In Nola Garrett’s second collection, The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball, the speaker considers many things in addition to the classic game she imagines in the ten-part title poem. That long poem, organized into ten “games,” covers a lot of ground on its own: from the clear evocation of place early on in “Game 1” when Garrett writes “Here in the Rust Belt // our schools are all rules, our sons play air / guitar, // wait for the army recruiter”; to personal stories of grandfathers, friends, and neighbors; to contemplations of tragedy (“When an airplane crashes, / no one blames the sky” in “Game 2”) and God (described in “Game 5” as a “deist clockmaker”). Pinball, throughout the long poem, serves as both subject of the poem and metaphor for life:
How difficult could a game confined in
a rectangular box be anyway? Could
a rectangular box in any way confine
a difficult game?
the speaker asks in “Game 8,” and it’s a question that resonates with the complexities and surprising simplicity of life, as shown in the rest of the book.
In other poems, the pastor’s wife, alter ego of the poet-speaker, considers theology, the color gray, Inauguration Day, leap year, flowers, church suppers, and chaos, among other topics. While many poems refer to the pastor/husband, the church, or God, the point of view is bold, sometimes light, and anything but expected. In a poem titled “The Pastor’s Wife Considers the Hurricane’s Still Eye,” she wonders about the mind of God. The poem begins “After a hard day at the end of the prayer line, / Everything is too much, Yahweh must think,” but then the speaker imagines Him getting undressed, taking off “his sweater of many colors” and later “his cotton briefs.”
As bold as a poet must be to undress the creator of the world, what struck me as an even bolder move was a poem early in the book which figuratively undresses the character of the pastor as he looks at pornography on his computer. In “The Pastor’s Wife Petitions the Pastor,” he is described as leering “into the yielding / windows past women open as lilies, // . . . slick girls pierced by strangers.” The pastor’s wife knows his secret habit; in spite of it, she says, they compose themselves “Sunday after Sunday / into back-breaking black,” and continue on “like aging planes, their metal wings / obeying the laws of aerodynamics only as long as they can.”
The voice in these poems is reflective and beautiful in places (in “The Mail From Tunis” she claims “All my mountains will be young, / rugged and colored orange, and close to sapphire / lakes and emerald plains”), while wryly humorous in others (in “Super Tuesday” she describes the azaleas as “Dolled up with too much lipstick” and says that they “must be the old ladies of spring—they / vote every year”).
Many of Garrett’s poems play with formal elements; there are several sonnets for example, including the lovely “The Pastor’s Wife Considers Economy.” According to the biographical note in the back of the book, Garrett’s first full-length collection of poetry was a book of sestinas (The Dynamite Maker’s Mistress, David Robert Books, 2009); on learning that, it came as no surprise to me that the sestina included in The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball was one of my favorite poems in the book.
The sestina, broken on the page and without the traditional triplet at end, is called “The Pastor’s Wife Considers Her 57th Birthday.” It begins with a reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses: “I’m no Molly Bloom, but I’ll say yes / to another year.” It is, as the title indicates, a poem about growing older, and is also, as clearly as any poem in the book, very much about the speaker’s role as pastor’s wife. “I’ve said yes and yes and yes / to the tangled yarn / of congregation and parsonage,” she says in the second stanza, and articulates a sometime longing for something more, “a champagne yes, / one not uttered by me in my borrowed yard.” Yet, by the end of the poem, the speaker reflects back with joy on
those bundled seasons turned to years—
shared in the congregation’s house and yard
with a man more Yahweh’s
than mine. All his flowers are tied with the yarn
of love’s duty, and yet like yeast
he rises, loves me . . . well, and thoroughly, and shouts, Yes!
Garrett’s speaker may not be a typical pastor’s wife, and this book’s subject matter may not be to the liking of all poetry readers, but The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball won me over with its boldness, its unexpected approach, and Garrett’s subtle formal skill.