A Review of
Posing Nude for the Saints: Stories
Paperback: Texas Review Press, 2019
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Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
Christian Wiman opens the first chapter of his memoir My Bright Abyss with this meditation: My God my bright abyss / into which all my longing will not go / once more I come to the edge of all I know / and believing nothing believe in this.”
And so the poem ends leaving the reader craving for something more, something beyond what appears intractable, for some inspiration to aid suffering in our broken world, when we come in time to the edge of all we know.
An example from Elizabeth Genovise new collection of short stories, Posting Nude for the Saints, is just such a meditation. A young woman has ventured into the city. As the story opens, she finds herself in a neglected part of town where the cement on the waste land streets is a maze of deep creases where trash bobs on the October wind. When she starts to cross the street, she’s nearly run over by a sedan. She has no adrenaline response to “having almost fallen beneath his wheels.”
The story is titled “Posing Nude for the Saints” and the young woman, Elvia, has found herself in a tough spot and in need of some extra cash. She’s in the city to pose nude for a local artist, boudoir photos, for which she will collect $200.00. It’s desperation but the psychological stiffness suggests that Elvia has been “sanded down by solitude and self-hate.” And so she poses.
There’s slim dialogue between Elvia and Ewan the artist. A book is propped up with a picture like something one would see in stained glass. It’s a picture of St. Brendan standing in a boat, wind billowing about him. And so the story goes. It’s Brendan the voyager in quest of a land of promise. Elvia is nude and the picture of the saint faces her head in such a way that he can “see all the truth of me.”
As does Ewan who behind his easel sketches this young woman whose soul has been so insulted. But the woman he sees and sketches is breathing and keenly alive.
That’s the “sketch” of the story Elizabeth Genovise narrates but the pointillist details offer a deeper meditation and mystery. Ewan is a gaelic name as is Elvia, both of which own pointed meanings, a bit of myth underlying the fable. Elvia is supposed to own deep inner desire for stability, for loving family. The meditation, then, concerns Elvia’s future, and whether she can master the irony that has again left her “sanded down by solitude and self-hate.” Ewan, born of the yew tree which is symbolic of regeneration and vitality, has given Elvia a sketch of what she might become, a woman breathing and keenly alive.
It’s a motif appearing in the nine stories in this collection which when surveyed could appear to be distinctly modern since they suggest the dangers of being smothered by our broken world. But there’s an equal suggestion in these stories that something “else” is immanent in that mundane world.
The first story in the collection is titled “City on a Hill” which references a community that others will look up to. It’s a promotional notion of a shining example of exceptionalism. A young woman is living with her mother in a duplex. There’s a post-it-note on the fridge, “RON, 12 Noon.” Tires crunch on the driveway and Ron appears for a heated moment with the young woman’s mother in her bedroom where the thumping and hollering start.
All of this is in plain view for everyone to see but is not the light of the world. There’s this poignant phrase near the story’s beginning: “But I like to sit on our back porch and eat salad and rhubarb pie for my meals thinking that if I put this goodness inside of my body, it will keep any badness out, forming a protective barrier between me and the world.”
It’s contemplation, meditation, but it’s not living since living is to unfold from the present into a different presence. She fantasizes a celibate life of clean sheets and quiet evenings and teacups on the bedside table with a Mennonite, Samson, an earnest young man with whom she can hold hands in the fields and drink rainwater out of curled magnolia leaves.
Such writing is characteristic of Genovise’s delicate touch and is not a gross distortion of either immanence or transcendence. But is that Mennonite world a pastoral one that will keep the badness out or is it so self-contained that it could become just a mode of escape from the real world, a kind idealistic impulse which rises to the surface but when experienced is brutal with its unbridled logic.
It’s characteristic of all the stories in this collection to probe the mystery of being without posing some kind of didactic or psychoanalysis. But we know in all of these stories that as they end the characters must direct themselves forward into this broken world that’s a given. “One thing I know from all my reading,” the young girl in “City on a Hill” concludes, “is that plenty of people out there catch themselves praying to God through some object, and so [she tries] to channel [her] prayer through the wood and upward . . . . [She] will work harder, do more good, and maybe one day He will let me climb the hill again. Starting from right here.”
Which is likely all anyone an ask rising each morning, again and again and starting again from right here regardless of how coarse and unpromising is this broken world.
Genovise’s story “Irises” begins with a sentence that’s something of an anomaly: “I am eight weeks in the womb and my life is forfeit….” The unborn child’s mother has taken a lover, Joaquin, who has also promised to have the problem taken care of. The two are about to abscond to a commune in Oregon leaving the woman’s husband behind. She’s not too wild, we learn, but much of her life has been “like a firefly in jar for too long.” And for this she’s about to commit a betrayal even though her husband is the “embodiment of good sense.”
And so the opening notes of the story cascade; the mystery is whether the mother can find ways to do what she truly loves, music and dance, and still be a good wife apart from her “bitterness.”
Genovise sentences align with subtle, parallel directness:
“She picks up….”
“She comes to bed….”
And then the story crosses the mysterious border of time and space into the story’s conclusion. There has been no abortion and the story is a story within another story when the daughter and the mother work together in “her deeply terraced garden.”
The daughter is explaining that she, too, is thinking of leaving her husband who is, she says, “spineless.” More so, their son “who at seventeen has asphyxiated [their] home and [their] marriage with the mindless rage that his psychiatrist says puts him at risk for suicide.”
She wishes her mother to get her “words” back which have flown away like dandelion skeletons scattered in the wind.
The mother with quiet prudence tells the daughter the story that is the story within the story which must, so the daughter thinks, own a lesson. But her mother has grown silent while she bends over the irises cleaning them one at a time and laying them out to dry before moving them to new soil, “each of them meant for some space [she] can’t yet imagine.”
As is the case with most mysteries attached to our being, what she can’t yet imagine is ambiguous. But her mother’s gestures with the irises are an indication that her mother has found a gift deep within herself which does not ring false and in time has become part of her essential nature.
It might be true that the words by which the daughter has been living have been emptied of their content or have become mere slogans in our broken world.
What’s implicit in the story’s ending, however, is the immense refusal of the mother into whose spirit the reader is asked to enter and reflect. It’s clear in the story’s ending that her mother has gone beyond her younger self in time and in doing so has brought about a different moral claim upon the future, one by example she is holding out for her daughter albeit wordlessly.
If we wish to extend the meaning of transcendence we might say that the mystery of being can always offer immanence. Of course an atheist might argue that no one is capable of offering that gift at all. Elizabeth Genovise’ stories in Posing Nude for the Saints, however, offer the reflective reader a generous gift of light and an active essence by which we come to know that grace is not an incomprehensible power.
Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and United States Intellectual History at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-four years. With retirement, he and his wife Ellen removed themselves from Michigan winters and migrated southeast to the upstate of South Carolina.