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No Confession, No Mass

No Confession, No Mass

by Jennifer Perrine
No Confession, No Mass

No Confession, No Mass

by Jennifer Perrine


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Whether exploring the porous borders between sin and virtue or examining the lives of saints and mystics to find the human experiences in stories of the divine, the poems in No Confession, No Mass move toward restoration and reunion.

Jennifer Perrine’s poems ask what healing might be possible in the face of sexual and gendered violence worldwide—in New Delhi, in Steubenville, in Juárez, and in neighborhoods and homes never named in the news. The book reflects on our own complicity in violence, “not confessing, but unearthing” former selves who were brutal and brutalized—and treating them with compassion. As the poems work through these seeming paradoxes, they also find joy, celebrating transformations and second chances, whether after the failure of a marriage, the return of a reluctant soldier from war, or the everyday passage of time.

Through the play of language in received forms—abecedarian, sonnet, ballad, ghazal, villanelle, ballade—and in free verse buzzing with assonance, alliteration, and rhyme, these poems sing their resistance to violence in all its forms.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803284975
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Series: The Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 80
File size: 753 KB

About the Author

Jennifer Perrine is an associate professor of English and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University. Perrine is the author of In the Human Zoo, recipient of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, and The Body Is No Machine, winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry.

Read an Excerpt

No Confession, No Mass

By Jennifer Perrine


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8497-5


    Invocation: [Saint] Genevieve

    In worship, the people remember you
      as a protector, invoke you to guard
    against natural disasters: drought, flood,
      sweat of fever. To recall your power
    to heal they must bring to mind your abuse:
      how your mother struck you — her heavy palm
    sharp against your face — and as punishment
      lost her sight until, months later, you fetched
    water from a well, washed her eyes, lifted
      the veil from her world. How did your mother
    look in that moment, engaged in her own
      mystic vision, returned from her journey
    in the dark? What did her gaze light on first:
      the fragile fabric you daubed at her lids,
    the small coin you wore tethered at your neck,
      your long fingers reaching toward the girl
    you would become, who ate only barley
      bread and beans, slowly paring your body
    into that relic, enshrined, borne aloft
      through the streets of Paris, sucking poison
    from believers, drawing out the ergot,
      the gangrene from their hands and feet? What prayer
    was poised on her lips in that instant, spell
      to keep you safe, to stop the villagers
    from begging at your bones? Did she wish you
      desire, a spouse, arms spangled with trinkets,
    enough excess to extinguish the fire
      a bishop lit in your seven-year-old
    self? Is she the one who sits forever
      beside you in the icons, in disguise
    as the devil, her breath a stinging rush
      of wind at your cheek, her bellows huffing,
    fervent, trying to blow your candle out?

    The Mother, the Girl, the Mirror That Speaks

    What choice does the woman make, inspecting
    her face at dawn, the mirror flanked by bulbs
    that transport her from clear day to dusty
    pink evening? The girl suspects the gentle
    rouge of twilight, where the dial remains

    after her mother has left with layers
    of creamy pancake armoring her skin.
    What flaw, what damage does she try to hide,
    bandage, seal tight with powder? What power
    does the glamour hold? The girl doesn't know,

    but all those hours, days until her mother
    comes home, she gazes into the silver
    square like Narcissus snared by his image
    in the pool, his hair twining its tendrils
    toward the surface as he stares, rooted

    to the place while Echo calls, calls, waits
    for vanity to unbind its slick shine,
    to release her beloved to the sharp
    rock that lurks in the shallows, the soft kiss
    of sand buried too deep to see, aching

    for touch. Even the water says, Enter
beckons to the girl, Closer. I can
    carry you from this place. I'll show you where
    your mother's gone. Watch her eyes, your lips sink
    into the dusk. Slip into me, and trust.

    To Chant Back the Summer

    of us, three lazy queens
      enshrined on plastic lounge
        chairs, our long hair dreaded
    with chlorine. Never bored,
      we planted our sun-flecked
        selves like hostas in shade
    by the poolside, or grew
      less domestic, tube-topped
        honeysuckle, two-toned
    when nude, flowers opened
      by the evening, fragrant
        pollen waft in the dusk.
    At dark, we'd shut the screen
      doors tight against neighbor
        boys, the hollow echo
    of basketballs smacking
      pavement. They'd assign us
      bawdy names — we'd replace
    them, ink one another
      with markers, arms tattooed,
        each others' signatures
    set like jewels in crowns
      of arrow-riddled hearts.
        At midnight, we'd return
    outside, tumble like rocks
      tossed in the creek, our backs
        to the boards of the deck,
    our chests pressed rib
      to rib to rib, or else belly
        down in the just-mown grass.
    We'd fill and be full, breath
      spiced like cider, that tart
        of apple and sharp scent
    of clove that would whisper,
      liquid, the faintest hint
        of our oncoming fall.

