The Multitude is a collection of accessible free-verse poems. It is the third published work of the author who has connections to Image Journal and Seattle Pacific’s Response. She has worked primarily as an editor. The influence of the multitude of memories on the present loosely form the theme of the collection as a whole. Throughout, the haunting of the present with the past is frequently achieved by juxtaposing images from different time periods. In “The Virgin in the City”, Mary shows up in a variety of urban settings from a bus, to a shipping dock, to a classroom. In another poem, the poet notices a leggy girl playing Mario Kart, sitting in the Botticelli room of the Uffizi Art Gallery. She is completely absorbed and seemingly unaware of where she is – like most of us. At times the poet is more daring with the imagery, revealing, and even reveling in, some of her boyish interests. There are repeated references, for example, to early video games. Saint Augustine, wanders around in a giant Pac-Man maze, pursued by “heresies and ghosts of heresies.” In “Endor (Disambiguation)” the Stars Wars planet sits next to references to Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the ancient Canaanite town, all known by the same name. Drawing inspiration from the repetition of the name in all three places, nerdy details comingle with the profound. “Maybe our universe has a finite number of times you can summon the dead so we’ve begun to repeat ourselves.”
Being a student of chess, one of my favorite poems from the collection is a relatively simple poem entitled “Chess By Mail”, occasioned by entering the library of an older friend or family member who has passed. The old chess set sitting high on a book shelf brings recalls aerograms and index cards, a life now gone. The queen becomes a metaphor for possibilities that aren’t open to us. “I am not the queen, I do not move any direction, but West, but forward in time”, recalling Kierkegaard’s dictum that life “can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” In a clever turn at the end of the poem, the one living makes a move. “Pawn to queen four”. Pawns are notorious for their lack of ability to move backward. Solidarity with the past is also encapsulated in her choice to use the older descriptive, rather than algebraic, notation for the move.
If I am reading her correctly, Hannah Notess appears to no longer live in the same evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant world she grew up in, but like many of us, she continues to feel its impact. Early formation in a subculture often continues to frame our responses even when we feel furthest from their control. In a previous collection of essays, Jesus Girls: Growing Up Evangelical, she specifically took issue with the “lost-then-saved” paradigm. What happens when your life and the lives of others don’t fit into a before-and-after, when circumstances have changed your vision to the point that you are wondering what you still believe? References in this collection to “souls I was supposed to save”, and “the gawky white giant in the photograph of smiling brown orphans” make a brief appearance and continue that argument with her background.
In particular, the Evangelical tendency to want to save the world is tempered by the fact that the world thoroughly resists comprehension. Often those most convinced of the need for salvation become part of the problem creating a model of the world too easily divided into two halves, light and darkness. In the poem “To the Church Across the Bridge Who is Claiming the City for God”, the theme is the split between humanity that is occasioned by that kind of theological outlook. References to “tracts” and “the gulf between Man and God” recall particular oversimplifications of the gospel as the author was growing up. But the poet finds this incommensurable with her own broadened sympathies for the sorrows of humankind. She confides, “So, when your judgment day unspools like ticker tape from downtown windows, and all the screens go blank, I won’t show up to cheer.”
Another problem with saving the world is our own feeble and shallow tendency to notice only certain things that seem important to us at the moment, not unlike the girl playing a handheld video game in a famous art gallery. The author turns the table on herself in the poem “To My Former Self in Art Class”. Preoccupied with a piece of art that at the moment seemed to signify a loss of faith (“but look, there you are, sitting in church five years in the future”) she misses all the signs of the silent boy painting an apple gold and grey next to her who will become a suicide. Such a limited, single-point, perspective cannot be overcome.
There are a number of repeated sub-themes. One of these is the randomness of events. Notess is a Christian writer sensitive to the tragic tenor of life. A number of seminary buildings burn to the ground. A girl who received complaints by the poet dies in a moment of misjudgment while flying a small plane a few months later. She emphasizes the connections we have to those who have died and we how we often feel like we’ve somehow cheated. “To the stupid angel of death, I want to say, you missed me again. Watch me disappear into the train depot, into the past…” These straightforwardly tragic events are only part of the story being told in the poetry. Many of the poems could be read as exploring other aspects of tragedy such as guilt, boredom, meaninglessness, finitude. Notess sees no special protection or grand redemption from any of this on the horizon. In the poem “The Rain Falls on the Just and the Unjust” we meet a catalog of places where the rain falls, essentially everywhere. “On the city where everyone tells you it always rains and on the city where it never rains, ever, except for right now.” If redemption exists, it permeates the everyday by “sounding out syllables with jittery students” rather than triumphantly overcoming the darkness.
One could criticize Notess as offering an “awakening” paradigm in the place of the perspectives she has withdrawn from, but this doesn’t seem to be her purpose, and besides, these are real ghosts that haunt a good many people of faith today. Instead, I found her musings sensitive to our time and earth-bound existence. Her poetry eschews sentimentalism but not hope and thankfulness. In many ways her preoccupation with the questions her upbringing didn’t answer satisfactorily invites you to wonder with her about how to put a life together in light of the places and people that have formed our souls. “Parts of them are still waiting for you.”
A version of this review was originally published by the Englewood Review of Books in June 2016.