Client The Saint of Everything Book Cover
Categories Book Review
Date October 1, 2023

A Book Review
James C. Henderson

Life is a mystery. We cannot control it; we are subject to its fates. The best we can do is accept it as a gift, despite the cruelty of its uncertainty and temporality. Lucky are we to be guided through it by saints.

When one talks of saints, it connotes religion, those canonized by the church, holy men and women anointed as representatives of God, but Kennan’s saints are not these. Hers are more mysterious. They are manifestations of the transcendental mystery of the universe, the elemental idea of God, each a specialized force that expresses the supernatural power that we cannot see or know or even comprehend, only contemplate.

Six saints are mentioned in the book of whom each has his or her own poem. They are: The Saint of Sleep, The Saint Who Says No to the Dreamland Tree, The Saint of Common Murders, The Saint of Maps, The Saint of Abandoned Nurseries, and the eponymous Saint of Everything.

These saints are not the do-gooders of the Church; they do not instruct; they are spiritual saints who are sensed more than seen. They are saints of mysticism who don’t explain so much as they reveal. They are the saints of the imagination, often expressed as the invisible wind. They are the saints of poetry.

The first poem in the collection is “The Thief.” While not designated a “saint,” the Thief is very much in keeping with the role and function of Keenan’s saints. The Thief breaks into the speaker’s home and rearranges her belongings to a purpose that only he knows and she must figure out. He leaves her a puzzle as to his intentions: a web of string strung back and forth across her rooms like the red string a movie detective uses to piece together the various elements of a crime to catch the killer. The thief rummages through her lingerie, tools, the family photos in the basement.

One was a photo of our son, in a gleaming white t-shirt;
In the photo he was just two years old, the same smile that breaks
and warms a heart now. He went through my poems and crossed out
the ones he hated with black magic marker.
He took our son’s second favorite blanket,
two pillows from the couch, all the cans of soup,
the white and brown rice, the hammer
and the saw. He left a note saying, I am telling you
how to live. Now live that way.

The thief does this to alter the direction of speaker’s life, to force the speaker to recognize the new path she must take, not primarily as mother as she has been for much of her life, but as a woman who has children no longer at home but off in the world. In this sense he is a trickster—changing the rules, challenging assumptions, throwing the future into doubt and making the speaker think of her life situation anew. This is the act of continually becoming aware of one’s surroundings and one’s position in them. This awareness can be invigorating and it can also be painful for it gives no certainty, only an awareness of uncertainty, but it makes for empathy for one’s self and all others in a similar state—it is what poets do; it is the essence of art.

But what is to be the new path? It is a question we spend most of the volume trying to unravel.

The speakers of these poems try to find the path by remembering the past. Poems such as “Garage,” in which the father, drunk, crashes his car into the east wall of the home’s garage, demonstrates that the abuse of alcohol is not the path. In “For Some Reason, in Our Elementary School,” the speaker is knocked unconscious during a vicious game of dodge ball that is tantamount to war. To quote journalist Chris Hedges: “War is a force that gives us meaning.” The world is filled with violence, but violence is not the answer. In “Hospital” the speaker remembers being in quarantine for three days, separated from her mother by a plastic tent. Perseverance then is a key to future survival. It is about all we can do in this world that we cannot control and have little influence over—all we can do is endure; all we can do is rely on our “animal ability to abide.”

The second poem in the book, “Horizon,” is an illustration of this. A neighbor is frighten by the possibilities suggested by the open horizon on the prairie in which his house sits, so he rings it with three protective layers of trees, concealing himself, only to cut them all down in latter years and become once again a child.

In “The Saint of Maps Tries to Help,” the Saint of Maps is the victim of self-delusion. Even with his map unfolded, he cannot find his way.

…Perhaps if they had seen
his tears falling in anger and frustration
he might have reminded them of the fathers
they once loved
echoing the ineffectualness of the speaker’s father.

Like the Thief and the Saint of Maps, other saints in the book try to help, but not always in the way you’d expect. They are troublesome. They have their own agendas. They are both beneficent and mischievous. They play off one another, consoling and confronting, not serving to define the path the speaker should take but only serving to keep her off-guard, making her think and re-think her existence, making her painfully aware of life‘s joys and sorrows, pushing her again and again into becoming rather than being, never coming to a conclusion of what the path she should take, playing on her fear and uncertainty.

A most benevolent saint is the Saint of Sleep. He rests the fevered brow from the mind’s pursuit forward, searching for meaning in life, or just trying to abide in the world:

…Saint of sleep wants
to protect all heartbroken, sobbing
babies, all sleep deprived, ramped up
parents, and all those who work
too hard for too long.
Earlier in the poem, the speaker says:
…Some jobs
the saint of sleep turns down:
saint of mothers, saint of the harvest,
saint of piano players
of those stranded in windstorms.