    Humility | Pride

    In the dark before dawn, in the drawn-out
    heart of August — month made to impress
    my skin with its lack of restraint, no shame

    in its salt-sweet sweat, its scrub of chiggers —
    I lay in the cleared field, arms lifted, hands
    pressed against the sky to catch the shower

    of stars that were not stars but lofty rocks
    spun from space, incandescent with friction,
    that swept me with streaks of light, glitter

    strewn on my body's parade, holiday
    celebrating this first moment I knew
    the worth of witness, the use of my shy,

    watchful self, who loved being low, treasured
    how I, too, was a small speck sent whirling
    in surrender, a mote of brilliant dust.

    For the Lone Man at the Violence Prevention Center

    Agonies are one of my changes of garments
    — Walt Whitman

    You were in her shoes, high-heeled boots
    much too big for eight-year-old feet,
    so you shuffled your way across
    to the mirror where you draped fringed
    gauze scarves from your head, pretend hair
    cascading over your shoulder.
    Twelve years later, you try in vain

    to explain this day to strangers:
    It's not that I wanted to be
    a girl. No, I'm not gay.
You say
    you didn't need to know the silk
    of her dress, the ritual of blush,
    lipstick, and perfume to make sense
    of the pleasure of adornment,

    of costume. You only wanted
    to unearth why, when your mother
    walked with you to school on her way
    to work, she'd turn her face, avert
    her eyes from men in cars who'd sing
    their endearments — baby, sweet thing
    and screech away or sometimes slow

    their pace to a crawl, watch, silent.
    This, you tell us, is why you marched
    out into an afternoon garbed
    in her entire ensemble, clomped
    careful steps around the one block
    where you were allowed to venture
    alone. When the first stone hit you,

    you fell, the scrape of the sidewalk
    tearing your knees, hose. By the time
    you stumbled home, boots and scarves tossed
    in bushes, ribs kicked and crushed, mouth
    full of mud, you knew the culprits:
    kids who played hide and seek with you
    in backyards, girls and boys who skipped

    rope, battled each other with sticks
    stick poised as swords. After, your mother
    wept for days, made you swear never
chased off the ones who threw
    dirt clods as you sat on the stoop,
    moved you both to an apartment
    in the next town. You rode a bus

    to your new school, and she took one
    to work. You never saw the men
    whoop and holler at her again,
    but you still wear her flinch inside,
    you tell us now. In the quiet
    after, we wear it, too, recall
    our own walks in our mothers' shoes.

    Embarrassment: from baraço (halter)

All he found when he came looking for us was the home my mother wanted to leave behind: newspapers stacked knee-deep in the hallways, every corner redolent of cat piss, linoleum caked with dried mud and dust, tangles of hair matted to the tub, dried scabs of meals coating plates and bowls piled high in the sink, on counters. Everywhere the stink, the rot and mold, the great heaps of unwashed clothes, all the filth my mother never let anyone see. No friends allowed inside. Even her dates didn't get in the door. She spent her nights at their dubious dens, leaving me alone to toss hamburger wrappers and soda cups on the living room floor, our one trashcan so full I couldn't empty it. My father, finding all this mess, assumed the worst, took photos, jotted notes, thinking the house had been ransacked, that we'd been robbed, killed or kidnapped, though police assured him there were no signs of struggle. How she'd let the house go, he couldn't imagine. Before the divorce, I heard her shout: I'm no one's maid. Years later, when my father asks how we lived in such squalor, I tell him I never noticed at the time, though once I did: My best friend, Heather, and I were playing outside when a sudden shower drove us to huddle under the eaves. Soaked, I took pity, opened the door, disobeying my mother's one rule. Inside, Heather didn't ask questions about the mildew, the crumpled paper bags she had to brush aside to sit. She refused the towel I handed her to undo the work of the rain. I saw it then: tatty, gray, stained. Heather left, and later, when my mother found the couch still wet, I told the truth. Her face flushed; I tried to bolt. She reined me in with one hand, unfastened her belt. If they see this, they'll take you from me, she screamed through the volley of blows. My back grew a rope of welts. They'll call me unfit. Is that what you want? I tell my father none of this, judge it best not to show him the last bits of how his ex fell apart once they were unhitched. I don't say how I, too, was the mess, tether she yearned to slip, so she could careen unimpeded through life, how I held tight as she zoomed away, raced toward a place where she'd be no one's mother, no one's wife.

    Envy | Kindness

    My hand pressed to her stretched skin,
    her full belly turns a key

    without a room, climbs ivy
    through my empty insides, vines

    that twine this trellis of need.
    I lower my eyes, green seed

    germinating in my veins,
    blood pumping with little knives,

    the thousand cuts of this Ides
    made of each mother I've seen,

    from paintings of gravid Eve
    to my own mom, with seven

    kids, to this dear friend who sends
    me sonograms. I deny

    to her the screech of this vise
    winding tight at her joy, sink

    my keen howls in an inky
    deep. For her I unspool skeins,

    knit blankets, stay by her side
    at doctor's visits, devise

    a surprise shower. Still I
    can't stifle this yen. I kiss

    it, cradle it, hush its din,
    cries that echo in the den

    where nothing grows, nothing dies.

