By Leila Greening
Yaa Gyasi, Alfred A Knopf, 2020
Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking
CT Salazar, Acre Books, 2022
Why would a butterfly, on its migratory journey from Canada to Mexico, make a strange left turn near Lake Superior where a mountain used to be? What is the point of this extra labour, this respect for something with no corporeal presence? These are questions that CT Salazar asks in ‘Poem Ending with Abraham’s Suffering’ when he writes:
Monarch butterflies in their migration
still curve around a mountain flattened hundreds
of centuries ago. If I could name them anything,
I’d call them the ideal shape of faith. Even when
the rain softens them to nothing
Although the mountain is gone — smoothed away — the butterflies remain so faithful to the memory of it that they continue to arc around where it used to be. The collective memory becomes an act of collective reverence as each new generation of butterflies continues to respect the existence of the invisible mountain.
Salazar’s words echo some of the questions central to theology today. In this age of rationality and cynicism, how can faith prevail? How can you be faithful to something that seems not to exist? Yaa Gyasi and CT Salazar are two welcome voices in the discourse of religion in contemporary literature. Neither preaching the word of God nor dismissing religious belief as ludicrous or mythological, these writers share a gentle and sympathetic perspective on the value of faith as a way to heal pain. This counsel is timely: over the past two years, the world has experienced a traumatic collective experience. Both writers hint at the potential of religious faith and love to help us regain a sense of connection to each other.
Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom is narrated by Gifty, a Ghanaian-American PhD candidate in neuroscience. The death of Gifty’s brother from an overdose shatters her previous certainty in God’s loving existence, and the book documents her struggle to reconcile her childhood Pentecostal faith with her scientific career and the aftermath of this tragedy. Gifty witnesses members of her church target her family with racial abuse and ostracise her mother during her brother’s addiction, and this betrayal furthers the decline of her faith. It is only when she realises that religion and science are both dedicated to the same pursuit — the search for the unknowable questions we face in our lives — that she eventually reconciles her internal conflict: ‘When we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears.’ At Stanford, Gifty researches reward-seeking neural pathways in mice, a project fuelled by a desire to understand the drug addiction which caused her brother’s death. This project, surprisingly, considers many of the same concepts found in Christian doctrine — self-restraint, redemption, salvation — just repackaged into scientific terms. Towards the end of the novel, Gifty gradually realises that religion can be experienced through what is visible right in front of her. Rather than anxiously seeking some miraculous sign of God’s existence, she comes to appreciate the spiritual beauty to be found in the ordinary.
Salazar’s poetry deliberates on the spiritual experience of connection and desire. His debut full-length collection, Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking focuses on the history of violence in the American South and how an individual’s loss of faith in God could be reconciled by discovering the holiness of human connection. Salazar emphasises the value of faith: ‘I said I wanted to worship something, even if it’s just the black / beetles in your yard crawling around hurriedly / like pieces of a star trying to reassemble itself.’ This desire for intimacy is fundamental to Salazar’s poetry. These individual beetles ‘crawling around hurriedly’ are not complete when they are alone; they instead search for completion, to be part of the community that forms a star. The speaker wants to worship these beetles because it is the experience of worshipping itself, this labour of loving something, which benefits the worshipper. It doesn’t matter if there is no real holiness, no real mountain, because the active process of loving something is spiritual in itself.
In many poems from Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, Salazar effectively beheads the lines like his titular John the Baptist, distancing words from each other. In ‘My Father at the ICU’, Salazar incorporates caesura-like gaps into the form: 'where his pride / is buried I wake up and he / is a cloud floating above / the bed.'
These gaps further the distance between the father and the son, separating the two, like the beetles who wish to be reunited. This desire for unity reflects the collection’s title: to hitchhike is to give yourself up to another, to rely on the selfless kindness and protection of others as you travel on your journey. Motifs often reoccur in consecutive poems in the collection, meaning the concepts are picked up and passed along, like hitchhikers, across the collection. Weaving the poems so closely together like this emphasises the interdependence of all experiences — and all people. We may be physically distant, but we remain connected.
