When a dear friend tells you they’ve encased their soul in paper, it is best to tread carefully. Poetry is an intimate form of literature. To translate your inner trials, triumphs, and longings into language and is a brave thing to do. I deeply admire McKenna Hight’s courage in sharing her debut poetry collection, Sublimity, with the world. It’s an act of hospitality I’m honored to receive.
Before proceeding, I’d like to say a few things about my relationship with the author. Sometimes in life, you meet people and find instant kinship. You may only be around each other for a few days, but that’s enough to form what will likely be a lifelong friendship. McKenna, I think, is one of those people. We met four months ago during my brief Spring Break stay at Rochester L’Abri. She’s a writer from Atlanta and we bonded instantly over our mutual love for YA fantasy and Sarah J. Maas. During our short time together, we had some really intense discussions about faith, struggles, and how we are to live. Meeting McKenna was no accident and I value her friendship immensely.
As a blogger, bookstagrammer, librarian, and amateur book critic, it made complete sense to do a review of Sublimity. I use the word “review” lightly. This post is pretty long, as I get into some close reading, but that’s part of the fun. While it’s definitely possible to critique a work of poetry by its structure and adherence to literary form, poetry is hard to pin down. So much of a poetic work is subjective. Poetry is a conversation. It’s about immersing yourself in the figurative language and gleaning whatever you can. I don’t pretend to understand all of Hight’s poems. I don’t think understanding is the point. There is no concrete meaning to poetry and there is space for a thousand interpretations. Poetry is about the journey, so let’s journey together.
As I read Sublimity, there were two songs that kept coming to mind. The first is “White Flag” by Joseph, an anthem of defiance amid voices (internal and external) casting doubt and uncertainty. The song is fierce, triumphant, and bold, much like Hight’s poetry. The second song is “Dear Wormwood” by The Oh Hellos, which is a tender, raw exploration of how we allow our demons footholds in our lives and find the strength to resist them. It’s an obvious nod to The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Hight also has a poem called “Wormwood/Like Magic”, so the connections are clearly layered. In the song, to defeat one’s demons, awareness is both the first step and final blow. Hight’s poetry captures this theme as well.
Moving on to the physical book, the collection is minimalist in approach. Pages are comprised of negative space sprinkled with words and art. Allison Gulley’s drawings are delightful. The art strikes a great balance; it adds to the poetry while never overpowering it.
One thing I loved about Hight’s poems are the titles. Coming up with titles is a skill that not all writers possess. Effective ones function as a line before the first line, pointing readers to the larger theme. Good titles often act as allusions to other works as well. Some of my favorites include “Again / There Will Be Time” and “Elphie, Now That We’re Friends”.
While I didn’t feel any explicit shifts, this poetry collection moves gradually from brokenness to redemption. The brokenness never fully disappears. Rather, the tone shifts from despair to hope. In the midst of deep suffering, the speaker in the poems comes across as fantastically fierce at times. There’s strength in the lines, “I want to slaughter normalcy”, “I’ll scream at the wolf’s smirk until I’m hoarse”. The poem “No Longer” has the beautiful lines, “alight your lamp, your soul to shine / don’t hide the light of stars divine”.
On to the poems themselves! I’ve picked out several of my favorites to explore.
I always read the opening poem in a collection as an introduction/thesis statement that sets the stage for the journey to follow. In this sense, “Ebenezer” brings up key ideas. Merriam-Webster defines the title word as “a commemoration of divine assistance”. Near the poem’s end, Hight notes that her innocence is gone. The collection, then, will point to the ways God intervenes in the devastation of lost innocence. My favorite stanza reads: “king / I have and he’s here / I’ll scream it in my car / like a madwoman to nobody”. These lines capture the lordship and presence of God and the speaker’s sense of self. She likens herself to a madwoman with no one to listen, but still she will scream. Screaming is violent, jarring, and connotes fear or rage. The poem is also sprinkled with several identifications: outcast, teacher, soldier, poet, king. These remind me of the song “Soldier, Poet, King” by The Oh Hellos, which is a nod to both King David and Jesus. The ending line, “to hell with being taken seriously”, is fiercely defiant.
