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July 29, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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The Odour of Sanctity by Amy Brown

“Laura, it isn’t safe outside–/don’t leave me tonight,” Jeff Mangum pleads his (ex?)girlfriend(?) in the first lines of Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity, prophesying a very (post)modern doom; “At midnight, when the internet/is killed … the pillaging will begin.” Welcome to a book about saints.

Honestly, if the Jeff Mangum thing (Jeff Mangum! Of Neutral Milk Hotel! April Ludgate’s favourite band! Jeff Mangum!) doesn’t immediately suck you in, I don’t know what will. But I’m going to give it a go. Because The Odour of Sanctity—an epic poem detailing the lives and miracles of six candidates for sainthood—is well worth your reading time.

Aside from Jeff Mangum (Jeff Mangum! A saint! Jeff Mangum!), Brown speaks as and about Christina Rossetti (poet and sister of Dante Gabriel), Margery Kempe (the first person to record her memoirs in English), Elizabeth of Hungary (princess, young widow, abused and venerated by her spiritual adviser), Rumwold (a baby who preached for three days before dying, having predicted his own death), and Aurelius Augustine (his theology made him a saint; his sins made him feature in The Waste Land). It’s a fascinating look at the place of sin and sanctity from the 4th century AD to today, and an immensely skilful piece of poetry.

While The Odour of Sanctity is packaged as an ‘epic poem’ and while it is long, at times it feels more like a collection of interconnected poems. The work is divided into seven sections (“Investigation: The Candidates’ Lives”, “Questionnaire for Life and Virtues”, “Beatification: God Examines the Evidence”, “Questionnaire for the Treating Physicians”, “Words From the Person Cured”, “Canonisation Ceremonies”, and “Envoi”), and six within each of those—one for every ‘candidate’. Brown further distinguishes the candidates by giving each a different formal structure: poems speaking as or about Jeff Mangum are in tercets, Rossetti has the quatrain, Augustine couplets, and so on. Brown is able to both maintain a consistency in tone which feels apt for an epic poem, and clearly and economically characterise each of these candidates. It doesn’t, then, feel daunting; at times the poetry feels far more prosaic than you would expect, adhering more to sentence logic than line tension.

This isn’t to say that the poetry isn’t tightly wrought: while the line tension is occasionally overshadowed by the need for exposition, it comes into play quite prominently elsewhere. This is especially noticeable in Rossetti’s first section, conveying twin modes of irony and despair through the pulsating, fractured, rhythm Brown has created. This whole first section, in fact, is a joy to read; there is a moving intimacy in the candidates’ examination of themselves, and the way they talk about their lives. Only poetry could sustain this kind of ‘historical fiction’ where there is little to no real exposition. The resulting sections don’t quite match up to the poetic brilliance of the first, but what they do do is shed new light on the candidates’ lives through the witnesses’ corroboration and contradiction. In Cyneburh, Rumwold’s nurse, we see the baby as imperious, almost demonic—a contrast to the hagiographic descriptions of the ‘miracle baby’ found elsewhere.

In that way that in poetry contradiction can seem more like relativism, Brown holds multiple worlds in her poem, all sliding together and apart, creating and destroying meaning both within and between her characters. “In my memory,” she writes as Augustine, “everything is mixed up,” but this could just as well apply to any passage in the book. Themes are taken from person to person, swapped, inverted, challenged, verified. By the end, where the candidates address each other, there is a very real sense of a historical communion; a sort of reaching across time and space to find a shared ground. Is this sanctity? It’s hard to tell. The Odour of Sanctity seems to work in cycles of destruction, both within the subject matter and the form. At the end, with the full breakdown of these cycles, Rossetti challenges Mangum to Bouts-Rimés (a rhyming game). We finish, again, with Mangum: “How’s that for a first attempt?” he asks, both the poet and the saint; utterly fallible, stumbling along.

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