Salazar suggests that a reverence towards the world, both manmade and natural, is required to realise the potential of living. Such reverence is shown in the final lines of the collection, in ‘A Poem with Three Names of God + A Promise to Myself’: ‘Alive enough to hear your name mouthed by any animal / following your scent across your favourite bridge’. Words linger, like an animal devoted to a scent. The steadfastness of monarch butterflies following their migratory course and dogs following a scent is admired as an exemplary feat of strength and devotion to something which may be lost or fade away. In saying ‘I want to tell you how many churches I’ve built to praise little things that deserve more than their few seconds of existence’, Salazar suggests his poetry is a church, a location for the expression of devotional language. By removing his own personal faith from the architecture of a church and locating it in poetry, Salazar’s Christianity focuses on the ‘little things’ that are not conventionally praised. God is too distant to be genuinely adored: ‘in some gospels, God’s grace / gets lost before it gets here’. In the absence of God’s grace, Salazar can just focus on what is beautiful here and now, and these are the things which he attempts to venerate: ‘Praise our hollow bell bodies still ringing’. Salazar admires the steadfastness of animals and humans who retain their faith. He suggests that it takes an act of incredible strength and labour to love something because it means giving yourself selflessly, without any reward.
In Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty realises that there is a spiritual potential in everything around her, even a lab mouse: ‘I wasn’t sure he would live much longer. It filled me with an inexplicable sorrow.’ Gifty writes of ‘a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.’ The novel ultimately determines that spirituality can be achieved through our connections with others. In a moving discussion of salvation, Gyasi writes, ‘it is not a magical moment of becoming sinless, blameless, but rather it’s a way of saying, walk with me.’ Gifty wants to walk with her mother, to support her, but her mother is difficult for her to understand; she appears alien, illogical, isolated. Despite the strength of her mother’s faith, the Alabaman society in which Gifty grew up is hostile, and her mother is continually ostracised: ‘She just never figured out how to translate who she really was into this new language.’ The moments when Gifty’s mother speaks Twi display the full weight of her suffering, particularly when she hosts a Ghanaian funeral and sings a song in mourning: ‘Prayɛe, mene womma oo. / Ena e, akamenkoa oo / Agya e, ahia me oo / What will become of us / I am left alone / I am impoverished.’ However, she is not left alone, for her life is fulfilled by her unrelenting faith in God: ‘“Ebeyeyie,” she said. It will be alright.’ Gifty’s mother never stops having faith despite her suffering. The strength of her mother’s love for God passes down to Gifty as she is moved by the memory of her faith, and at the end of the novel, Gifty retains her own devotion through the development of personal rituals. She returns to a church, sits in ‘blessed silence’, and remembers her mother and brother. Like the monarch butterflies who follow the migration patterns ingrained into them, human beings are shaped by their memories of those they love, even when the object of their love is no longer present.
Although Salazar does not consider migration and estrangement to the same level of detail as Gyasi when she discusses the experience of Ghanaian immigrants in America, he makes frequent references to the Mexican diaspora. He writes ‘no one taught me the names of your constellations / so I named them after mi familia & what they did / to survive’. The constellations are changed by the movement of this family, not by any physical shift but by the new language with which they are described, just as Gifty says that her mother’s personality does not appear to fully translate from Twi into English. Looking at the stars is a universal experience of beauty, something which transcends the barrier of language. If we are all made of the stars, as the girl says in Salazar’s ‘Shades of Red’, then we ought to be able to find this level of significance and beauty in other people too. Such is the potential of the human mind to appreciate beauty and observe the world’s holiness. Salazar emphasises the value of this belief in holiness when he writes, ‘a child told me there was a god, / and because he was smiling, I believed him.’ In both Transcendent Kingdom and Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, we find a desire to return to a time of youthful hopefulness. Salazar’s speaker wants a world where miraculous things do take place. The child who told Salazar’s narrator that there is a God is like the collective voice of the monarch butterflies, unrelentingly faithful. It is not really this ‘god’ at all who is glorified by Salazar’s collection but rather the optimism of the child.
At a time when it feels difficult to have faith in anything, both Salazar and Gyasi skilfully illustrate how the very act of loving is itself rewarding, even if this love is seemingly unreciprocated. They show us that love itself is spiritual because it forces us to look at the world with an appreciative, gentle eye and allows us to see its natural holiness. To stay devoted to anything is an achievement in itself, because loving is laborious. Salazar and Gyasi both admire this strength, this faithfulness. Like Salazar’s monarch butterflies who still believe in their flat mountain, Gifty’s mother continues to persevere for her God, and this means she is not alone.
LEILA GREENING reads English at Christ Church. She fears mirrors.
Art by Alice Penrose