In her new poetry collection, Our Lady of Bewilderment, Alison Pelegrin writes, “Queen of bestiaries and stained glass, lone feathered martyr / spraying gore — by name alone we could be twins.” These lines from the poem, “The Pelegrin in Her Piety: A Lingo Sonnet,” give readers a good introduction to the humorous, intelligent, and achingly real language they will find in this book.
Our Lady of Bewilderment follows Pelegrin throughout her life in Gretna, Louisiana, recounting stories from her youth through adulthood, intermixed with relationship and family issues, growing through trauma, and the pain that comes with living through natural disasters. The collection itself is broken into four parts, beginning with Rituals for Serving Ambrosia and Razor Days. In these two sections, especially, Pelegrin does not mince her words.
The first half of the book pulls us directly into Pelegrin’s childhood, teenage years, and rising adulthood in scattered order, evoking beauty in their rawness. Pelegrin writes, again in “The Pelegrin in Her Piety: A Lingo Sonnet”: “Greed is one defense, but famine empties even the glutton’s mouth.” She brings such rawness into play within the poem by comparing herself to the Pelican on the Louisiana State Flag, and how motherhood allows a violent love to flourish, a “blur that comforts and devours, where shiv / wounds, pinches, and nips are stifled by sheer will.”
Rituals for Serving Ambrosia and Razor Days hit hard and fast, bringing the reader into unbridled intimacy, paving the way for the tender humor and casual voice of the last two sections, Rage Goddess and That Which Does Not Kill Us.
Pelegrin is at her most tangible in Rage Goddess. It is funny, the voice is strong, and the language chosen is both apt and gnawing, as in the poem “Heifer”: “In high school, the nuns taught us that our thumbs / could poke out perverts’ eyes. Protecting / our maidenhood, they made it seem like a sport, / and I couldn’t wait to make the team, virginal / in the extreme, violently devoted and pure, / like the fantasy girl they praised, who dropped / to all fours, chewed grass, and mooed, / shitting her pants to stave off dishonor.” The poem begins with a sense of seriousness and a very real danger, and yet ends on such a humorous image that readers feel the hilarity but don’t forget it’s tinged with pain. This emotional shift is brought even further into the extreme at the end of the poem, “He said I was lucky to get off with a warning, / and, recalling virgin martyr Saint Maria Goretti / with her 14 stab wounds, I suppose he was right.”
Pelegrin exercises her full, powerful range of emotionality in these last two sections, most notably in “My Snatch is Pretty Good,” where she writes: “Hip! — we called him Hip – when I think of him, / I think of suicide — I saw how his eyes roved for that pistol, / and in my fear imagined a froth of blood pinking his undershirt / the exact color of the tank top I now wear to the gym, / which claims, in girly script, My Snatch Is Pretty Good.” Here she shifts from the pain of self-harm and suicide, a frequent theme of this collection, to the humor of her shirt and the main subject of the poem itself. With masterful craft, Pelegrin slides the reader from one emotion to the next with little fuss, wholly due to her captivating style of storytelling.
Our Lady of Bewilderment is unabashed, loud and proud, and yet in it, readers will find a tantalizing vulnerability. With its vivid images, catharsis, and Louisiana sweetness, the collection speaks wholeheartedly to Pelegrin’s strengths, and is not unlike her other poetry collections, but this one specifically sparkles with a resiliency that is entertaining and beautifully real.
Our Lady of Bewilderment
By Alison Pelegrin
Louisiana State University Press
Published March 9th, 2022