I read this poem as centering on an abusive relationship and a lack of respect for boundaries. I get this from the opening lines, “my no was a river / so he built a dam”. The speaker’s agency as a river is a powerful image. Rivers represent life, change, cleansing, and the power of nature. To build a dam imposes restrictions, usually to exploit the natural resource (building a lake, harvesting electricity, etc.). It’s a violation of nature. The speaker notes her no has been erased, which means her agency and identity has been washed away. This is deeply painful. But the speaker notes they “sat weeping / new rivers…”, which indicates the formation of a new identity centered around pain. She identifies with an old oak that has died. From this image, the metaphor of the speaker’s identity shifts. The poem ends with the image of a sapling, which symbolizes another new identity. This identity is based on the hope that life can emerge from great pain.
“Again / There Will Be Time”
I feel like the title of this poem is a reference, but I’m torn about what it’s a reference to. My first thought was the song “There Will Be Time” by Mumford and Sons. My second (and preferred) thought is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, where the line “And indeed there will be time” occurs several times. Prufrock (one of my all-time favorite poems) is all about not being able to connect with people. It’s a painful poem. Hight’s poem is also painful; there’s the lines “dreaming is costly” and “hoping is painful”. It’s about weighing risks and taking the leap anyway. It’s about willingly being “shredded” by the “diamond sea”. Diamonds are precious, beautiful, costly, and hard. Hight leaves us with the image of floating in this sea, embracing the discomfort and your own inadequacies. I love this poem. Relationships, at times, can be tough. I’ve been challenged a great deal lately to leap into my own diamond seas and I was reminded here that I’m not alone.
I bring this poem up because it is a beautiful depiction of grace. It starts with the speaker receiving a word from life in the form of a scream and a song. Life tells the speaker to “write it all down”, which is a prophetic call. The poem then recounts the speaker’s journey to redemption. The final stanza is absolutely magnificent: “that’s all I have / it’s all I know / these gory hands / they look like snow”.
“God Save Queen Susan”
Told from the perspective of Susan Pevensie of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, this poem begins with the former queen learning her entire family has died. Narnia readers will recognize this event from The Last Battle, where the other Pevensies die and go to heaven. Susan in the poem, upon receiving the news, ruminates on how she fell away from her faith. I always thought it was a bit unfair for Lewis to represent her love of worldly things as a fondness for clothes and boys. I LOVE that Hight redeems her. In the poem, Susan remembers Aslan’s coronation words about always being a queen of Narnia. It ends with her in death, going “further up… further in”. It’s the same language Lewis uses as the Pevensies enter heaven. There is grace, then, for those who fall away, for those who stumble and lose their focus, who fall in love with the world. In the context of Sublimity, this theme resonates deeply. Many of the poems are about being deeply broken by both relationships and worldly things. But there is always grace. It is never too late for the Susans of the world to return to Narnia.
This poem begins with the image of a rickety bridge stretching between two cliffs. It swings back and forth precariously “across a broken heart”. The speaker notes that she could have taken an easier path, but she chose to brave the bridge “without recourse”. She notes that, as she crosses, her “hands turn to red carnations”, which represent wrath and sorrow. In every way, this bridge is the painful path. It moves beneath her, “threatening to fall apart”, but there is no mention in the poem of fear. Nor is there any mention of making it to the other side. We are simply left with the final lines, which are among my favorite in the collection, “hell can be traversed / hand in hand with heaven”. We are left hanging on the bridge. While this path is difficult, there is hope. Heaven is never far away.
I had a lot of fun writing this post. The meaning of poetry unfolds with time and, the longer I spent with these poems, the more I enjoyed them. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to read and explore Hight’s thoughts and experiences. I look forward to following her career as a writer and poet.
I’ll end this review with the final lines from the collection, found in the poem “Fine”:
so go and seek goodness,
our story won’t end
now go like a blaze, my love,
go with the wind
Are you on Goodreads? Let’s be friends!
Interested in hearing my thoughts on more books? Check out my monthly recaps, which are part of my 2018 Reading Challenge.
Want more regular bookish content? I’m on Bookstagram! Follow me at @librarianamelia