The Acolyte is a poetry collection of retold Bible stories, essentially, with many of the poems focusing on a single character. There is a (rather too lengthy, I think) series of introductory, contemporary poems before we get to the retellings proper, but even these early poems have the flavour of disturbance, of going against proper behaviour and what is expected.
Hightower’s focus on normality, on the expectation thereof and on what happens in its absence, is the backbone of the text. These expectations of normality are explored in a number of different ways, but an early emphasis (and one that continues through the text) concerns setting—specifically that of arid environments. "Drought" (p. 10) comments that "We expect a certain consistency regarding seasons," and describes a winter different from normal, where instead of rain and snow the narrator complains that "a strange sun bullies / across the sky, blinds me with its insolence." The narrator is forced to change her own behaviour in consequence: previously serviceable winter clothes must be thrown aside, and her nights are sweaty and unpleasant. This is a dislocating experience. "I am misplaced, / standing under the wrong day, / and the night is far worse, a nocturnal desert."
The desert, in The Acolyte, is an image that recurs over and over.
This emphasis on setting, on the dislocation of the expected environment, is I think a useful device for embedding the reader into the mythological environment of the collection. The poems in The Acolyte are Biblically inspired; they are retellings of a belief system embedded within, and influenced by, a specific physical ecology. One cannot wander the desert for forty days and nights, for instance, without a desert actually being present to wander in.
I am not from a desert country. Mine is largely a land of green farms and rainforest. I’ve visited the Middle East, however, stood out in the Syrian desert at night with the dust and the starlight, with the absence of water and green things, in an environment dependent on oases. It felt foreign, as if I were somewhere I didn’t belong. In this I am not alone. A lot of people who read this collection will find this environment alien to them, so an early emphasis on setting is a way of taking them out of theirs. In this I think Hightower is particularly successful. Her images are underpinned by the images of my own experience, of course, but they are influential nonetheless—and particularly so, I think, because the potential dislocation between settings (that of the reader, that of The Acolyte) is firmly and repeatedly acknowledged: "Your body / knows something / is to be missed: / pictures that run through / displaced lands" ("Some Other Story," p. 11).
This dislocation, the point where "the ground around us shifting / as narratives were bent and tilted" ("My Mother’s Madness," p. 12), could be said to be the impetus behind the entire collection. Retellings do shift, their narratives do bend. There’s no point in writing them otherwise; the purpose of a retelling is not to recreate a previously existing story but to supplement it, to introduce another perspective and see how that perspective impacts upon the existing narrative. Retellings are primarily experimental. They alter a condition of the original text to see how the consequences of that change ripple through the whole. They do this because an audience is never static: it changes over time, influenced by politics and invention and migration, with changes of its own. The important point of a story for one generation may be entirely missed by the next. The focus may change, the sympathies alter.
This alteration happens in The Acolyte as the focus changes to more heavily emphasise the stories of women. Their experiences aren’t exactly privileged above those of their male counterparts (many of the poems have male protagonists), but their emotions, their experiences, are given equal space and validity. The women, like the men, are expected to be at the centre of their own stories. These are women who have, in the original (Biblical) text, been given page space—but page space is no guarantee of centrality. Take, for instance, Sarah, who in the Bible offers up her handmaiden Hagar so that Abraham can impregnate her. This, in that text, is baldly done, with no mention of how difficult it might have been for either party. Such a bargain is fertile grounds for fiction, however (just look at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) for what it can inspire from the Hagar point of view), and Hightower chooses to emphasise Sarah’s emotional response to the situation. The offer of her handmaid is like "choking on rosebushes / as the words left my mouth, / my teeth, thorns"; and the experience of listening to her husband and servant fucking is a violently disturbing one: "her moans / thunder across my heart, flashing me whispers / of the famine life to come" ("Sarah," p. 21).
There’s no mention of what Hagar has to go through, but then who would follow Atwood there? Still, the presence of exploited sexuality—of exploited female sexuality—is strongly present in the text. Two examples here will suffice. There is Tamar’s experience of repeated widowhood and prostitution ("Tamar," p. 20) in which she is "Black widowed into whoredom," but at least Tamar has choices, even if they are bad ones, and agency. This is in painful contrast to the poem "She" (pp. 37-38), in which the unnamed concubine of Judges 19: 25-26 is sent out by her owner to be gang-raped. "I lose track of hours, body count / as every orifice becomes an oracle," she says, and it gets worse from there. This is a confronting poem, and a challenging one. Hightower notes at the end of the collection that she owes thanks to the editor who first published this poem despite its "horrific subject matter" (p. 58) and I’m inclined to agree. It is not an enjoyable poem. I hated it, to be frank—but that, of course, is the whole idea. "She" is not a poem to be enjoyed. It is a poem to make a point: that supporting characters have their own stories, that sexual assault is not a literary device to be taken lightly, there in order to tick off some nasty "realist" box. To be honest, I’ve spent rather more time than I wished writing this review trying to find a way to say, "Oh for fuck’s sake, not rape again. Do you know how goddamn sick I am of reading about rape?" (See: nasty realist box; which uses rape as a go-to check-box for realism yet inexplicably does not include realist experiences of heroes shitting themselves to death through historically justifiable epidemics of cholera, for instance.)
