Lou Ella Hickman has done what many people are afraid to do. In her masterful poetry collection, she: robed and wordless, Hickman dives into the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, giving voices to many of the women who appear there. Her poems are lean and tight. They hold insight, wisdom, even humor. This is a gorgeous book of poems. Whether the reader has religious faith or not, any reader can have faith in the craft, beauty, and power of these poems.
Sister Lou Ella Hickman is a catholic sister, a member of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, from Corpus Christi, Texas. She has been a teacher from grade schools to colleges. This is her first book of poems but I hope it won’t be her last.
The cover of she: robed and wordless is a beautiful painting titled “Children of Haiti,” by another sister in her community, Marilyn Springs. This moving painting invites the reader into a space of contemplation and observation by showing us three feminine faces, watching and waiting.
Hickman divides the book into two sections. “in the beginning” contains poems in the voices of women from the Hebrew Bible. Here we get poems from and about Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Ruth, Hannah, David’s mother, Esther, and even “wild lady wisdom.” The second section, “was the word…” offers us poems from women in the New Testament, including Mary, Anna, Peter’s mother-in-law, the widow of Nain, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, and many others.
These poems are brief, almost like Buddhist koans in their evocative, lean forms. The poems are clean and uncluttered. They offer readers a kind of diving board from which to jump and employ our own imaginations. Nearly each of these poems left me wanting more. I wanted to know more about how the poet imagines the life of this person. Often, women appear in the Bible unnamed, and often we only know part of their stories. These poems let us look in, through Hickman’s liberated imagination, to see more of these women than the biblical texts give us. (I put her poems in quotes because she occasionally uses Italics within the poems so showing her poems in Italics here wouldn’t work. Also, she uses many uneven line starts which my computer program was not able to handle. My apologies for showing her poems nearly all left-justified. Finally, the lack of capitalization is hers. I tried to recreate them accurately here.)
One of my favorites is “eve’s lament.” In this post-apple poem, we hear Eve considering her own present moment.
She laments: “a curse is now my skin” and later shows us “every shame is carried like a dead child / now we the thistles which briar everything.”
We also hear from “wild lady wisdom:”
“they bought me a one way ticket
to somewhere to nowhere
after they thought they had tamed me
but i will return
to somewhere everywhere’s downtown
pushing my cart
wearing my coat
pushing my cart on the street
to the corner
listen to me”
In the second section of poems, “the slaughter of the innocents” is especially moving:
“evening breezes cradle them…
rocking back and forth
the women of Bethlehem know”
Indeed, the women often know slaughter in a more vivid way than men. It’s often women who remain. Women who are hiding the children, negotiating their safety. Hickman captures this reality well.
She captures Mary Magdalene’s unique perspective beautifully:
“how often i have heard them murmer–
she’s the one
even now, my family, what’s left of them
is still not used to the stares, the whispers…
She gives voice to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, whom the gospel recalls that Jesus raised from the dead. A complicated reality, indeed. Here, Mary speaks of that beautiful complexity:
“when he came back to us
his cheeks flamed white
his eyes tight from darkness
he talks so little now
each word measured
and he waits
in a shroud of reasons all his own”
Lou Ella Hickman inhabits these biblical women with respect and honesty. She gives us their voices in ways that are beautiful, insightful, and necessary. Whether one approaches this book as a person of faith or as one who sees worth in biblical literature — as literature– these poems are beautiful and can offer much to contemplate. A favorite of mine here is “mary speaks after the death of joseph”
“just days after the brush fire
the fever came
burning itself out with death…
he, too, was my treasure—
he loved beyond the reach of words
that embraced the beckoning of dreams
such was our secret
such was our life”
This book, from Press 53 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a true treasure. Women in the churches have often carried the heaviest load with the least recognition. Here, Lou Ella Hickman, a woman in the church, seeks to recognize these biblical women with art and wit. She succeeds. This book matters.