The Essence of Things: A Review of Nadia de Vries’ First Communion
I don’t remember much about my own First Holy Communion, aside from the dress. It was the standard white, bought in a store that specialized in communion dresses for little girls, and covered in lace lilies. There was an actual collar made of lace lilies and an extra trim of lilies around my calves. There was a floral headdress involved. I have no memory of my motivations, only a distinct feeling that the dress had to be mine. Accessorized with white tights and Mary Janes, a plush white coin purse, and white Precious Moments Bible, the sartorial aspect of the day outweighed everything else.
Nadia de Vries, it would seem, may have connected well with my seven-year-old self. Her first book, a slim volume of poetry called First Communion, comes beautifully packaged in a white pouch tied with a red bow, accented by a silver sheep charm. The perfect-bound book could itself be mistaken for a book of vespers, the text on its black matte front bordered in white lace, a solitary white lace cross marking the back cover. Clearly, aesthetics were very important to the fulfillment of both of our ceremonies.
Like any good Catholic, de Vries’ poems are slim, spare, burdened by guilt. A Charlie Brown epigraph reads: “Everything I do makes me feel guilty.” Elsewhere (in a poem’s title), she reveals rather cheekily: “I Have No Guilty Pleasures, Only Guilt”. However, her title poem reveals a less-than-perfect practitioner of the faith:
When I hear church bells ringing something dies
inside of me. Maybe it’s you.
I’m no god so I don’t know.
Read hastily, “I’m no god” is easily mistaken for “I’m no good”. Another, “I Am My Own Wary Recipient”, offhandedly compares finding one’s way home without use of GPS to an imagined future faith: “Who knows, a year from now/ I might even find god.”
There is a murky undercurrent running through these poems, surfacing in lines like “You have to commit yourself to it—/ not to me, but the darkness.” Superstitions—touching, rites—appear, diminishing the omnipotence of the Catholic God and His Creed. “Rock Fort’” one of the most beautiful and strangest of poems in the collection, reads:
The doll hides herself inside the cave.
She goes inside the cave to grow.
She has to smash a lot of rocks.
She has to touch all the right stones.
She won’t be strong enough otherwise.
This one is awash in feminism, and a bit of the occult. Alone, this doll-girl gains her strength from breaking things. Like many saints, she sets out alone. She has a calling and, once taken up, she appears duty-bound to honor it.
If de Vries’ poems run parallel to my own path, this is not an altogether unexpected shift. A year after that First Communion, already having renounced Catholicism but committed to riding out a long wave of religious school, it came time to pick my own personal hero to embody for All Saints Day. I went off-list and chose Joan of Arc, getting help from my mom on the armor, with a custom fleur-de-lis chest plate and gold piping for the big day—during which, I mostly focused on describing my own funeral pyre. Keeping right up, de Vries asserts in “You Turn Yourself into an Everything”:
A beautiful skin also stinks when it burns
I am not afraid of hell
it keeps me warm on cold nights
I am not afraid of any chain or arrow
binding me forever to a dark winter.
My eight-year-old self would have approved, and kept approving for many years to follow.
These days, I am less focused on absolutes, religious and otherwise; less focused on costuming, both in poetry and life, more on spare language, a challenge, and hard-won satisfaction. Now, de Vries appeals to me most in “Pretty Fun for a Girl”:
I like lemons.
I like the essence of things.
And here, in this primary volume, she is giving us just that: the essence of things. In 36 pages, First Communion offers up 30 prayers—poems and hymns, each—to the gods. Its brevity is not without its merits; her poems are, in turns, pithy and undemanding, playful and sad, angelic and unholy. There is promise held forth in these inaugural poems, both for the writer and the reader, servicing the devout and the atheist in each of us.