ROBIN GOW’S OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL DEGENERACY
Splendid Wraiths: A Review of Robin Gow’s Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy by Brady Alexander
Robin Gow’s new poetry collection, Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy, out this year from Tolson Books, is a dazzling, vibrant wound. It leaks with staggering sincerity, emotion, wit, and ghosts of trauma.
Gow is the author of the chapbook Honeysuckle. Their work has appeared in POETRY, Thin Air, 45th Parallel, and Issue 13 of Miracle Monocle. Gow’s passion for the physical and psychological well-being of LGBTQIA+ people bleeds onto the pages of their poems in Our Lady. Old scars rip open and ooze, then flourish with new growth, at least a dozen times throughout Gow’s pieces. In their many poetic engagements, Gow humanizes and (post)modernizes a myriad of saints and their stories: the speaker and Saint Clair eat microwaved chickpeas and pesto, the speaker and Saint Agatha share a doctor’s office, birds preach to Saint Francis of Assissi, the speaker gives Saint Leo his first kiss. Countless saints are kissed, caressed, and queered. All have fled or been expelled from Heaven, beginning with Mary, Mother Of.
It should come as no surprise that the collection grapples with some agonizing content. Common themes include consuming and being consumed (feat. cooking, cannibalism, candy); transforming one’s still-dripping cuts into new sprouts, and leaves, and flowers; bodily dysphoria; the cruelties of a patriarchal God; enormous guilt; and making the Divine an Earthly thing. Gow’s poetry collection is not for the faint of heart, and shows abuse, mutilation, and suicide, among other distressing themes. It never revels in its violence or despair, though: each poem processes a trauma, looks for stars in black night skies, and tries to form a new world out of pain. A person is never less than a person in these poems, and human experience remains consistently essential to each piece. If there is a crux (if it is appropriate to use such a term) of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy, then it is likely this line in the poem “sacrament”: “there were no holy orders for women / or queers, so we made poems, thrived hidden,” summarizing much of the collection’s aesthetic and thematic goals. Our Lady seems to ask what is left for post-Christians to do, or, in a more reformist interpretation, what to do as a Christian once dogma’s been escaped.
As a Christian person, it can be a particularly difficult reading, especially seeing God portrayed as so violent (although hardly uniquely, as far as Christian media is concerned). This is ultimately to the strength of the collection, showing how familial metaphors for God are likely to collapse beneath the failures of human families: a child Jesus is shown cowering beneath a sink, terrified His Father may find Him; Mary leaves what is implied to be a severely abusive relationship with God. Reading through the poems has reminded me of the language I use in my own faith, and why; I have not called God “Father” for many years. Gow destabilizes rituals like communion, too, throwing it off-center with an abundance of cannibal imagery (“on eating,” “chrism & stir fry & grill,” “the birds,” etc.) and depictions of hurting Jesus through partaking in this action (“sacrament”). It reminds me of when I was a kid, imagining that it was me who had speared Jesus on the cross.
Despite the trauma, Gow’s ideas and imagination are the heart of their poems. Each situation is highly creative and personal, warping traditional stories of the saints in gorgeous ways. And, thankfully, one doesn’t have to know these saints to enjoy this collection: each piece shows enough to stand alone. Another strength is Gow’s imagery, able to produce both feelings of sublime, enormous peace and disturbing bewilderment simultaneously. As an example, the poem “some stations of the cross” reads: “three / tadpoles left. the grapes / we put in the fishtank & watched, / hatching into small gods & eating / each other as they grew up. this is / family. the back legs come first— / the gills peeling off as orange slices. / down to two tadpoles and then one. / the big one. greedy & beautiful. / i want to be one of the ones that he ate, / a wriggling, hopeful amphibian.” When God consumes Themselves, they make a fractal; being lost in that can be as terrifying as it is beatific. The speaker eating Saint Agatha’s breast in the poem “on eating” is another moment like that, remarking that it “tasted like / strawberry angel food.”
“on eating” is, I think, my favorite piece in the collection, engaging with bodily autonomy and dysphoria, then contrasting these with the gentleness and pleasures of ethically sharing one’s body with another person. It’s lucious and surreal and trembling with bruises, and its heart is the size of a mountain—as a microcosm, it speaks volumes about the strengths of this collection. It hardly takes long to find similar moments of excellence, like the last three stanzas of “40 days,” the reversal in “the birds,” the confrontation in “cock,” and the dynamism of each saint’s personality throughout each piece.
With these triumphs in mind, there are still a few moments (and lack thereof) in this work which are missed opportunities, especially where the interplay of Christianity and gender are concerned. I’d be fascinated to see Gow’s thoughts on verses like Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (ESV). I’d like to see Gow play with Saint Hildegard and her viridity, and Saint Augustine, too. A more substantive example is in “Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy,” in which Gow sees Mary gender-fluid, sexually-fluid, bodily-fluid, and serpentine, and glistening with rainbows—queer, and beyond any confines of a box, and beautiful. The speaker calls this Mary, “an algorithm / of godless energy,” yet I am not alone in my belief that God is not a man —at least, not exclusively. Though the speaker in Genesis, for example, refers to God as “He” and “Him,” God’s own pronouns in Genesis 1:26 are “Us” and “Our.” If the traditional, familial, masculine-exclusive depictions of God featured and attacked in Our Lady are harmful, as Gow suggests, then I wonder very much what Gow might think of divergent theologies.
I’d love to see Gow play with these ideas in their next collection, if they’re to continue with these themes. As for now, it’s easy to be satisfied with Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy’s personality, delicious imagery, and its exquisite haunt. Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy is available for $18 on Tolson Books’s website.