That the Saint of Sleep turns down the job of comforting mothers is made obvious in the following poem in the collection, “The Saint of Childhood Says No to the Dreamland Tree.” We take this to mean that the child does not want to settle down to a bedtime routine and read the book Shaking the Dreamland Tree by Nadine McInnis, in which the child shakes the Dreamland Tree to see what dreams spill out. Children are too full of life, to busy living, to rest and reflect on what respite the Dreamland Tree may provide them.

The Saint of Sleep refuses to help mothers, then—no surprise—but what is surprising and telling is that the Saint of Sleep refuses those stranded in windstorms. These are the poets, prisoners of the wind, captive to the force of imagination, compelled by the demands of creativity to constantly put into words how they feel.

To be an artist is to be in pain. It is hard to be so empathetic to life that you cannot stand either the beauty of the world or it’s sorrow. This is the great theme in Keenan’s work. It is the great theme in all poets’ work. Joseph Campbell says, “Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss.” Yes, it is bliss to be attuned to the world and to other people’s feelings, but it is also a strain. The awareness can be too much. Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, says of the romantic readiness of Gatsby, it was “as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” It is a challenge to live with that sensitivity day in and day out. You can never turn it off; you can only turn it into creativity as an outlet of expressing what you feel.

The speaker in “Oh, the Blues,” a poem about the color blue that the artist Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) uses in his painting, admits how difficult it is the be an artist so aware of life. Art brings relief, but it has its limits.

So I am feeling it today, the weight of art
the pressure, certain days I can’t let it
give me any relief

It is, as it were, that she not only praises the color of Burchfield’s blue but also sings the blues.

Keenan includes several poems about Burchfield. Her speaker finds in him a fellow artist, a kindred soul, aware of the same sense of mystery and wonder in the world, its bliss and burden. She admires how he deals with his awareness so well, so productively, and he aids her in dealing with hers. The speaker says of Burchfield in “Goldenrod in November”:

Whenever he saw spirit,
he stopped and painted it.
I bow down to his sureness,
how knowledge burdened and enlightened him.

Again in “Oh the Blues,” the speaker sees Burchfield as Burchfield sees his hero, fellow painter Ryder:

He weeps to see his hero
in the shadows, at work.
When one of the dead
sees another dead artist
at work,
there are almost always tears.

In a rare prose poem, “Burchfield and His Wallpaper,” the speaker says: “He is one ghost I try to remain responsive to, though I am very busy / remembering things and trying not to remember things.”

In another prose poem, “The Houses, Streets, the Slanted rain, the Snowstorms, the Machinery of America,” all of which are found in Burchfield’s’ paintings, the speaker says:

                                                       …. Burchfield paints with care, not love,
the animals I cannot paint, the mysterious bird and all the roads out of town,
Orion and the abandoned farmhouses, telephone poles and trees and trees
and tress. He and I grow up, suffer, love, and admit everything is breathing.

Animal spirits help the speaker her through the journey of life, this breathing, competing with and complimenting Burchfield and the saints. Animals populate many poems, both as totems—spirit guides—and as those in danger, mainly from the human world, who need the speaker’s protection. A victim of danger and violence—perhaps as the daughter of an alcoholic father, but certainly from the general danger and violence of our modern society—she is acutely aware of it. Present in the poems are coyotes, wolves, tigers, horses, dogs, a fox and her babies, deer, cats, kittens, spotted leopards, panthers. “Are birds animals? I never remember. / If they are, then cardinal, gold finches, / blackbirds, crows, rooks, and ravens. / If they are, then egrets cranes / and beloved pelicans with the treasure box bodies.”

These animals, as spirit guides, are expressed with the same animism with which she expresses her saints. Like the saints, animals are manifestations of the transcendental mystery of the universe, projections of a supernatural force, of God.

She says of butterflies, and this could stand in for how she feels about the other animals mentioned the poems: “The butterflies live on in my memory. I wrote poems about them. / I let them become part of my spiritual life.”

The speaker’s main spirit animal is the lion, in particular the lion of “The Lion in the Dunes.” He is old, filthy with sand, and alone. He is lost as he emerges from the sand dunes, weary of the rules that he has followed, without gaining symbolism or truth.

He follows the carved
and glowing wall
of the dune
and his paw prints
make no path to follow
as he leans into
the wind, always
his one true love.

The speaker identifies with the lion not because he is of a certain age but because, at the end of the poem he is pointed toward the wind, creativity, the only purpose he is sure of, the only path he knows: “His one true love.”

Age plays a factor in the poems. It is a particular challenge for the speaker, but we all deal with finding our identity in the natural world, so the speaker’s empathy with these animal totems is universal.

The kinship is so strong between the speaker and the animal spirits that the speaker doesn’t know sometimes if she belongs to the human world or to the animal kingdom. In “Returning at the End of Suffering,” the speaker comes upon two girls emerging from the forest with:

The deer, the spotted leopard,
the sleek sharks, the maroon starfish.
Yes, we were surprised.
Then the Siberian tigers
came through the broken
Forest, and then two girls.
Maybe eight or nine.
We walked toward them,
Making human assumptions.
But they belonged
To the tigers now
And so we let them go.
Choose your kingdom,
choose your species.
New rules at the end of suffering.