    After My Mother's Death, I Feel Nothing

    except heartburn, or more precisely,
        in the doctor's words,
    you've grown a hole
        where the acid leaks through
    and floods up into your mouth,

    and now I know
        the truth's come out:
    this is how love's always felt:
        ignition switch in my chest
      and whatever revs to life
    emits neither subtle hum nor purr
        nor growl.
    There's no word for it — no yawp, no howl —
        only a taste, a texture:
    bilious twitch pushed wrong-way through
        this faulty valve.
      I've wanted so long to love the way
        others proclaim —
    through prais and grief,
          through speaking aloud the beloved's name —
    but mother, I have only this —
        cells that once divided
          inside you
          now run amok, consumptive,
        this pulse at my throat
      turned sharp blue flame.
    If I knew where to find you,
        I'd bury it beside you,
    I'd pull out the fuses, the wiring,
        this whole damned
      let its fuel
        wash over you,
      let it unmark
    your grave.


      Invocation: [Saint] Euphrosyne

      After ascetic but before austere
    comes attire, as in: the way to escape
      when, at ten, you're already affianced
    to a stranger known only for his wealth
      is to be reborn, to bury beauty,
    cloister it in a monk's cowl, to carry
      out the coveted body like washing
    and beat it against a rock, cold water
      tearing at the jewelry of your face.
    Whatever shimmer of sex might have slept
      safe in you, inhabited the welcome
    country of youth, you offered, oblation
      at the altar of change, burnt all your names —
    daughter, desire, despair — until you ceased
      to be woman, became instead servant,
    disciple who drove even the abbot
      to distraction, the elders unable
    to overcome their longing, confessing
      how you'd slip into their dreams, surprise them
    even when pious, awake, until peace
      arrived for you only in solitude,
    cell where you were no temptation at all,
      where you spread your limbs the length of your rough
    bed and prayed, where only God could witness
      your grace, only joy would answer your call.

    A Theory of Violence

    — after New Delhi, after Steubenville

    Under the surface of this winter lake,
    I can still hear him say you're on thin ice
my heel grabbed, dragged into the opaque
    murk of moments — woman raped on a bus;

    girl plunged into oblivion, taken
    on a tour of coaches' homes, local bars,
    backseats of cars, the sour godforsaken
    expression on each classmate's face; the dark,
    the common route home, faint footfalls behind.
    How many times have I bloodied my fist
    against this frozen expanse to remind
    myself there is another side, hope-kissed,

    full of breath? I howl. The water begs, drown,
    its hand pressing tight, muffling every sound.

    The Divorcée's Fable

    Call it what you will — park, garden,
    domesticity — I'd been bred

    to be docile, to allow hands
    to touch, to feed. No one would say

    I met neglect or cruelty,
    only it was clear who had made

    the display, the menagerie,
    who had built enclosures and moats

    around me. So when a stranger
    unlocked my cage, I did not bite,

    I did not flee. No squeal, no squeak
    to mark the day I was removed,

    set down feral in the forest
    for my slow untaming. My zoo

    habits free, I crept in the wild,
    my shoddy bones learning to roam

    the roadless expanse, to survive
    solitude, space, wonder at last.

    But even here the threat is clear —
    I have grown my pelt thick with fear

    of being hunted, sold as drug
    or food, or worse yet, of meeting

    the ones who would name me stray, lost,
    make of me the beloved pet.


Excerpted from No Confession, No Mass by Jennifer Perrine. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Invocation: [Saint] Genevieve,
The Mother, the Girl, the Mirror That Speaks,
To Chant Back the Summer,
Humility | Pride,
For the Lone Man at the Violence Prevention Center,
Embarrassment: from baraço (halter),
Envy | Kindness,
After My Mother's Death, I Feel Nothing,
Invocation: [Saint] Euphrosyne,
A Theory of Violence,
The Divorcée's Fable,
Song of the Bystander,
A Theory of Violence,
'Tis of Thee,
Greed | Charity,
Patience | Wrath,
A Theory of Violence,
Invocation: The Blessed Girl, after Her Visions and Vows,
Self-Portrait as Francis Bacon,
Letter to Half a Lifetime Ago,
Love Song with Condemned Building,
Call Me,
Lust | Chastity,
Wild Child (Slight Return),
I Would Rather Die a Thousand Deaths,
Ode to the Motorcycle,
Dead Letter,
Invocation: [Saint] Pharaïldis,
Pastoral for Our Uncharted Territories,
Temperance | Gluttony,
The Mystic Speaks of Attachment,
Confidence Game,
Wow and Flutter,
Diligence | Sloth,
Elegy for My Morbid Curiosity,
Happiness: from hap (fortune, luck),

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