“Holy Things” Jay Rafferty (The Broken Spine) – book review

Jay Rafferty Holy Things cover

“Holy Things” comprises confessional poems about relics, other items held with reverence, and bodies with a self-deprecating sense of humour. The poems don’t go the circular route but get straight to the point. In “Goddamn”, a light bulb blows,

“You unscrew
the supernova.
Mind the black
hole webs.
They’re torture
in your hair.
There, now
don’t drop—

Goddamn.
Spores of
stardust
everywhere.
It’s a nightmare
trying to get
celestial crumbs
out of the
good rug.”

A simple task to replace the bulb spotlights other areas of neglect: the ceiling cobwebs, the dust falling from the fixture or lightshade, the mess on the rug that now needs cleaning. Might it have been better to have left the bulb alone? A familiar scene where an improvement in one area, makes others look shabby in comparison and suddenly you’re spring cleaning the entire house. It’s also a consequence of busyness as the home owners aren’t paying attention and fail to notice and accumulation of dust or justify doing nothing by persuading themselves it’s not that bad, it can be lived with.

The sequence, “The Seven Sacraments of Love”, is more obviously tied to faith. Part II “Communion” starts,

“It’s a practice all
about the skin,
the body, the flesh,
even the blood
if you’re feeling keen
and have no qualms
about the time of the month.”

Then the poem draws back to reassure readers it’s about communication, verbal and non-verbal and ends,

“The act, the unspeakable
that the flesh gives up without
thought or fault,
when one sees, reads, feels,
projects, re-reads, reiterates
the signs are unmistakable
but easily missed. There is,
of course, an infallible failsafe
counter, a simple, steadfast
salve, a fix-all phrase,
like a prayer:
I love you.”

A prayer is a means of communication, whether individual or repeating something learnt by rote. It offers the person saying the prayer comfort, expresses good intentions, and often is a plea for forgiveness. In a relationship, after an argument, a mistake, saying “I love you” does a similar job. It does imply the question, how many times can this prayerful phrase can work before the listener suspects the words are said to dispell justified anger and keep the peace but actually the intent to change or put right what went wrong is lacking.

False idols are the subject of “Two roads diverged”, a deliberate take on Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”, the opening stanza implies the road less travelled is busy with people boasting about taking the harder route and continues,

“Look what they did to the
dirt track that Frost traipsed.
They capitalised Thoreau,
exploited Emerson,
they made a water park
out of Walden Pond,
a Disney World out of
the Yellow Wood.

The road less travelled
is a misnomer. I’ll take
the other, if it’s all the
same to you. At
least it’s paved.”

The speaker opts for the tried and tested route, already smoothed and paved by previous travellers. It may be less virtuous, less likely to get social media likes, but if your focus is getting to your destination rather than being seen to be travelling there, it’s more effective.

“Just in Case” is about a prayer card,

“I have never read it.
My mother bought it,
to protect me, like a petition to some
household god. It’s all very Roman
Catholic really.

This card is one of the least
holy things I’ve ever owned.
As sacred as that autographed photo of Elvis
your uncle keeps in the den or
the Pokémon cards we used to squabble
over as children. A shiny Charizard would do me
as much good as the good Padre’s blessing,
I should think.”

Yet the speaker still keeps the card in his wallet, which contains the cash and bank cards necessary to the capitalist world. The phrase “never read it” is repeated, it’s “A half-assed hope of/ a thrice-lapsed Catholic” that keeping it safe might keep him safe or at least relatively unscathed.

The speaker’s approach to faith is explored in “The hill I will die on” which ends,

“Faith is a smoke-and-mirror blessing
I have not been cursed with. I’ll take
a tactile truth to a fact-less faith.
Give me a book to a Kindle, a text
not a phone call. I abhor prayers for the
sick or flowers for the dead.
To hell with metaphors.
The hill I will die on
is just a mound of earth.”

Phone calls are fleeting things and what’s said during a call can be easily forgotten. A text leaves an electronic trail. Books on electronic devices aren’t owned either, they are subscription services: the user buys the right to read, not to own. Prayers show intention but not necessarily action. Flowers fade. But a mound of earth is solid, something to depend on.

In “Holy Things” Jay Rafferty has created a wry look at how faith impacts on life, even if you’re a lapsed believer. A prayer can be a blessing or an impediment or a superstitious talisman against harm. Faith can enhance a life or send it down the wrong track. These brief poems flicker like a votive candle: the flame draws attention but it sits on a solid body, offering space for meditative thought.

“Holy Things” is available from The Broken Spine.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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