The great thing about Nancy Hightower’s poetry in The Acolyte is it’s combination of transport and confrontation. From the very first poem we are brought into character’s minds and hearts and must engage what we find there. Religion is the overarching subject but the theme is epiphany. Using startling words, unexpected revelations, and keen insight, Hightower pulls the reader into each poem and creates powerful moments that make the reader feel deeply while also interrogating the nature of belief. The result is intense immersion in pivotal reflections that beseech the reader to look into their own souls.
“Souls” may sound excessive, especially from a reviewer who isn’t sure they exist. But that is the feeling generated by a number of these poems, an urging to rethink one’s ideas of love, sacrifice, worship, and resolve. This is a collection of Hightower’s work from various periodicals, from Forge to Electric Velocipede, but the cohesiveness of this collection is extraordinary. Some seem like personal recollections, others retellings of the lives of Biblical figures and events. Most of them are conjured from first-person perspectives, emotional anamneses that codify a pivotal revelation for the speakers. They are shouting out truths and pains, wailing to the sky and whatever they believe dwells there.
The poems are both poetic and direct, using precise words and structures to focus not by pinpointing, but by channeling flickers of memory, sharply felt reactions, and buffeted intuition into instances of divination that sometimes uncover the inner struggles and traumas of the speaker, and other times provoke revelations in the reader. It feels like the author is searching as hard as her subjects, and wants to convince us of the necessity for the reader to do the same. “PTL, circa 1981,” which is my favorite poem in the book, takes a mélange of impressions and creates a crisis of both faith and memory. “[B]urnt orange carpet crawls beneath my feet” as a young girl prays and watches her family’s beliefs and delusions meld. The power of the poem is in what it kindles in the reader’s imagination, building to a conclusion that is saddening for all involved.
The first third of the collection is poetry in this vein; then it shifts to Old Testament characters and events and then the New Testament. The middle section was a little weaker than the other two, although “Eve,” “Aaron,” and “Moses” are all superb poems. The goal of the individual reflections is to tell a story that disrupts our normal understanding of each poem’s subject. But this rupture emerges from the revealed suffering and sorrow-born wisdom of that subject. Even when you sense the conclusion of a poem it still startles you and unravels commonplace assumptions. A few poems, such as “Some Other Story” and “Pharaoh” fell short of unraveling revelations, but the collection overall is exquisite and affecting, searing the reader’s vision and engulfing them with waves of associations, disassociations, and observations that combine into profound illuminations.
I use those adjectives because they resonate with a recurrent imagery in the collection, that of fire/sun and water. Fire ignites and consumes while suns and stars provide radiance and points of adoration. Water creates mud and tears and rain, diluting and overwhelming. These poems are saturated with burning light and unstoppable water. This is just one linguistic component that makes these poems artful and immediate. You could write a lengthy meditation on this one topic.
These poems try to change you, and ask that you keep coming back for more. There is no higher praise from me than to say that I want to do just that, to marvel at them while I learn more about myself.
John E. O. Stevens is a writer, bookseller, and bibliophile snuggled in his hermitage in Upstate New York. He has been published in Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Le Zaporogue, and frequently contributes to SF Signal. He is also one-third of the monthly The Three Hoarsemen podcast. He can usually be found quoting poetry and expressing incredulity at the vicissitudes of life on Twitter as @eruditeogre.