The Sacred and the Profane: Religious Influences in Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo’s Poetry

Maria, your whiteness to clay

It surprises many people in my progressive town of Portland, Oregon that I am both a feminist and religious. Specifically, I’m a Christian, an Episcopalian. To paraphrase Gwynne Watkins of the blog “God Spam,” “[I’m] a Christian, but not the kind that sucks.” Because I grew up in a house full of books on literary criticism and spent my adolescence in a church where the most important holiday was Gay Pride, my writing is infused with the Bible and the body, two locations where women’s experiences have often been silenced or hidden.

“The Book of Ruth (Venezuelan Border Translation)” was inspired by an NPR segment about the increase in kidnappings on the Venezuelan/Colombian border. As soon as I heard the mother’s voice say that rhythmic, powerful sentence quoted in the poem (translated roughly: if you’re taking her, you’re taking me), I immediately heard the echo of the Biblical book of Ruth. That book tells the story of a woman who, rather than following the appropriate social custom of returning to her own family after her husband dies, insists on staying with her mother-in-law, herself now with a precarious social status due to the same death. Even though the determination is reversed in the poem, the forcefulness of the bond between women that disrupts the norm—in this case the violent norm of kidnapping—affects me deeply.

The ode in two voices, “Omnes Habitantes in Hoc Habitaculo” plays out on many levels. During the Spanish conquest of Latin America, aristocratic women sent their out-of-fashion ball gowns to the friars to made into vestments. Spanish friars were often the main contact between indigenous people and the colonial government, and some of them grew to understand most deeply the religions and practices of the conquered peoples. For both the Friar and Doña, I imagined a swirl of confusion, feelings of both aversion and attraction to things holy and strange as their perceptions shifted. I was also playing with lines from the Latin missal, most notably “by Him, and with Him, and in Him,” the words just at the consecration of the Eucharist. In my poem the body is the vehicle for not only for a kind of salvation but also for self-disgust, desire, and new ways of perceiving a previously fixed reality.

I am fascinated by the overlap of the sacred and the profane, especially as it applies to class, race and gender inside of religious contexts. I interact with religious texts both as a person of faith and academically, as a scholar of religion (I teach classes in Hinduism, Ethics, and Religion and Social Justice at an Episcopal high school.) But as a poet, I hear these religious writings as a kind of conversation which I can—and must—participate.

Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo, “The Book of Ruth (Venezuelan Border Translation)” Pg. 21; “Omnes Habitantes in Hoc Habitaculo” Pg. 22

So to Speak Summer 2011 Online Issue featuring poetry and art

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