ON HIVE BY CHRISTINA STODDARD
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN PRESS, 2015
REVIEW BY ANNA KRAMER
The concept of a religious institution tends to be physical: a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc. A religious institution, however, is far more metaphorical and powerful than a singular building, and it is in Christina Stoddard’s debut collection of poetry Hive (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015) that we are introduced to the concept of a life-consuming religious institution. Her perspective is a stained-glass window colored by the Mormon Church, poverty, violence, and violation, her story a controlled yet merciless thunderstorm of years of anger, frustration, and sorrow battering upon the tinted glass. Her distinctively unique perspective, rather than isolating the reader, allows the reader to begin their journey through her thunderstorm with the same standard and mostly clean slate.
As a child, Stoddard grew up as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and her poems examine and reflect the influence of the church upon her life, likening the Mormon Church to a beehive and herself a bee unwilling to remain part of the swarm. “Hive”, the title poem, stands as her penultimate protest to the church and its doctrines. She “gag[s]/on buzz and clack” and her “mouth/fills with swarm" as a child, while her adult self spits out the bees, forbidden speech becoming words on paper as she separates herself from the hive. The Mormon Church becomes not just a religion, but a cultish and proscriptive way of life, a state of mind, and a moral doctrine in one overarching mold.
Stoddard looks not only at her experience, but also at events that took place in Tacoma, Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, the setting of the book. Each character in these poems reacts with passive silence to a series of violent acts either committed or caused by the Church. Infamous serial killers like Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, stand as frequent subjects of her musings – Hive opens with a poem entitled “Bodies of Two Girls Found in Woods.” These poems and many others in the collection serve to illustrate a childhood of normalized violence, along with the Church’s normalization of silence as a response. When Stoddard describes the sensation of drowning to baptize the dead, she declares, “To save the others, the Elder/has to hold me down.” She readily applies this idea to other experiences, such as witnessing a drive-by shooting at her neighbor’s house and remaining silent until the publication of the poem describing the experience many years later.
In Hive, we witness repeated victimization and Stoddard’s eventual reaction of furious rebellion. Her rage becomes most apparent in the most carefully controlled poem of the collection, “Raped Girl’s Mad Song.” Here, Stoddard conforms to a villanelle structure, using tight, carefully constructed phrasing to make her anger all the more overwhelming in her iron grip. It is in “Rape Girl’s Mad Song” that the ubiquity of this collection of poems is most evident; in reading this poem, the reader is consumed by inexplicable empathetic rage, not just for the poet, but for all victims of rape.
Imagining children in the face of such violence and anger is stunning, and yet Stoddard bravely contemplates just that. “I Am Thinking of Salmon”, a self-reflective poem, compares the perpetual cycle of breeding salmon to the cycle of breeding children. The Mormon faith proscribes that every soul exists with God before mortal life, and the soul’s period of life on Earth exists as a pre-destined fate. If a person can embrace the concept of fate, the question of whether to have or not have a child disappears and a child becomes something given by the hand of God. It is unclear what conclusion Stoddard reaches regarding children and her contemplation of breeding salmon, but her poem raises provocative questions that each of us must answer for ourselves.
A sense of universal human emotion ties together the unfamiliar, violent, provocative, and rebellious collection of poems in Christina Stoddard’s Hive. The reader is not left with a grandiose, philosophical contemplation of the power of religion and the damaging, long-term effects of violence, but with simple, powerful, and universal emotions: rage, sorrow, and awe.
Christina Stoddard grew up in Tacoma, Washington, as a member of the Mormon church. She earned an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was the Fred Chappell Fellow. She is currently the managing editor of an economics journal at Vanderbilt University and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
by Christina Stoddard
University of Wisconsin Press, 2015
$17.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-299-30424-9
Anna Kramer is a rising high school senior at The Agnes Irwin School in eastern Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Impulse Magazine. She didn't learn to read until second grade, and still spends her days obsessively overcompensating with her head in a book.