Reviewed by Ryan Teitman
Catherine Imbriglio’s Parts of the Mass—a collection that trembles with the passion of the Catholic liturgy—resonates like a well-struck tuning fork. Imbriglio has so heavily infused these poems with the sounds and rhythms of the Mass that the book becomes a testament to divinely-used language comingling with secular, everyday forms.
Each poem takes a different section of the Mass and resurrects it as something new. A series of letters turns the epistles into corporate memos complete with headers and time stamps. The poem “Antiphon,” a play on call-and-response prayer, careens from subjects as disparate and as Mussolini’s hands, brain mass, and sweaty farmhands. And while the religious—or at least overtly religious—content of the Mass falls away in each of her poems, Imbriglio leaves something much more powerful in its place: the echoing rhythm of the liturgy.
In the collection’s opener, “In Nomine,” Imbriglio lays out her poetic catechism in the prose poem’s first few lines: “Say forth, say forthwith, in the name of colors, of real colors, in the name of real colors named, in the initial real color named, say Brunelleschi, say curvature, say Sir Francis Crick.” Throughout the collection, repetition is working in the same as the work as prayer: the communion is in the act of saying, not necessarily in the meaning of the words that are said. In “Gospel According to the Middle,” the book’s linguistic play hits its most biblical key: “In the beginning was the who, and the world was with who, and the world was who.”
The poems in Parts of the Mass contain no traditional narratives, and even concrete images are scarce. But in pieces like “Psalm,” Imbriglio shows how a poem can be carried on the sheer luxury of words alone:
Lay your hands upon me, you in the black bent grass, the body in motion that
stays in motion, so too in your drifting to or from me, in the pictures of the
body that provoke the body, judica me, you in the blackpoll warbler, judica me,
you in the black-tailed godwit.
The recurrence of “body” and “motion,” along with the repeated invocation of “judica me” (translating to “do me justice,” or “judge me”) tows the reader through the poem’s thick, lush sounds. Imbriglio further emphasizes these types of repetitions by combining them with a fragmentary structure that sometimes forgoes complete sentences in the name of distinct rhythmic tones. “Psalm,” which appropriates the form of a telegram, further pushes the disjointed voice that Imbriglio experiments with in many of the poems:
If without if without finding stop. What impudicity what who me stop. This is
stop no speech no language where the voice from the wilderness stop.
Throughout the book, sentences in poems sometimes end on articles, such as “the,” or other unnatural points, which are jarring when first encountered, but the poems build on that unease by continuing to push the boundaries of syntax. “Introibo” shows how the articles can serve to replace the nouns they were tethered to: “It seems to me, but also the. To be freed of the.” The lines then become not about the articles themselves, but what comes after—the missing words. They become a repetition of the unsaid.
While the book leans toward non-traditional forms and linguistic patterns, its real artistry is in creating a textured, fully-realized space for itself within the framework of the Mass. Fundamentally, prayer is a type of poetry, and Imbriglio’s poems turn both the everyday and the obscure into a new kind of benediction. Her haunting linguistic prowess transcends any boundaries of form.