by Katie Condon
OSU Press, 2020
“Here I am/in a century that has its eyes/shut tight,” writes Katie Condon in “Origin,” the first poem in her debut collection Praying Naked (Mad Creek Books 2020). Like so many of the poems, “Origin” moves fluidly between an I and an us, between the natural world and the one created by human beings. The poems are filled with fog, mist, lakes, and creeks—what amounts to a kind of clothing the world dresses herself in as the people in the poems remove their clothes unabashedly and often. The poems find the world sexy and the act of love a kind of prayer. It is an astonishing collection.
The poems in Praying Naked all wonder at the physicality of being alive, at that desire that lives in all of us, the desire out of which we were created. What does that desire mean? Questions abound in the collection, questions that often sound Biblical (“Was I/the lightning or the eye/of the satellite, blind/to everything but valleys/wild and teeming with bees?”) in cadence, as if the question not the answer is sacred. Condon has a reverence for the irreverent and the natural world as the poems pull at the split between the sacred and the profane. “Desire is a sickness we all want,” one poem declares, and I want to resist this so claim so badly. The strange thing is, these poems stare you down until you cave, admit it’s true.
The sacred/profane binary is mirrored in the life/death binary in Praying Naked. The collection has been called an elegy, and it is, of sorts, an elegy for the “deadalive woman” that is the mother character and even the poet herself as she moves from fancy and free to married and settled. Here the crude is coupled with images of beauty, porn and profanity with the spiritual and revered. Condon seems to look out at nature and see it at once as a promise of sexuality—which leads to life—and an omen for death. “The skies open silently with a woman’s legs” or, in an address to the moon, “Moon, you have seen me control the hands of men, have you not?/These men, who I have let have me.” The living exist right there alongside the dead, and the poems plead for us not to have to pick who is more meaningful. The mother is both alive and dead. The speaker is both young and old. The world is both joyful and full of sorrow, sexy and undesirable. What moves me most about this collection is its accepting of contractions, which is the experience of being alive. Condon asks questions but accepts in the asking, it would seem, that there are no answers:
but what does it mean
that my mother’s dying, has been dying
has been has been has been?
Many of these poems might be categorized as voice poems, poems whose lifeblood reveal the human speaker behind the craft. Moments such as “God says, This is getting serious./& I’m like, You bet” or “yesterday I loved Jason/the Swiss yoga instructor at LA Fitness” or “in the meantime, life slogs through me/like a slug through the garden & other people die/for no good reason” create a warm familiarity between speaker and reader, a bond that makes me want to keep reading. Sometimes the poems feel self-consciously voicey, as though the speaker is talking from another room, hyper-aware of the reader listening. But all the same the voice is mesmerizing. Other times the voice is flip. Most often it’s pretty funny. For example, “you can’t have passion/without ass. Or Parnassus.” This voice is youthful and fun and living in the 21st century.
Maybe the desire that so underscores this collection is actually a desire to make poems as a way to eschew mortality. Sex and sexuality are defining features in the collection, to be sure, but the sex often seems a provocative description of the desire to make poems as a means to survive. “I, too, will die—am/dying” the poet admits in the first poem, and later the lust after “a reckless man” mirrors the lust after the next thing to make and love and later destroy—and isn’t that the life of the artist? That desire to make is an inheritance, one that is born out of the same seed of desire from which we all spring:
Desire, when you want
to lure a reckless man do no shout
that you’re going to plow through his body
like a derailed freight car through a turnip field
(the poem began poorly). No, Desire, if you love
a reckless man, do not chase him on his tiny misadventures.
Let him scale you like a cliff face
only after he’s chased you down your tracks
for a good while
From first poem to last, Praying Naked reads not as a journey but a repeated inquiry into how we arrive, naked, the product of love. The poems explore life and death. It is a collection that celebrates women, womanhood, motherhood, mother earth—in a bold and joyful cry. Lipstick and dicks and moons and lovers and mothers fill the pages. I want to keep reading it to find out how poetry—the making of poems—keeps this speaker alive. I want to know the secret.
Perhaps because I am reading against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a swelling of action for equity and racial justice, for the desire to be free and peaceful, and okay, perhaps this is why I feel all the more moved by Condon’s shameless admittances and commands:
–don’t I know exactly
why I’m here. In the end
the sun varnishes us all
in amber. Undress
for that light. There is flight
in all of us.