blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Dolefully, a Rampart Stands
by Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Penguin Books, 2019

spacer Dolefully, a Rampart Stands (Penguin Books, 2019)

When Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great, he turned the Euphrates into a stream where the river scarcely reached the thighs of his men marching through the shallow bed toward the ziggurat known as the Tower of Babel—the Gate of God. What lies beyond and within the threshold of Hebrew Scriptures abounds with mythic temples and false prophets. The same can be said of Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s Dolefully, A Rampart Stands—a catalog of captivity and corruption, wrath and glory, and a litany of past and present parapets that remain upright and whole.

Similar to the writings in the book of Isaiah, Ackerson-Kiely’s collection is comprised of different modes of focalization. As the speaker continues to switch vocal registers in each unmarked section, the reader meets three oracles: Proto, Deutero, and Trito—creed, exile, and salvation. This parallel structure within the collection is defined by poetic superscription—the obscurity of authorship—found within Holy Scripture where the scribe becomes the speaker. The purpose of each poem is to enact prophetic speech: the voices of women once silenced and the voices of men that remain heard.

When tracing the threads of duality found within each poem, the narrative arc begins to reveal itself: crimes against humanity endure. Just as the great civilizations of antiquity were laid to waste, the fate of this collection rests in the cracked, unseen hands of the American zeitgeist—bleary-eyed and star-spangled.

The first poem, “Inventory of Ramparts,” is a preamble: the story of a boy found abandoned in a canoe down by the lake. His voice, the thin sound of a bulrush in the wind “became a basket / pushed down a river—nothing specific—” invoking Moses, the child of the Nile, and the absence of the mother who placed him there. The speaker delights in the thought of drowning him—a baptismal gesture—“just to give him a little scare,” like all the other enslaved Hebrew boys who will suffer a similar fate by order of the Pharaoh. From the poem’s title it becomes clear that within such prophesies exists a cruelty inherent in the power of faith—the certainty of the boy’s death, many years later, while wandering through the desert in search of the Promised Land.

In “The Lesson” the reader comes to learn what our speaker has already been taught: the knowledge of good and evil is rendered intelligible only through the loss of innocence, the burden of “. . . enduring for the sake of someone else.” This act of sexual violence committed in the poem becomes an act of naming, which mirrors and bears the mark of original sin. Resembling the death of a martyr, the turn of the poem reveals a self-sacrificial speaker as she becomes a woman who resolves herself “a mother” blessed with the curse of Eve.

In Genesis 3:23, Eve is banished from the Garden of Eden and the history of humanity begins. Echoing the fate of the girl in “The Lesson” who becomes the mother of past and future exiles, Eve leads us down the worn path and toward the poetry of Emma Lazarus. Where the mouth of the Hudson River meets the belly of New York Bay, Lazarus pays homage to the Statue of Liberty in the first eight lines of her 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus”:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

It comes as no surprise that even in the late nineteenth century the strength of women is seen as maternal yet marginal. Her threshold of existence is finite, coerced between the “conquering limbs” of the Colossus of Rhodes—from “land to land” and as far as the eye can see. Similar to the plight of Eve in Genesis, the Statue of Liberty is marked by biological imperative—presupposed and circumscribed as tragically female.

When juxtaposing the verse of Lazarus to that of Ackerson-Kiely’s “Simple Story of Illumination,” a poem in which—as Lazarus describes—“a mighty woman with a torch” guides us through exile with the soft glow of a flashlight pressed to her palm, the reader soon discovers the disillusion of order:

I looked into a foggy distance: The farmer held an old bath towel with which he rubbed, one-by-one, his flock of lambs dry. I wondered how I might come to his aid, but thought instead to be left alone, wet and catching cold. Then I heard beasts and men alike, and all that is in them, singing.

The speaker herself now searches for some unknown sanctuary—her own rite of passage. She is the sheep who leaves the good shepherd’s flock, the one that is lost but seen standing atop a high wall between past and future trespasses. She casts doubt upon the shepherd as he calls to her from the fold because she cannot tell the difference between his voice and the cry of a wolf.

Perhaps the most affecting poem in this collection is one of the last poems, “Made to Lie Down in Green Pastures.” Returning to Hebrew scripture, the reader is meant to recall Psalms 23:1–2:

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

From this allusion one can assume that the speaker is conflating the shepherd with “the idea of sponsorship” in the opening line of the poem. It is here that she continues her search for asylum with the tone of doubt and distrust. “The President / called us to the pasture,” she says a few lines later, which unites the Head of State and the Son of God through the powerful device of free association. The poem reads as a variation of the formal villanelle as the speaker returns repetitiously to the refrain: “I love my country.” This style of lyric verse is traditionally similar to a ballad, commonly referred to as a “country song” due to its fixed form.

The poem has all the makings of a pseudo-anthem—a national symbol—that reminds us of ancient parapets, the toppled ziggurats of empires that remain valid and unaltered despite the passage of time. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker persists with her travel as she surrounds the barrier between captivity and freedom. Rhetorically speaking, she has reached the liminal stage where her final doubts are cast upon the continuity of tradition and country, calling forth the limitations of the American zeitgeist:

So I circled the defensive wall,
the outworks and the earthworks—
dolefully a rampart stands, but how does she lie?

To choose a worldly life over salvation, a disobedient woman must first confront the path that lies ahead of her by looking back. A turn of questioning reminiscent of Lot’s wife during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, our speaker gains the ability to discern good from evil—freedom from doubt. As story has it, God punishes Lot’s wife for her transgression, turning her into a pillar of salt. It is because of her disobedience that our speaker faces the same fate, yet retains her power through the act of questioning, the ability to transmute past and future exiles, to return to the truth of her salvation: a rampart lies indivisible—upright and whole.  

Paige Ackerson-Kiely is the author of the poetry collections, Dolefully, A Rampart Stands (Penguin Books, 2019), My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012), and In No One’s Land (Ahsahta Press, 2006). She is a generalist and lives in Peekskill, New York.

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