What sounds come from a minor saint’s mouth? What cadence, what mood, what music? Thinking of minor saints takes me back to my childhood. A soon-to-be-woebegone Catholic boy, I would drift in and out of reveries during mass, look up occasionally toward the front where the priest stood among a selection of heaven’s all stars in statue form: Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, etc. Meanwhile, a sculpture of the boyish saint after whom the parish was named stood off to the side: St. Aloysius, or, as I called him, St. Al. Dressed in a frock, holding a book, he was an imp in the land of giants, a minor saint with a voice that couldn’t have been much more than a pip.
St. Al’s path toward sainthood reads as an interesting journey. Wikipedia does a fine job with the crib notes, and a few things stand out: he took a vow of chastity at age nine; he suffered from kidney trouble his entire life — Louise Hay might connect this to shame, criticism, and child-like reactions; his piety was such that he was too polite to look his queen in the face; he followed the Jesuit order much to the chagrin of his father, who had wanted him to be a soldier and, upon accepting this wouldn’t happen, at least wanted him to do something other than join the priesthood, which meant he would yield his rights to what would have been a substantial inheritance; and he died at the tender age of 23 at midnight on the summer solstice, in accordance with a vision he’d had a few days earlier. (Today he’s the patron saint of young students, Christian youth and AIDS patients.)
From this history we get the picture of a young man who walked away from a family legacy, who failed to live up to his father’s wishes, who transferred his own quiet suffering — on top of kidney disease, he was plagued with chronic headaches, skin diseases and insomnia — into a life of asceticism and spiritual awareness through isolation. His voice reaches through the darkness not in sobs but in the whisper of everyday prayers that balance on the edge of his lips; not self-righteous, but certainly self-aware; removed from the malaise, his spirit dips inward then beams out.
Sloat’s work possesses a similar sense of self-awareness and in-but-out beaming. We first encounter this passive separation in “Opportunity,” the short musing that leads the collection:
“There was a sound like a moccasin dropping
in the upstairs apartment.”
We all know that sound, and if don’t, we at least know the sound of movement above us. Two more sounds follow: a boy shouts in Cantonese “near the end of the street,” and a radio wavers “between stations.” Sloat’s narrator is away from these sounds, within earshot but unaffected by thoughts of “I wonder what it all means?” The reader, too, comes in from these sounds, floats down and lands in the room with the narrator who’s busy becoming “marvelous.”
We never know to what opportunity the poem alludes. We don’t need to know. Sloat could have written an entirely different poem filled with opportunities lost and found. Instead we drop into this world of sounds we do not own; rather than seek sense or reason behind the sounds, we remain happily aloof, preparing for whatever opportunity waits.
One thought is that the opportunity is actually an invitation to turn the page and encounter “Pursuit,” where a similar sounding narrator goes through her morning rituals of coffee, cigarette, toast, horoscope and comic strip. Here Sloat has filled in many of the lines she left blank in “Opportunity.” The narrator brings us further in, moving from reflection into the self:
“Subversive joy of a broken heart, salt wallow
here’s to the suffering my father predicted
ah if he only knew
pain and ecstasy
as Christoph says, what a pair — ”
Despite the gravity of these lines, there’s a strange, almost surreal playfulness in the music that reminds me of the Beatles “A Day in the Life.”
( “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…” )
A poet of Sloat’s skill could easily build a collection on “day in the life” poetry. For the purpose of this volume, she has other songs to sing.
We finally meet her minor saint muse in the third poem, which bears the same title as the collection. Saint Appolonia, perhaps more humble than even our friend Saint Al, was a second-century virgin martyr who today is considered the “protectress against toothaches.” Here, Sloat’s narrator considers her own humble origins:
“I came at a wee hour
into my miniature existence.”
The voice, we discover, belongs to someone with a small heart, “like a love of buttons or black pepper.” And isn’t it so with all minor saints? These quiet ones of the dream come down to earth’s realm whenever there’s a lost cause (St. Jude), a bell in need of making (St. Agatha), a case of gout (St. Anthony) or a secretary having a bad day (St. Catherine of Siena). Meanwhile, Sloat’s language conjures a tender visage, creating the desire to cradle these poems, to rub your fingers through their smooth hair, to whisper how wonderful they are, to remind them the world is more beautiful with them in it.
Such passages truly make your heart ooze, and show up again and again throughout the collection. In “Ghazal with Heavenly Bodies,” we meet a moon full of “nicks and bite marks;” in “Humidity,” we’re reminded that “paradise may be built in a day but the rest takes time.” But Sloat’s work is not simply a batch of flowers and sweetness. In “Vestment,” a short, sharp narrative that closes the collection, we arrive “On the morning of my ruin,” and don “a vest of bees as the sun crimps the sky.”
Perhaps Sloat considers herself a minor saint in the vast cannon of modern poetry. Only she could say. Whatever the case, after reading and re-reading this collection, I feel she’s a tenacious spirit with a curious nature and thirst for language. Hopefully we’ll be enjoying the illumined sound of her soft voice for many years.
According to the bio on her blog, Sarah Sloat is a worker ant who currently lives in Frankfurt, Germany. Visit her site to learn more about her and her work.