But you know what? I can’t do it. I want to but I can’t. It would be hypocritical. I’ve done the same thing myself, because this is what retellings are for: not titillation, but for dragging the dodgy bits out into the light and saying, "Look how fucked up this is! Look at this woman. Look at her! Look at how little she mattered. Now go ahead and tell me . . . "
Well. There are many ways to end that sentence. Pick your own.
This is what retellings do. They upturn the expectations of normality. Even those of us who aren’t Christian (or religious at all) can be aware of these stories, percolating in the back of the brain, steeping us in the history of ideology and culture. The familiar often remains unexamined—it’s just always been there, we don’t give it much thought—but it sets expectation regardless. Retellings set up contrasting normalities, contrasting expectations. We can’t read the new without being reminded of the old, without comparing them to see where our own moral, social compass is pointing now; without acknowledging the invitation to turn from one to the other.
In that sense retellings are a destructive force, and a creative one. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that images of destruction are so heavily sprinkled through the text. The ark floating "through the world’s graveyard" ("Flood," pp. 18-19), the coming of plagues with "bodies falling, slow and beautiful as the sea" ("Aaron," pp. 28-29). The murder of a brother, his "head sunk down / into a bright puddle" ("Abel," p. 17); the murder of a guest, as Jael literally nails a man’s head to the floor: "Such a muted sound at first / as spike hits skin, then, / the skull’s soft crunch" ("Jael," pp. 32-33). But destruction, in mythology as in life, is rarely an end. Instead, it’s the opportunity for a new world, a clear board, a means of moving in an opposite direction. There is nothing that says this new direction must be a positive one, or better than what came before, but the potential is there.
Granted, the Bible isn’t short on destructive images, but in this new context, in the context of retelling the stories around those images, the themes of destruction and reconstruction, recreation, are particularly apt. And really, why not exploit the grandeur of those original images? Whatever you may think of the Bible as a religious text, as a literary one it frequently has beautiful images to go with its often equally beautiful words, and I think The Acolyte has benefited from this example.
Hightower’s language is lovely. There are certainly plenty of examples to choose from , but I think my favourite lines are from the opening of "Findings" (p. 40): "What man would love a woman / famine fed, with old gods / chasing her into strange houses?" Yet while the language here is often lovely, there are a few points where it jars. These most frequently come when the poems makes reference to something noncontemporary. This is a risk when writing something that smacks of historical fiction: the temptation to add an analogy that is otherwise perfect, barring the fact that it is completely alien to the period. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, but the payoff doesn’t always justify the risk—this form of cultural anachronism can also be seen as a form or dislocation, but in a text that piles dislocations atop each other like sand grains it’s easy, I think, to push a little too far.
The example that struck me most came from the poem "A Virtuous Woman" (p. 46): "When I walk into circles, big as Grendel / the timing is always wrong." I’m not sure that acknowledging the problem actually fixes it, as the reference to the mythological monster smacked me out of the poem immediately. This collection is so concerned with Biblical mythology, with the images of dust and desert, that trying to shoe-horn in a creature from Scandinavian myth, a creature associated with deep pools and golden halls, seems a misstep to me. I can understand the temptation for this analogy and the imagery within the poem is strong, but it doesn’t fit—worse, it doesn’t fit in this particular poem. "A Virtuous Woman," says the title, and if this collection has a number of focal points then one of them is certainly the treatment of Biblical women, of how they are perceived, how their experiences are given validity, how their personhood can be established or taken away. A poem with this title, then, should under the circumstances be a point of textual convergence. Instead it’s no such thing, and my reaction was puzzlement and irritation more than anything else. (And for goodness sake, in a poem about the expectations placed on women why, why, is the focal point Grendel and not Grendel’s mother? It makes no sense on any level.)
But then this is expectation again, temporal as well as textual. Expectation comes too from the author: the expectation of her reader’s cultural literacy, the perceived need to explain—or to decide what needs explanation. A number of the retellings are left to stand or fall on their own—"Sarah," for example, or "Jericho" (pp. 30-31), or "Samson and Solomon" (p. 34). But others—such as "Jael," "Jephthah" (pp. 35-36), or "On Eating a Child" (pp. 42-43)—have the relevant Bible verse reproduced above them, presumably to inform the reader as to what’s going on. I’m not sure why readers can’t be trusted to know these stories without explanation, or to be able to figure them out if not, when they’re trusted to do so on other pages, but the reproduced verses don’t I think add anything to the poems. They do make me stop and wonder why the author thought I needed the help, though, which seems slightly condescending in a text that otherwise, admirably, expects so much from the reader.
This is poetry, after all, and highly literate poetry at that. I don’t know many poetry readers who enjoy being spoon-fed, so maybe a collection so concerned with faith could show a little more of it?
But these are quibbles. The Acolyte is a largely excellent collection, with a particularly fine sense of place and a welcome focus on the feminine experience. If you’re interested in myth and retellings, or if you’re actually religious and looking for another way to connect with the original text, it is absolutely worth a very close look.