What We’re Reading: Philip Memmer
I recently became interested in reading Philip Memmer’s work after two of his “parables” in the Los Angeles Review surprised me by the mix of conversational with biblical diction. Lost Horse Press has published two of Memmer’s four books, The Storehouses of the Snow: Psalms, Parables and Dreams (2012), Memmer’s fourth book following Lucifer: A Hagiography (2009). Memmer’s obsession is biblical yet introspective, and he often casts his persona as a modern day Job.
Memmer’s narrator’s skepticism of religion, yearning to find god, but inability to find comfort in that god, make for mostly interesting reading. The Storehouses of the Snow finds Memmer’s persona knitting a sweater for god and fretting about the material (wool is “too clever”; cotton, “too common”) and “how many sleeves / [god] might need[...]”, and imagining a snowflake missing—“the delicate hinge / ajar, the small glass case / burst open”—from the storehouses of the snow. Poems like “Parable (There was a street…)” upset tradition by encouraging the reader to “find the kingdom empty, / then make it yours.” Sadly, for every exciting poem, there are two that fall short.
Oddly, Lucifer, Memmer’s previous work, is the more compelling of the two collections, signaling an unfortunate slump in Memmer’s recent work. Subtitled, A Hagiography—a biography of a holy person or saint—Lucifer is meant to be read as a single poem that tracks Lucifer’s life from his birth (“[...]on the day when Lucifer / was born, God found himself / full of questions–”) through the end of days (“How cold it is, now that the stars have died[...]”). In Memmer’s telling, Lucifer is a troubled youth who doesn’t understand his father, but is never evil. In fact, told from Lucifer’s perspective, God and his creation are downright foul.
Memmer is a capable writer, whose poems work hard enough to keep you reading, but whose technique doesn’t work as hard as the content. The poetry that I really love, the poetry that really amazes me, is poetry that uses technical skill to enact content. I love poetry that uses line breaks to increase urgency or create double-meanings. Memmer, unfortunately, uses the same form for the majority of his poems in The Storehouses of the Snow, which has the adverse effect of making most line breaks appear arbitrary. Take “Psalm (In the desert heat):”
In the desert heat, you have set
a table, that all might
come unto you
and be made full. And so after
much wandering, and years
I have arrived.
Considering how well-crafted the narrative arc is in Storehouses and Lucifer, both within poems and over the course of the collections, it’s disappointing that not as much attention was paid to form.
Memmer’s work is certainly enjoyable, and fairly easy to read, but ultimately the conversational diction falls flat. If you’re interested in Judeo-Christian traditions, both The Storehouses of the Snow and Lucifer: A Hagiography are worthwhile books whose personas and characters reflect tradition, while upsetting expectations. Memmer’s biblical knowledge is such that he can easily buck traditional narrative and morals without descending into cliche. If as much effort were paid to technique as biblical allusion these poems would rise from passable, to great.
Have you ever been excited to read the work of a writer, but been disappointed once you had?