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Book Review: Purgatory: Poems by Amelia Martens

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According the dictionary, purgatory is defined as: “In Roman Catholic theology, a state or place in which those who have died in the grace of God expiate their sins by suffering; any state or place of temporary punishment, expiation, or remorse.”

The operative word in the definition, the one everyone pounces on like a starving lion on a piece of meat, is ‘temporary.” None of that forever jazz so often associated with God and eternity and Heaven and Hell.

The doctrine of Purgatory dates back to a papal letter written in 1253, and was confirmed at the Council of Trent. Purgatory was adopted by the Church as a response to the wave of heresy crashing through history at the time. The popular heresy of the day was dualism, sometimes called Manichaeism, which really upset the powers that be. So the guys at the top decided on a two-pronged attack: punishment and reward. The punishment was initially called the Abigensian Crusade. Later, they came up with a concentrated version of the same thing and called it the Inquisition. The reward was Purgatory.

Purgatory was viewed as a reward because it provided a loophole for all the people who were kind of caught in the middle. They weren’t incorrigibly wicked, but they certainly weren’t saints or martyrs, either. In effect, it seemed like a pretty benevolent idea. Of course, like most good ideas, it stumbled a bit. The powers that be, tempted by earthly riches, found themselves selling “indulgences.” Lots of bad PR.

The idea, of course, is still around. It’s still a Church doctrine. It’s just that no one pays much attention to it anymore. There are other more pressing issues, like health care and contraception. Stuff like that.

All that to say this: Amelia Martens has resurrected the idea of purgatory in her volume of poetry by the same name: Purgatory. And it is hella good stuff.

Martens’ poems are kind of more like paragraphs instead of your regular, typical, run-of-the-mill, properly formatted, stanza-ized poems. They are short, almost syllogistic reflections on various, almost sci-fi-like and really nightmarish, scenarios. Similar to something St. Paul would have written while on the island of Patmos, if he’d been a poet instead of an Apostle. Or maybe like something Cioran would have written if he’d been a poet and not so depressed and nihilistic and all that kind of stuff.

What’s really interesting about the poems is that they are open to at least two different interpretations (dualism). First, the reader can take them as referring to the various types of suffering that might actually take place in the real purgatory, if it really exists. Second, and get this: the reader can take them as referring to the things that happen every day to everybody as they live their lives here on planet earth.

Totally epic!

Not only is Martens a constructive genius, she’s a talented writer. Some of her descriptions are better than good or great. They approach awesome. Like this one: “Across the field, you can hear bees warming up their wings, the hive vibrating as a thousand tiny tongues lick dry mouths.”

Now tell me that doesn’t give you the blue willies. You can actually feel their dry tongues on your skin as you read the sentence. That’s visceral writing, which takes talent and, let’s be honest, a certain knack. And Martens has both in copious quantities.

My favorite paragraph-type poem in Purgatory is “Number 17: You’re Dressed Up Like Jesus.” No spoilers, but you have to read a couple of lines just to pique your imagination, wet your whistle as it were.

Here goes:

“You’re dressed up like Jesus. Complete with thorn crown….Even the dust devils in anticipation of the nails, and then someone whispers in your ear, Oh don’t worry; in three days you won’t feel a thing.”

That is plump, world-class writing!

Or what about this one, from Number 13: “The dog needs to go out, and it’s always your turn to take him.” You’ve had that feeling, right? Maybe not about the dog, but about something. Like it’s always your turn to take out the trash or empty the dishwasher. And when you feel that way, you do feel like you’re being punished and expiating your sins, like God hates you or something, right?

I do.

Needless to say, Purgatory belongs on your bookshelf or Kindle or your Nook or whatever.

It’s totally unique and really, really good. It’s an indulgence you can buy for yourself.

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