When we first meet Saint Monica, she is covered in gauze and iodine. The epigraph that introduces Mary Biddinger's Saint Monica informs us that the historical St. Monica was student to St. Ambrose, mother to St. Augustine, and wife of an abusive, alcoholic pagan. That Monica, patron saint of adultery victims, alcoholism, and of course, disappointing children, spent much of her time working for the redemption of her husband and once wayward offspring.
The Saint Monica created by Biddinger, professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Akron and author of Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007) and O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), shares much with her predecessor. In eighteen poems, a third of which are prose poems, Monica emerges through clear, simple language made strange through its honesty. Monica equivocates, "explains a few things" that she shouldn't have had to endure and becomes practiced in "say[ing] a few Hail Marys and one Glory Be, and get[ting] over it," in "the holding hard but not too hard." She tells it straight or holds to herself.
This Saint Monica is contemporary, but dated. Her childhood includes phone lines that crackle, pin curls, and a record collection. Yet Monica's braids are out of step with the spiral perms and acid wash jeans of her contemporaries, who hate her because she "didn't live in a trailer" and later for the "brilliance of her peonies, / the straightness of her children's bangs." She seems to live in a world of starch and constriction under the iron caress of a mother who stitches "plaits . . . to her / skin to make them stay in place" and doles out individual strands of hand-cut fettuccine.
However, instead of praying for the redemption of her wayward son, Monica battles her own lust, and not always very earnestly: "She'd go / to the Devil's Place herself if it meant one hour alone with Kevin / McMillan in the falling-down barn. Sister Rita said it was hot but / Monica could live with that."
There are two Monicas who "might meet in some Sunday in Ordinary Time," or at least one torn in two. In "Saint Monica Takes Communion Twice" one version shares "a collective dream involving a Golden Retriever and a silver Volkswagen hatchback"; the other nails a divorced Kevin McMillan while she wears his mother's "cantaloupe silk nightgown." It is this Monica who allows the other to sleep peacefully while her cheating husband returns through a window because she has already strewn "glass shavings on the ledge, / seeds from the Habanero she coaxed into unimaginable lengths and heat.”
Still, she clung
to her Saint Christopher
medal, taped up
more kitten posters in her
pounded the bread dough
a little harder.
We expect no resolution and get none. Lust and sainthood cannot exist without each other, and in this collection, both are putting up a pretty good fight.