In Jay Rafferty’s Holy Things, the irreverent and the holy meet to form a new kind of prayer, one written in verse with a bold, fresh voice that’s difficult to come by in poetry these days. Tackling taboo subjects like joyful sex, intense desire, the sins of the Catholic Church, Holy Things offers readers insight to a new kind of spirituality. It’s a collection that celebrates the faults and fallacies societal norms and religious leaders once used to guilt-trip the faithful into obedience and a denial of the self.
The collection opens with the bold and brave poem “Orgasm,” which canonizes that “moment of / paradise, just before the end.” The poem reclaims “the Big Bang,” that often silenced “moment of creation” that is “the beginning and end” of all things. The poem’s speaker reclaims sex as the great unifier rather than the disparaging sin, stating “Sex is a dirty job” and reminding readers that “often the dirty ones are the purest.” Sex becomes a portal to understanding, that realm where reality and the metaphysical meet and form “a panting prayer,” one that readers will want to repeat over and over.
“The Seven Sacraments of Love,” a poetic relic composed of seven parts, spans the collection. The poem begins with “Baptism,” a poem examining the small moments that may or not be the point of falling into hopeless passion with a partner. The poem’s long lines and repetition culminate to create a swirl of rapid-fire emotions. The imagery embraces the often-unnoticed instances where lovers connect, including “the tears she held back watching Darth Vader breathe his last” and “the drool stain they snored out onto your pillowcase that you find the / morning after.” The metaphorical baptism happens at “the unconsciously conscious beginning” with “the click in one’s head and / one’s heart.” The word play between “unconsciously” and “consciously” echoes the fusion of reality and the metaphysical in “Orgasm.”
The second part of “The Seven Sacraments of Love,” titled “Communion,” is an imagistic nod to “the unspeakable / that the flesh gives up without / thought or fault.” The poem relies on the act of taking the sacraments as a metaphor for passion and sex with an emphasis on communication “through / whatever means one can / understand one another.” It celebrates physicality, the simple act of touch, and how physicality combines with intellect, passion, and communication that transcend into three simple words—“I love you.” The passion continues in “Confession,” where one partner celebrates the other partner’s imperfection. The poem’s unique structure creates the sensation of two voices, to planes of thought. The poem’s first three lines are left-justified:
Bless me love,
For I have not
Told you everything.
The poem then shifts, not only in tone, but also in structure, with the partner’s confession continuing in a right-justified column and opening with the bold statement “let me be / perfectly frank.” Part of the poem’s power forms from not only the alternating page justification, but also the indentation and spacing within the column.
let me be
perfectly frank both
of us still pick our
noses like we are
children, eat what we
find, and we have
kissed after such an
The indentation forms a simple statement, and phrases like “let me be,” “I hate how,” and “the dog has” act as internal shifts within the column. By its end, the poem returns to the left justification, and it concludes with a plea for absolution: “Forgive me love / these mentioned / unmentionables.”
“Rain at a Book Burning” is an all-too-appropriate poem for the times, especially as more and more books are challenged in school libraries throughout the United States. In this poem, readers encounter a Fahrenheit 451-like scenario where the censorship instituted by “frightened predators” is like that seen by readers in everyday news headlines. The speaker personifies the books, stating their “frayed pages” are ”reaching, begging for help / from their warped spines.” The image is reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Dull Gret, and the images that follow seem to come straight from the Salem Witch Trials. Readers see the “frightened predators” carrying the books to “the fire’s edge” and “to the heap” where their forms are “mangled and twisted.” The poem’s tone criticizes the hypocrisy censors use for justifying the books’ destruction. Of course, the rain’s role is imperative to understanding the poem—it appears as a type of savior, a messenger from the heavens that prolongs “their [the ‘frightened predators’] suffering.” The speaker engages in a type of schadenfreude, declaring that “God almighty / has an awful / sense of humor.”
Ultimately, it’s humor—the speaker’s, God’s, life’s, and even Rafferty’s—balanced with keen, sharp insights and criticisms that make Holy Things worth readers’ time. If anything, Holy Things is a collection for the times, a necessary voice in the ever-growing, crowded wilderness of conflicting ideologies and everyday life. It’s Baudelairean and bold, refreshingly irreverent in all the right ways, leaving readers with a smirk on their lips and a love for the damned souls that they are.
Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба–Nikola Yurtsaba) is a Ukrainian (Hutsul/Lemko) American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, West Trade Review, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review of Books.