Vapor Through Various Satins


Each month, Alexandra Barylski will offer a post on a single poem or a poet whose work draws attention to our embodied selves. She is fascinated by work that addresses ways we touch one another’s bodies in a progressively immaterial world directed by machines and how such an act helps us remain more human.

Poems are places of worship. When I began traveling as an adult, I would seek out various places of worship that kept their doors open during the week. These places were often Catholic churches with some historical or architectural significance, usually open for a fee. But I loved best the churches whose hours were free and continuous, places where anyone could seek relief from the heat deep within the cool dark stones or sit quietly in a pew while it rained or snowed, places where anyone’s body might feel wanted and refreshed no matter how dirty or clean. I am not Catholic, though I have been to enough masses and Anglo-Catholic services to find peace in the smell of incense, comfort in the soft light of prayer candles, and unspoken community in the silence of every type of stranger. Even if I never formally worship, I hope enough people remain in sacred buildings to keep them maintained. My soul feels its weight in these spaces. Each experience alters me, offers me to myself anew like the first reading of a poem or an intimate moment with another person. Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Vapor Through Various Satins” is a poem I enter again and again as place of reverence, a sanctuary of dark corners and bright Sunday mornings.


Spaar rubs the sacred against the erotic in most of her work, and the language in this poem is no exception. The poem begins: I have been so dirty / in each place you’ve looked. There is a sense of sin or guilt here, a sense that the body is not holy to whomever is looking. From the beginning, the speaker is soiled: my body has absorbed / the light, the iris stain, / and marked me. Mud. Bruise. This body swallows light the way a dark fabric soaks up sun and does not bounce it back, and such absorbing hurts the body. “Bruise” always slows my reading of this poem. I wonder at its geneses, its color, if the speaker knows where that purpling of blood under flesh originated or if they can not trace the skin’s tenderness to a specific event.  My legs usually show large bruises, somewhere around the knee or on my thighs. I never know what impact caused them. Running into tables or chairs is my guess, a carelessness from childhood I still inhabit. My body, host to auto-immune diseases, is inclined to think itself blemished, distinct from other bodies that are whole. Like the speaker, I think that I will try,  / in the sun and in lesser //  fire, to blot this slur, flaw / discolored  image of me. I, too, am in the in the dark corner of the poem, dimly lit and mournful, where one might be in supplication on their knees attempting to heal themselves.


Spaar understands what many of us have forgotten about the body, that the gods desire it, that they come to us in physical forms, that they can make us holy. The beginning of the poem does not make clear who is looking at the speaker’s body, but by the poem’s turn it becomes evident that it is a lover, and for me that lover has always been a god made flesh, for if we are to know healing in our soul it must be known in the body. The speaker blots out their stains with the speckled // cloth of near origin: our / bedclothes, those trophies // fringed flat and holy. Such / a ripe display. If there is forgiveness and cleansing in this poem, then it is through physical action, through intimate knowledge of one another. I adore the addition of “ripe display,” as it feels like a joyful flaunt, that the act (maybe taboo) was also pleasurable.


God as a one night stand is not how most people would summarize Marian doctrine, but since my first reading of the poem I think that Spaar might be alluding to the meeting of Mary and the Holy Spirit. The end of the poem refers to the lover as a starling, a hinged and blurred // silhouette etched, rising. There is so much we don’t know in the story, only that Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her.  Perhaps because I am a woman, but I want to know where she was and what she was doing when the Holy Spirit alighted, I want to know if she felt the moment in her body. I wonder if she ever thought of herself as dirty.


Vapor Through Various Satins


I have been so dirty

in each place you’ve looked.


my body has absorbed

the light, the iris stain,


and marked me. Mud.

Bruise. Calendar of salt


and faith. I will try,

in the sun and in lesser


fire, to blot this slur, flaw

discolored, with the speckled


cloth of near origin: our

bedclothes, those trophies


fringed flat and holy. Such

a ripe display. Starling,


skillbreast, swathed too

clean and briefhanded,


fall over yourself leaving,

your hinged, your blurred


silhouette etched, rising

more visible, more liquid.

Alexandra Barylski is a poet, a senior editor at Marginalia Review of Books, and an educational consultant. Her chapbook "Imprecise Perishing" was released last month from Finishing Line Press. The collection evolved out of her experience living with chronic Lyme and explores the renegotiations of identity, relationships, and faith that arise when the body is in a state of dis-ease. 

Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Ruminate Magazine, Phoebe, Minerva Rising, Ithaca Lit, and elsewhere. She won the 2015 Morton Marcus Poetry Prize. She was a finalist for the 2016 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Prize, the Yemassee Journal Poetry Prize, and the New South Poetry Prize. She is most drawn in by poems that explore the exuberance and exhaustion of the body, gendered desire, and the complex interplay of faith, reason, and technology.