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Andrew Grace. Sancta. Ashahta Press, 2011.

In his finely crafted third book of poems, Andrew Grace depicts a speaker who retreats to a pristine lakeside, but still finds himself entrapped by the conditions of his daily life. Love, death, and unrealized possibilities loom as familiar specters within the narrow space of his father’s cabin. In much the same way that characters in this extended sequence are entrapped by circumstance, and then choose to further constrain themselves, Grace’s formal choices enact this complex relationship between freedom and restriction. By presenting the sequence in a series of uniform prose blocks, the poet illuminates and complicates the content of this beautiful book, suggesting that limitation becomes generative, serving as a point of entry to new and unforeseen possibilities for the imagination.

With that in mind, Grace’s carefully constructed prose blocks display a wide range of literary-historical allusions, indicating that a diverse range of aesthetic traditions can coexist seamlessly within even the most restricted narrative space. The myriad voices that permeate the speaker’s own narrative suggest that even in modernity, one cannot escape the past. But it is the great variety of these allusions that suggest the past is not static, but fluid, changeable, and multiperspectival. Grace’s work is at its best when the reader witnesses the past transform, and reveal itself as multifaceted, even within these ambitious formal constraints. Consider this passage:

When I would drink, I wished my fists full of sparrows. To eliminate transcendence, even physical, was the goal. To raze an apex. In the blotting out of memory, I wanted to be in the skeleton crew, to labor the night long until the sparrows resumed their bright, ruined Assisi.

Here Grace presents vestiges of a Transcendental legacy alongside “a ruined Assisi.” What’s remarkable about this passage is Grace’s ability to situate both religious doctrine and nineteenth century nature writing within a contemporary landscape. Modernity changes the past, as well the relationship between historical phenomena. Grace’s Sancta is filled withbeautifully crafted poems like this one, which explore the complexities of our relationship to history with subtlety and, well, grace.

Although investigating possible answers to complex philosophical questions, Grace presents a wonderful balance between image and abstraction. The end result is a series of thought-provoking discussions that are carefully grounded in the details of everyday life. For instance, Grace writes:

You tell me we need to talk as if we are surrounded by people instead of trees. You talk about fields of quiet that bloom in your sleep, how the dead elm mannequins seem to move closer each day, how if candles can stare, they stare. You say the place feels posthumous.

What interests me most about this passage is Grace’s ability to discuss history, and its omnipresence in modern life, while remaining grounded in tangible details. “Trees,” “fields,” and “dead elm mannequins” serve as a point of entry to larger questions about our relationship to the past, as well as the people and landscapes that inhabit it. By incorporating these concrete, often sensory, details, Grace helps the reader see how these larger philosophical concerns relate to the world around them. Much of the work in Sancta maintains this delicate balance between image and abstraction, the end result being a book that proves as thought-provoking as it is relatable.

With that in mind, the recurring imagistic motifs that appear in Sancta frequently complicate these abstract discussions of modernity, temporality, and the natural world. Throughout the book, Grace presents us with a landscape that shifts beneath our feet as it is inscribed and reinscribed with a range of possibilities for readerly interpretation. Grace writes:

I have lost the plot of the story you are telling; the flat clear nouns you release into the air dissipate like fleet herds between us. You say something about using the sleight-of-eye an onion makes for sadness to your advantage. Then a sudden storm, gone too quickly to believe in. Rain-cooled brimstone seeps up as today’s dusk. Like me, the last light feints focus. Thus we are all liars.

In passages like this one, the reader witnesses the same landscape that has appeared in Grace’s poems be made to fit into a logical framework, a choice that is evidenced by the formal tone and diction of the last sentence. Forming a stark contrast with the associative logic of the rest of the book, this passage shows, if anything, how ill-suited formal reasoning is to understanding the questions that have been raised throughout Sancta. In many ways, Grace changes the meaning of every passage that came before this one, indicating the value of the intuitive judgments and uncertainty that pervade the book. In short, Andrew Grace’s Sancta is a beautifully crafted collection that raises compelling questions about our relationship to the world around us. A truly remarkable addition to this writer’s body of work.

-Kristina Marie Darling