Psalms of Unknowing (Heather Lanier)

Reviewed by Kate Champlin

Psalms of Unknowing provides a remarkable meditation on Christianity, spirituality, and parenthood. Lanier combines these three themes with meditations on her beloved daughter and the discrimination the child faces as a disabled person. The book moves from the experience of pregnancy to the first stages of motherhood and beyond while maintaining its focus on the spirit and the spirit’s connection to the physical mind and body.

Poems such as “‘Jesus May Have Walked on Ice’ Scientists Say” and “Ovulating in Church” bring the Christian mysteries down to earth in order to build them up again. The first poem does so by recounting a mundane explanation for one of Christ’s most famous miracles and then declaring this mundane explanation very unlikely. The latter poem does so through the narrator’s momentary sexual attraction to Jesus. This is a very human response but one that religious dogma doesn’t generally account for. Traditional or stereotypical portraits of the Christian church have tended to be rather sexless. And, the poet’s very human response neither confirms nor denies Christ’s divinity. (Lanier refers to herself as an agnostic in several poems. The poem’s ambiguity may well be deliberate.) The response merely links one human image of the divine irrevocably with one facet of human experience and human biology.

“Trauma-Informed Christ” takes this approach to the potentially divine a step further. This poem recasts the crucifixion as a traumatic, possibly psyche-shattering event. As Lanier states:

How did His golden psyche not split
when they drove the first nail
between two metatarsals?

If you’re both fully God
and fully human, Jesus,
how were you not half-
triggered by yourself (24)

Unlike the other poems, “Trauma-Informed Christ” presents Christ giving an unexpectedly human response that is rarely accounted for in religious dogma. Crucifixion is known as a horrific death. However, church doctrine tends to frame it only as a blessed event, a miracle that cannot be interpreted through something as common or as human as a trauma response. The poem’s unique approach to the Christian mysteries brings the crucifixion into the realm of real events while also linking Jesus irrevocably with humanity. In fact, Lanier links Jesus irrevocably to a certain subset of humanity, those who have survived and are marked by trauma. The result is a new take on the Christian mysteries, a new possible approach to understanding the divine, and a new link between the exalted and the disabled community.

Lanier takes a similar approach to motherhood in “Only a Sliver of Love Runs Hot.” This poem begins with the uncomplicated and rather picturesque romantic or family love found in commercials. Lanier offers us the example of a new mother kissing her baby’s toes, “euphoric in her oxytocin swell” (33). The poem continues by noting that these picturesque and uncomplicated moments are incredibly rare. It moves on to several less-commonly pictured acts of love, such as leaving a half-finished shower to respond to a baby’s cry. The poem concludes:

…love is sometimes looking head-on,
kneeling on public bathroom tile, inches
from my daughter’s crotch so I can clean
the crevices of shit.

They forget
this whole endeavor begins with blood. (33)

Here, once again, Lanier pulls a miracle down to earth only to build it back up by showing the pain and physical toll associated with it. In this case, the miracle is parenthood, an endeavor that common narratives and stereotypes rarely associate with blood or with tasks such as diapering an older child. (Lanier’s daughter has Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome. Lanier mentions lack of muscle tone and seizures as features associated with her daughter’s disability.) Lanier links the rather empty, but culturally-pervasive, images of love from the mass media to shit and blood. By doing so, Lanier links love irrevocably to the realm of the real and to the physical human body. She also demonstrates that (despite what the common culture says) love is about the willingness to complete unpleasant or painful tasks. We love people so much that we are willing to do these things for and with them.

One might even make the argument that Lanier’s poem links love irrevocably to disability. After all, many members of the disabled community spend extra time dealing with these taboo subjects, experiences, and materials. Many disabled people also deal with them through unique methods such as catheters or adult diapers. For these reasons, many of us think more about blood and shit than those who perceive themselves as bodies without organs. Disabled readers will appreciate this link between love and embodiment precisely because it is unusual in the media–and specifically because such complicated images of love also rarely appear in the mass media.

On the whole, Psalms of Unknowing is a remarkable meditation on spirituality, motherhood, disability, and the lines of power and marginalization that mark our culture. It ties the divine to earth through new and unique images of divinity, love, and parenthood. Readers will learn about all of these subjects through poems that capture Lanier’s unique experiences.

Title: Psalms of Unknowing
Author: Heather Lanier
Publisher: Monkfish Book Publishing Company
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.