Becky Gould Gibson’s new collection of poetry, Indelible, …urges readers to pause and reexamine; in this case though, the subject matter is historical rather than environmental. Winner of the 2018 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, Indelible gives voice to Lydia of Philippi, a woman from the Christian Bible who’s often considered to be the first Christian convert in Europe. Gibson, a retired professor in English and Woman s Studies at Guilford College, has a particular interest in shedding light on women figures whose stories have remained largely obscured. Previous collections by this poet have given voice to such historic women figures as Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, a Christian saint circa 615-680 AD, and Xanthippe, wife of Socrates. This latest collection of persona poems offers yet another historical re-imaging: this time, the subject is Lydia, known to the Catholic Church as Saint Lydia Purpuraria. Although the women in Gibson’s collections hail from far beyond the US South, the act of returning voices to the forgotten and the marginalized places her firmly in the Southern poetry tradition among such poets as Natasha Trethewey, Kathryn Stripling Byer, and Maurice Manning.
The prologue to the collection, titled “Acts 16:12- 15—,” is an important precursor to the poems that follow because it provides the section from the Book of Acts in which Lydia is mentioned; importantly though, in Gibson’s version, Lydia’s voice breaks through, her words denoted by bold and italic lettering interjected between the lines of scripture. She first interjects “Though I am called Lydia Lydia is not my name.” And from this point on Lydia s direct words continue to be in bold italics. More significantly, the prologue denotes that a central project in this book will be Lydia’s reclaiming of her own story: In the final lines of the same poem, she says
listen after all those centuries thumbing past on thin pages
never stopping to ask me who I am
or waiting to hear my answer
Search all you want among these ruins
these endless ancient inscriptions
no scrap of purple no loom or spindle
you’ll find nothing of me know nothing of me
unless I tell you you will never know never even know my name
Sainted, though largely unremembered, Lydia, the purple doth dealer barely mentioned in the Bible, is aware of her place in history, her minuscule legacy. She’s back to reclaim her narrative and to set the record straight.
An exciting aspect of this collection is that Lydia’s voice returns fully cognizant of the modern world. Referred to as the “Lydian Woman” (likely because Lydia wasn’t her name, rather a title based on where she lived), she bemoans tourists present in her homeland in the first of several poems titled “The Lydian Woman Speaks with the Pilgrim.” Whereas at one time “Every sea-captain [was] proud to carry her purple” she finds: “Now I’m a tourist attraction. / Hotel Lydia! / Tourism’s the thing here. /… / Converts souls. Convert currency Lydia observes that the once sacred has turned commercial: “Euros pour in by the busload – / believers/non-believers, / what anyone wants everyone caters for.” Even Christ, she finds, is a “brand like Levi’s.” In other poems, she takes her religious observations and grievances to modern-day media outlets, like The Christian Science Monitor, Christianity Today, and Ms. Magazine. But, Lydia has personal conflicts to work out, as well. For example, when speaking to the Apostle Paul in one of the poems titled “The Lydian Woman Speaks to the Dead Saint/’ the speaker reveals her ambivalent regard for him:
The hate your words have engendered –
also love. A genius of hate
you’ve been called.
Also a genius of love. Sometimes
I hate your words!
More often love.
In another of the “Dead Saint” poems, Lydia again addresses Paul, lamenting that while women are “at the belly of creation,” they are “pushed to its outskirts.” For this, she blames “that flat-footed God,” her quarrel seemingly with God himself. Lydia says at the end of the poem, “A woman need not be cut to bleed,” underscoring the struggle inherit in the condition of being a woman, created to suffer, to bleed.
Interspersed between the Lydia Speaks to … poems are epistolary poems between both named and unnamed senders and recipients between 49 CE and 64 CE, in cities including Philippi, Thyatira, Corinth, Ephesus, Ostia, and Rome. In these poems, the voices stir, plead, question, argue. And they read like flesh and bone, their grievances and worries accessible, even familiar at times, to the modern sensibility. Importantly, these poems flesh out the Lydia narrative, as one of the voices in the letters is quite certainly hers. Take, for example, the poem ‘Philippi to Corinth, June, 51 CE’ addressed to Paulus (Paul}. In the poem, the speaker confesses, “Yes. I grew up a slave in Lydia. / Stirred vats as a child, invited the whip if I stopped stirring.” Historians do not know much about Lydia s life and speculate she may have been a slave or servant. Here, Lydia tells her own narrative while exchanging Letters with her contemporaries, breathing air into biblical life.
Within the imaginative construct of this collection, not only can the voice of the dead return but things that would normally be inanimate also have a voice, a testament to share. Specifically, a few poems are written from the personified points of view of a river and a road-stone. These poems offer an important, third person insight into the people and places. For example, in one of the “Pilgrim” poems, the Gangites River says, “Today men gather to celebrate her sainthood. / Saint. Saint Lydia. / Ha! I can tell you she’s no saint.” The river remembers Lydia the person, not the sainted myth. It remembers her humanity, the sensuality of her body: “She’s been with me more times than I can number. / I’ll never forget how I slipped I between her thighs, / how her skin listened to all I had to tell it.” The river, perhaps unknowingly, helps to further Lydia’s claim that her story is complicated and rich, even if elusive.
Indelible unearths a narrative behind a likely forgotten, if ever heard Biblical name. Just as the title denotes, the speaker will not let herself be washed away or forgotten. This collection of poems will be a treasure to the history Lover, but its relevance reaches far beyond the subject matter. Any female narrative absent from the dominant historical records is a severe loss; we are richer for reclaimed stories, even re-imagined ones.