Review of Divination with Human Heart Attached by Emily Stoddard

In Emily Stoddard’s debut poetry collection, Divination with a Human Heart Attached, I felt many resonances with my own life, particularly the wrestling with faith and the deep love for plants. The 2023 collection of 36 mostly free verse poems is deep and wide. There is rich religious language that is at times biting critique of institutional corruption and sexism in religious institutions, and at others cleverly reimagined Christian mythology. In other corners of the book, we sit with the author’s deep longing for rest in the Divine and realize that there are green shoots emerging from the scorched earth of our contemporary religious wasteland.

Raised in the Mormon tradition, I consider myself a contemplative catholic these days, but my faith in the Roman Church is anything but certain or confident. Sometimes I feel as alienated from my Catholic parish as I might at a Richard Dawkins talk. But the good earth is big enough for my faith and my doubt. And I am glad about that. And Stoddard’s poetry lends me hope that I am not alone in this.

My heart swelled with sympathy with the very first line of “More & More”: “The trouble is / everything calls to me.” From my desk I can see birds squabbling over my birdfeeder. I have come to love these birds and they are an important part of my work from home ecosystem. There are white-crowned and song sparrows, juncos, chickadees. I am writing a university course on birds in the humanities, and I have been fascinated to learn of the common practice in many cultures, but particularly among the ancient Romans and Greeks of divination using birds. This art is called augury or ornithomancy, and the omens brought by birds appear at key moments in the Iliad and Odyssey. Stoddard’s title references divination that goes inward, but her poems are richly colored with plant and bird life. In one instance, the magpie presents a powerful fusing of the transcendent power of air and flight and the earthy arrival of ground.

In “I Might Have Been a Botanist”, she wrestles with the wonderful knowledge of science and its tendency to reduce the world beyond the recognition of poetry. She writes, “More, I said,  / tell me your name, I said / without the restraint of a scientist,”. As a child, I was fascinated by the natural world, but science and math classes felt anything but earthy. My favorite activity outside was make believe, imagining I was a boy in the wilderness, where I was at home talking to animals. The reductionism of science also repulsed me during my graduate work on forestry, where our frequent trips into the woods seldom invoked words like beauty from the instructors and foresters.

In “Hivemind Elegy (There are Things Coming)”, Stoddard enlists the imagery of that fatal mythical apple to speak of a surging ecological grief that is attending our descent from fossil fuel civilization. She writes, “Migration patterns may soon / become escape routes,”. We all know something is coming. We don’t know how bad it will be. Satan stands before us offering two temptations: embrace technological optimism or give up hope completely. I hear Stoddard facing her anxiety, tapping into her grief, but not making any sweeping claims about where this journey will take her.

In “Inheritance Rosarium”, we trace the contours of a multigenerational shawl knit from the bodies and hearts of a grandmother, a mother and the author. There are references to the mysteries of the rosary, saints, the rib of Adam, crosses and a deep longing for God peppered with the doubts of a strong young woman. The last line punches: “If it’s true, if god is there at all, she kicks us from the inside.” Reclaiming the image of god the mother, who is also being born by us, invokes the mystic wisdom of Meister Eckhart, who believed that each of us was called to give birth to God through our own spiritual fecundity.

In “Petronilla tries to imagine her father’s prayer (I)” Stoddard moves from divine feminine to lesser-known biblical women. The poem gives us a glimpse into the mind of a little know extra-biblical character, Saint Petronila the traditional daughter of Saint Peter. We see through Petronilla’s eyes and wonder at the traditional story of her being disfigured to save her virginity. 

One of the most unique, narrative poems, is “Passion Play” which is a touching portrait of a daughter’s love for her father, and his love for Christ and trees. After considering the damage a Roman whip might do to the skin of a defeated Jesus of Nazareth, she smirks at the strangeness of applying fake blood to her father, as he prepared to carry the cross in the passion play at his Catholic parish. Stoddard’s father had crafted the cross himself from a redwood tree. However, unlike the bellowing cry of sadness from the cross, Stoddard connects with the loneliness of the garden. The garden where Jesus found himself alone with the trees as his companions slept. Most Easter Saturdays, I find myself in a Catholic church witnessing the somber glow of candles. The bishop intones a chant in the dark, lights the bonfire, and then lights a single candle whose light spread outward through the congregation’s huddled candles. More subtle than a passion play, but every year this ritual fire rekindles my own inner flame.

In “Descendants” we find a heartbreakingly relatable wrestle with feeling out of place in an achingly beautiful cosmos. She writes “restless / for the language  /  an ancestor spoke / into the sky / of their god”. Wrestling with a feeling common among settlers of European descent in North America, she writes, “the ladder / of my spine / is lined by shores / that were not ours / to fish”.  It is such a familiar feeling to live in such a vast cosmos, with unlimited data coming to us from satellite images, without a coherent story to tell. And even the ground beneath my feet, in Vancouver, BC did not create me or my ancestors, who were scattered across north America by the frantic boats that left southern England in the 1700s. The pathway forward is far from certain. Divination with Human Heart Attached is a powerful auger of what remains worthy of our attention, even in the dark.  

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