YOU GET A CHOICE! You can read my review of Kathryn Knight Sonntag’s book The Tree in the Center below or you can listen to it on our podcast with the addition of poems read by Kathryn herself and some commentary. I personally like to listen to the poet, but if you don’t have the time, the review below will provide the same information. Also, a caveat about the review. I am unabashedly going to claim the narrator of the poems as Kathryn in my review. I know literary reviews like distance between author and narrator, but you won’t find it here. Sorry, not sorry.
Read below the big black box for the review or listen to the podcast by pressing play here:
For thirteen years every May, I have attended a dance concert at my children’s school. All the first graders dance around three giant maypoles, replete with colored ribbons, flowers, and rolling stands. The children are arranged boy/girl, boy/girl facing each other and holding tight to his or her individual ribbon. The music begins and they start to weave around the pole and each other- under an over, under and over, around the Maypole. It’s a beautiful sight to watch as the braided colors get lower and lower around the pole until, by the end of the song, the pole is transformed into a woman with a woven skirt, flowing with colors, welcoming Spring. You can watch an amazing version of the dance here: Maypole Dance
In her debut poetry collection, The Tree at the Center, Kathryn Knight Sonntag also weaves words, colors, and symbols around the central theme of the Tree as a symbol for the Divine Feminine. It is an astonishing work and welcome addition to the genre, as well as adding to the current surge of poetry dedicated to Heavenly Mother. (Think Mother’s Milk and Dove Song). Kathryn writes, “I am the maypole, the corn stalk, roots weaving the underworld” and indeed she is. She calls this book an eco-theological work, using nature and landscape as a way to explore our Heavenly Mother and the connection she has to us. In fact, nature IS a window into Her nature and ours as women.
The book cover is simple and elegant, using part of a Graffiti sketch on a Pitcher found in Sinai at Kuntillet Ajrud of a stylized tree surrounded by two goats. There is an inscription on the pitcher that says “Yayweh and his Asherah.” I think Kathryn must like to challenge her readers because most people would wonder about the unusual cover design. She subtly highlights the center of the tree in a different color, which actually looks like a phallus entering a womb. In this case, a book can be judged by its cover. With it, Kathryn is welcoming you into the world of ancient religion that celebrated Yawweh as having a wife who was worshipped equally. In the ancient temples of Jerusalem, she was depicted as a carved wood tree, named Asherah, until she and all the rituals, rites, and texts concerning her were expunged from the temple in the 6th century BC by King Josiah and the Deuteronomists. This and the stylized tree representing both male and female in balance is a nod to what is contained in the book – an exploration of the Great Mother Goddess, Creator of Vegetation and Life, and the vital dual forces within each of us- feminine and masculine, light and shadows, wild and tamed.
The book is divided into three sections: The Tree of Ascent, the Tree of Fertility, and Asherah the Tree. The first section of the book prepares for us the soil in Kathryn’s poetry garden. She creates a sacred space for women from the beginning in her first poem, “Nushu”, which celebrates the “sworn sisters” language used in rural China only used by women. This writing was woven into belts or clothing and poetry and songbooks given to brides on the third day after their marriage.“Ticks of thread pulled/through cloth, belts, straps,/ passwords embroidered/into the hems of women/who worshipped birds. Stories/passed from mother/to daughter, murmurations/of sky and land.” Kathryn asks the universe, “Teach me how to break open my lips” and then for the rest of the book, she not only opens her lips, she sings.
The rest of this section explores Asherah generally, in the poem “The Tree of Life” she begins with Lehi gazing at exiled Asherah as she “illuminates his way, expands/into every corner of the universe, into/fractals upon fractals of branches–/love multiplying outside of time.” Kathryn writes of the tree as seen (or concealed) throughout cultures in World Tree. In “The Call” the narrator is the tree and in “Holy of Holies” the lost temple rites depicting creation are compared to the workings in the narrator’s womb. “I want to know/what it means to pull light from dark,/how we were woven before/sun and moon bore sway over tides/and land–” The whole section aches to grow fruit from the ground that was once fertilized with understanding and worship of the Queen of Heaven.
The second section called Tree of Fertility is the tending of the garden. Poems here have images of agriculture and of growing a baby. Even the title of one the poems “From Eve’s Imperative Guide on How to Tend and Till the Earth Our Mother: How to Conduct a Prescribed Burn in Grassland” shows the connection she makes between theology and nature. One of the poems, “Woman of Willendorf,” glorifies the Paleolithic fertility goddess figurine found in Austria. “Tight knees will not hide/the fabric of the veil–pleasure/and pain in the fragments of red ochre/pigment tucked in your crevasses, as if/to say, here is where it matters at all–life red as the earth, as wine, as/the flecks of blood all over my son’s/emergent body on my hollow belly.” Even as Adam and Eve had to learn to till the ground, agriculture is one of mankind’s first inventions. A successful crop meant life or death to everyone, so a fertility goddess was important in early cultures. The image of a swollen belly and full breasts was symbolic not only of growing families but of land that gave in abundance. When the first blade breaks through the dirt, it is a wild miracle. So it is when a baby is born. In “As A Mother” Kathryn writes, “I never asked to be the center,/the eternal tree,/a venus belly,/etched. But as your sweet body/latches to my breast, I/am Eve, the sun of my son–/who will carry the tree through himself/when he multiplies/and replenishes the earth.” The bursting song of creation is sung. There are poems here about birth, postpartum depression, miscarriage, and even Baba Yaga as the wild and healing witch within us- fierce and ravenous.
The last section of the book is when the garden is ripe. Now, Kathryn’s words come full circle as we look at what we have lost and what we are reclaiming as a culture and a religion. The section is called Asherah the Tree and begins with a quote by the leading scholar of the Divine Feminine, Margaret Barker, that speaks of the desolation of the land when the lady was taken from the temple and of her restoration. The poem “Tree at the Center” is just decimating in its description of the tree being taken out of the temple and then its use as the very thing to hang the Son “to pierce her stiff arms with Her son’s.” “The Older Covenant” is one of the holiest cries I’ve read in modern poetry. There are laments in this section. “Wo, Wo, is Me the Mother of Men” and a call to speak a language that rebirths the Queen of Heaven in “She Who Joins Together” …“that the seal of creation is Her name, finally spoken–/the return of forest, the Amen reembodied,/visions of eternal forms/Abraham saw on nights thick with stars.” One of the most poignant poems, in my opinion, is “In One.” Kathryn imagines Christ’s atonement and how the Mother teaches Him how to divide Himself and experience all life. I just can’t say enough about the breadth of this poem encased in a few stanzas. Somehow, Kathryn captures the act of atoning for all humans and all experiences, so Christ, as the embodiment of male and female, “weaves a new wisdom that shudders the earth.”
Lyrical, refreshing, multi-layered, deep, and thoughtful, Kathryn Knight Sonntag’s poetry collection weaves a beautiful tribute to our Heavenly Mother and plants thought-provoking insights into the ancient world and how those ribbons of legacy are to be used now. What will we do with them? “When the time is right, the deep/nudging, that obscure shadow/will pull you in ways exact from sorrow/to longing for the ineffable landscape,/to that open field just over/the last horizon….Is our journey here, after all,/to return us to the navel we left,/plant our souls in the center and become/another center?” May this book be the center of many conversations that need to be had. I cannot recommend this book enough. Go get it. Contemplate its language. Let it grow in your heart as “a tree forever ascending.”
Kathryn Knight Sonntag
podcast song: In the Arms of the Mother by Jami Sieber