Poetry Grapples With the Divine: A Review of Cynthia Atkins’s “Still-Life With God”

Cynthia Atkins cover

Exacting and lyrically prescient, Cynthia Atkins’s Still-Life With God presents God as gods, as sun, moon, and stars, yes, but also as God encompassing all aspects of the self: selves created and molded into whatever form we desire. This collection finds Atkins finding faith and spirituality in unusual places and things, in and within inanimate objects, like Cracker Jacks, the Internet, and a medicine cabinet. Here God is a shock jock, an alibi, and imaginary friends. Employing beautiful concisions suffused with allegory and metaphor, Atkins offers poem after delectable poem, the sweetest of candies with dark and satisfying centers. Atkins guides us through a journey in search of the divine in all things, whether embodied by our bodily wreckage or the machines of our madness. Moreover, Atkins is skilled at depicting the chaos and joy of human existence, simultaneously. Still-Life with God delights in all contradictions. 

“God Is a Wishing Well” transports us to a parking lot with pennies and bullets and “false starts” and “spoiled plans,” where “bones dwell with the petals,” and we marvel at the gorgeous lines but are also uneasy because there are no simple solutions ever to be found in “limp brochures,” in tragedy and trauma, and “time bombs” about to explode when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. In “Hello Stranger,” a presence opines about the inherent complications in being a voice surrounded by noise: “This grid is the lunatic abyss inside a pickle jar. We are lonely in our cars, our little cubicles of languor.” Everything is a reminder of something else in this work, whether it’s positive or negative or merely a creation of the mind: “My head has many people falling from buildings, an office party / gone bad.” In “Imaginary Friends,” you hear all the voices dominating the narrator’s mind(s) and all their attributes laced with pain wherever they go and whatever they do, all with nods to the sacred: “hotel soap you lifted sans prayer book, a tawdry bird’s nest with costumed ghosts in a clammy sad / room.” Such imaginings, of spirit animals, imaginary friends, avatars, etc., are a kind of self-creation, yes, but one fraught with avoidance, of a kind, one that pushes away both the quotidian and life’s traumas in search of some elusive recognition. Atkins writes: “Because you needed to belong—You sought the debutantes / who flaunted their flexed prom dates. See how they build / their houses with bricks of silence.”

Part II of Still-Life with God opens with “God Is a Treasure Hunt”: a tribute to a younger, perhaps more innocent and carefree self, who’s nevertheless enveloped by darkness: “I trolled through the forests, naked / aisles of retro-technology—I roamed ancient / breezeways, Crossing into minefields / of my losses.” In this poem of identity and discovery and searching, the child must contend with the reality of what they have found as well as what has vanished or gone missing as they are literally exposed to the elements. Whether engaged in “moral” or “immoral” actions, they are perpetually on a journey toward heaven: “I searched for something sacred / to the core of my transient home…”

“My Persona” is almost a mantra or a declaration of being, the narrator struggling with the crisis resulting from the character they have constructed. Some telling lines: “My Persona has a pecking order”; “My Persona thrives on buyer’s remorse and loss”; “My persona is filled with birdsong.” Yearning and suffering suffuse this poem, the central person attempting to escape their persona before it causes them to expire. Many poems in Part II are likewise centered on self-reflection, self-revelation, and spiritual revelations, all rooted in stories of past selves, family-related or otherwise. 

In “When the Internet Is the Loneliest Place on the Planet, we face the potential consequences and tragedies inherent in voluntarily or not so voluntarily isolating ourselves from people and the world. Atkins writes: “Yesterday, I mourned a friend / whom I’ve never laid eyes on. / Never heard the bricks in her voice, / or saw her mouth, a gaudy brothel / of accents, straight out of the Bronx.” In this world, you become a kind of prisoner to your memories. The poem continues: “When your face sees / sees itself snatched by the swarm / of names” and “I’m just parched / for a whiff of clean laundry, a bed made / from the cheapest smoky scents / of its last spent residents.” The Internet hypnotizes and blinds you to your devotion to the screen, the black mirror by which you judge, learn, and respond. 

In Part III’s “Pillbox,” numerous kinds of trauma are concealed within and take the form of a “sister” “on the other side of a mirror.” Atkins is a master of metaphor, and allegory, of giving meaning to not-quite-ordinary objects remembered from photographs: “You are a vintage / ditty, hiding some unhinged woman— / All of her broken intent snapped into / our mother’s satin purse.” This mirror-sibling is a “record player skipped,” “a beast with no eyes, / behind the drapes,” “a lunch counter— / too many mouths talking at once.” In “God Is a Library,” words and sounds or lack thereof or beliefs comes to life: “Exquisite human machine of pathos / and debris, allowed the pages to be set / on letterpress, then ink bled and seeped / into a refinery of senses.” “My Body Is a Vessel is about human flesh sentenced to negation: “My body has been / burned to Eden and back”; “My body worked hard at being anonymous, a paper clip”; and “My body / listens to him crack a beer after.”

In Part IV, “Marriage” wades in the grotesque malaise of homophobia and the bigotry of the religious and all its contradictions. Hypocrisy of the religious is exposed throughout this poem. In “Grief Recordings,” the narrator is haunted by the voice of friend who has committed suicide: “I can still hear my friend’s encrypted // voice on the machine. Reaching out to me before he went to / start the engine in his car.” In another passage, the voice acts as if it were still alive: “Today on the / machine, the recorded voice even knows to pause itself, as if a breathing being on the other end. As if the voice of a / mannequin in a store window.” “When God Is a Bullet” addresses several of the most divisive of issues—guns and gun ownership and mental illness that compounds the problem(s)—in the form a young troubled boy: “First it was a cat’s paw, / then the whole damn cat. This is the boy / bouncing the ball. This is the kid never invited—to a party, a club, a secret”; “This is the boy picking at flesh in a vacant parking lot”; and “This is a storm in a damaged town. The stones pound / the windows in his head. This is the gun. This is the other / dead kid. In this poems conceit, not only is God everywhere and everything, God is every action we take good but often bad and by using weapons we turn ourselves into weapons.”

Cynthia Atkins’s Still-Life with God is a nuanced and knowingly contradictory collection of poems centered on faith, identity, and individuality. Complex, conflicted, euphoric, sometimes anguished and even traumatized, these poems ultimately empathically, evocatively guide us through the difficult decisions we often find ourselves alone in making. Here spirituality is revealed in all our interactions and observations, whether internal or external. Here the self is a mirror we worship until the last creation, the final revelation. 


Still-Life With God
by Cynthia Atkins
Saint Julian Press; 112 p.

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