Stacked: Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
My never-ending attempt to chip away at the wobbly stack of books on my bedside table. Typically a reader of fiction, I gravitate toward stronger voices that employ simple, strong, and reverberating prose. This post: Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
Fire Sermon is small - 205 pages - but hefty in the themes of marriage, fidelity, and spirituality. It chronicles the lifetime of Maggie Ellmann from a variety of perspectives: through letters, emails, sessions with a disembodied therapist (perhaps?), and even a sermon. The entire novel orbits around a pivotal night in Chicago in which religious scholar and writer Maggie engages in a fiery affair with poet James Abbot. The vignettes in the novel illustrate Maggie ensconced in the guilt of the affair, while attempting to justify the electric love between her and James.
The carnal sex scenes in this book are well-written, though at times the dialogue between Maggie and James feel a bit pretentious. What can I say? They are scholars, writers, and poets bound to argue the ontological versus cosmological existence of God.
What I love most are the quiet, quotidian descriptions of marriage as time passes by. Quatro describes the Ellmann's relationship as "the quiet-spread-of-light kind of love, the placid excellence of long accomplishment."
She continues to compare it to:
"The flagstone patio, in the big house, the wearing away of sharp edges so only the central parts of the pavers remain...And this is my husband, Maggie thinks. Softened around the edges, the essential part of him solid, the largest part of him only good....Maybe marriage is for this, she thinks. The shearing away of the rough, leaving the parts that will last into eternity."
And the end of the novel. Damn. I draped myself over my husband and simply took in the room around us. The whitewashed wood paneling of our bedroom. A pile of dried contacts on his nightstand. Our red dog stretched out across the pick-stitched quilt, wintry dried grass affixed to a paw. Earrings I didn't put away, precariously close to the edge of my tall dresser. Underneath my back, my husband's inhalations and exhalations as he plays with my hair, unknowing of my wondering - what will our love look like in forty years and the time in between?
The title of the book alludes to the fire sermons of Buddha after he has reached enlightenment. Quatro's novel grapples with themes of desire and spirituality that I don't believe have an answer or a resolution. But the takeaway could be argued that God reaches out to us in desire. Quatro writes "longing, unsatisfied, lifts the gaze...Forbidden love as tutelage." The idea isn't unprecedented - St. Teresa found God in orgasmic spiritual ecstasy. Quatro reiterates C.S. Lewis: "one can renounce the harmful aspects of a particular love without disparaging the love itself."
Perhaps it's my current place in life as a young woman in my second year of marriage, still "figuring it out," but, Jamie Quatro has a knack for delivering pieces that are so real they make my belly feel physically weak. I think it's because in the profoundly spiritual construct of her work, she creates flawed characters, who despite their shortcomings are still allowed to partake in the holy.
I met Jamie Quatro four years ago at the University of the South where she was reading from her collection of short stories I Want to Show You More. She lives in Chattanooga, TN, I was preparing to move there for my boyfriend, now husband, and I was eager to make a connection. When she stepped up to the podium, I remember my instant reaction of admiration and intimidation.
Often, what I absorb most about a new acquaintance is their clothing. Jamie wore a simple gray shirt dress, unbelted, and a pair of Frye boots that I had been eyeing for years. Boots that last a lifetime - boots that are tough and expensive. She wore her blonde hair in braided pigtails. I remember thinking how beautiful she was, and how refreshing it was to see a young, fashionable woman reading at one of these events, instead of an older man with elbow patches on his blazer. I liked her immediately.
When she began to speak, I was awed. Her writing conveyed the sharpness of a nuanced female intellect paired with a brazenness that until that point I had only noticed in male writers. She seemed so comfortable in her subject matter that the bizarre surrealist story about a marathon in which the participants carry phallic-shaped statues on their backs seemed a perfectly rational thing about which to write. Pick up I Want to Show You More for some fabulous reading.