secretly in a sequined denim purse:  “Tombstone Quick Bake Pepperoni” (“In My Belly”), “Scuttlebutt Beer” (“After Reading there Might be an Infinite Number of Dimensions”), “Hot / Sexy Baristas! on the takeout window of Sweet Shots” (“Because I Knew”).  She can nail down an era in a few quick phrases:  “the dusty, greasy / lingering-from-the-60’s give me a hot dog and a Pepsi exhaust” “pre-baguette, pre-lime-infused-Evian” (“Where’s Our Dignity?”)  Or she can rearrange syntax to suit her purposes:  “We pilate; we retreat, heal ulcers / with maggots.” (“Ours”)  She has a Ski-ball skittery use of language:  “those stretching bands of sticky goo / from deepest Jersey, Fralinger’s famous— / Peach, Strawberry, Molasses Mint.  / Craps, schmaps.  We prefer it here, pulling / and snapping while you lose your shirt playing slots.”  (“Others, Section IV:  Taffy”).  Here are her several takes on love:  “it was me-n-you / like a cashmere-wool blend sock and the pair of leopard- // print panties it’s electrically sticking to. . . .” “. . . you’re Fantasia Fun Park, // The Red Dragon Casino, Rock and Roll’s Greatest Hits.” (“Because I Knew”).  In these examples, Silano is clearly aware that these devices are being used in the overall service of the individual poem. 

     She uses rhythm, too, to enhance the line, such as this breathless rush that ends “Geography Lesson”:  “Fine chuckchuckpurrrrrrr . . . my red Toyota pick-up / the ghosts of uncles Benny William Peter Aunts Lottie Sophie / of course Helen who’ve packed a batch of her apricot-filled / cookies probably uses lard but o they’re good.”  Or this lively little run:  “Corn chip pretzel roasted pine nut barefoot Braille on a dining room rug.” (“What Are You Reading?”)

     But it’s her laugh-out-loud-in-some-places sense of humor that will linger.  For example, “When I saw, / the week e. coli poisoned all that hamburger, // a Jack-in-the-Box sign announcing Hiring / for Graveyard, where was my camera?” (“Regrets Only Please”)  Or, from “Shall I Compare Thee to a Spring Day at the Naples Zoo?”:  “I’m not sure thou art more temperate, but thou surely art / less feline, less toothsome, less crawling with kids in strollers.”  Or “What time is it when an elephant sits on a fence? / Time for the chicken to wander lonely as a road.” (“In Praise of Not Getting”)  At the end of this poem, she asks to borrow her neighbor’s edger.  “Ask if it’s time / your lawn had more edge.” “She’d never been one for solving riddles, // but she liked a good joke.  And fences make good neighbors.”  Amid the wordplay and the fun, Silano can turn serious:  “I could be instead of asking could you please / wipe up the olive juice that little pile of parsley / wailing and moaning at your wake.”  (“Poor Banished Children of Eve”) 

     She ends the book with “It’s All Gravy,” tipping her hat to the late Raymond Carver, “The  celestial chef” stirring “the cosmological constant’s // glutinous gravy.”  This is the kind of gravy that covers the waterfront, as does this collection, from dirty diapers to Dog Field North, from aliens to astronauts, from galaxies to God.   Edgy, risk-taking, and bristlingly alive with language, Silano’s poems have both gravitas and gravy:  “Let it cook let it thicken let it be spooned or poured // the gravy of the cosmos bubbling.”  (“It’s All Gravy”)



Barbara Crooker’s books are Radiance (winner of the 2005 Word Press First Book Award and finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize), Line Dance (Word Press, 2008, winner of the 2009 Paterson Prize for Literary Excellence), and More (C&R Press, 2010).  Her poems, essays and reviews have appeared widely in print and online and have been included in various anthologies.