There is a natural order in the animal world not found in the human world. With its lack of intentional structure the animal world seems chaotic to humans, but in this chaos is harmony and balance that the human world has little of. This natural word, romanticized for sure, is a way for the speaker to escape from the chaos of the human world that is all too well experienced into the chaos of the natural world that is not. Joining the animal world could well be the end of suffering.

In the last analysis, however, the speaker rejects the animal world. Her artist’s urge for order of the human kind is too great to give up—for poetry is an attempt to bring order to chaos through organizing words and the mind on paper in language animals can never possess.

“Oh! Blessed rage for order,” Wallace Stevens’ speaker says in his “The Idea of Order at Key West.” “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea… / Of ourselves and of our origins.”

It is the human victims of the danger and violence that the speaker in Keenan’s poems identifies with most. In “The Heartland, Where the Secrets Are,” an iconic victim of the violence of the world—a four-year-old girl—is found dead in the woods by a couple. The girl has been stabbed “by a knife piercing the sweater and the girl / at heart level,” but the couple does not call the police to report the murder. Why not? They merely cover the girl with leaves and let the snow provide her with the coroner’s sheet of white.

The murderers in Keenan’s poems almost always evade punishment. In the next poem in the book, “No Longer a Crime Scene.” the speaker says:

No longer a crime scene,
the land is calm, as it always was,
the murderer on his way
to another place

In “The Saint of Common Murderers Makes a List,” “All were murdered, and only one was not a cold case.”

Death is never far off in these poems. There is little the speaker or the characters in the poems can do to address the injustice of the world or to protect humans or animals from it. The poems after the death of the four-year-old girl are both light and dark—a struggle between what influence the speaker has over life and to what extent she is powerless—becoming more despondent and more abstract than the earlier poems, although interspersed with poems of positivity and hope. This struggle between good and evil culminates in “The Saint of Everything,” which is a compendium of lesser saints. Roughly half are saints of negativity:

Saint of Murderers and Their Dead
Saint of the Self-Congratulatory Peace Makers
Saint of the Oasis Turned to Desert
Saint of the Wicked Who Mean Their Wickedness
Saint of the Snowstorm and the Car Spinning on Black Ice
Saint of Imprisoned Animals

The other half are saints of positivity:

Saint of the Innocent
Saint of Trees, Saint of Wetlands, Marches
Saint of Writers
Saint of All Singers
Saint of the Humble
Saint of Honey and of Bees

The poem implies—with its nod to the Saint of Camus, the meaningless of life, and the absurdity of trying—that evil will tip the battle in its favor and win. Its ending lines conjure this victory.

The Saint of Everything
never has time on her hands,
does her work inside
the rules of time.
Busy, exhausted. Happy, lonely,
Open-mined. Heart out of control.
At peace with dying for too many reasons.

But just when all seems lost, the speaker accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative, as the song goes. She sides with the light and decides that life, with all its drawbacks, is a gift.

The speaker announces this most clearly in “Blue Fish Nights”:

Lucky, all those blue fish nights,…
weren’t we lucky, the nights we raced
to Corn Hill to see the sunsets…
because when we were all there
we were a crowd, a gathering, a group,
then another baby in the old high chair,…
and then two more, and then another,…
and on it goes,
time slowed, time racing,
not perfect, but human,
and lucky,
and remembered.

The speaker is saying “yes” to life. Children are good and the future is bright, despite life’s cruelty of uncertainty and temporality, its disappointments and despair. According to Joseph Campbell, saying “yes” to life is the first function of myth:

The first function of mythology [is] to evoke in the individual a sense of
grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence.

It is the first function, because without saying “yes’ to life nothing else follows. You must accept all of life; you cannot chose which parts you like and dislike. You must not shun the horrors and embrace only the divine. If you are to be fully alive, you must view all of life, both the joy and sorrow, as part of the sublime. That is why the couple does not report the murder of the little girl to the police. Empathy knows no judgment.

In the poem “Three Things I Asked My Friend,” the speaker asks the friend with whom she walks across The Howling Wind Bridge, if he will make such a commitment to her in three increasingly costly and absurd scenarios:

I asked, “When I am in a rock and roll band called Shelter Dogs
will you come to all my shows?”
I asked, “When I am in a rock and roll and call the Dancing
Caucasians, will you buy my CDs?”
I asked, If I painted our figures very small, crossing the bridge
in the ferocious wind, with blazing trees taking up most of the canvas
would you buy that painting for one million dollars?”
The great thing about this friendship is he said yes, yes, and yes.

The great thing about Deborah Keenan’s book of poetry, The Saint of Everything, is that she tells us the answer to the challenge that the Thief poses to her for her life—what path to take. The path is the same for the speaker as it is for us, the reader: no matter what the circumstance, life is a gift, keep your nose pointed into the winds of creativity, and let empathy be your guide. This book is saying:

I am telling you
how to live. Now live that way.