Genealogy Lesson for the Laity by Cathryn Shea
In this radiant debut collection, Cathryn Shea constructs a world as delicate, colorful, and sharp as an autumn leaf yet as stable as the ancient tree it’s fallen from. Harnessing evocative imagery that illuminates the inherent spirituality within even the frailest human gestures, these poems reach across generations, genders, and cultures to give voice to the kind of unabashed gratitude that lights up our darkest edges.
Simultaneously ethereal and grounded, mystical and rooted in simple human connections, Shea’s universe contains a “chaos of tears,” “lead-laden ponds,” and a clock’s minute hand “shaped like a thunderbolt” that somehow, almost magically, pull from these broken songs an enduring, celebratory refrain.
Celestial beings exist alongside grief-stricken daughters. Personal and cultural ancestries continue to shape the way we treat each other. Domesticity and political agendas drink from the same river. And the river is both polluted and continually replenishing itself.
Genealogy Lesson for the Laity is quietly vast and respectfully vocal. The contrasts within it are paper thin and razor sharp as a wasp’s wings, as bountiful yet self-contained as a meadow caught between mountains. These are spiritual songs of generational failures and persistent hope; the simple mysteries of loving other people; a call to witness; an appeal to ruminate; a plea for renewal; a tear; a tear that sanctifies everything it touches.
Publication Date: September 29, 2020
Throughout this bold and electrifying collection, Shea weaves an intricate web of history, ancestry and memory, the strands that make up an individual life. By transcending the limits of time to call upon the influence of her ancestors, she examines the way we are all intertwined. Genealogy Lesson for the Laity reminds us of the resonant significance of the ghosts of our past, a haunting meditation on the role family history plays in shaping every aspect of our lives.
-- Eliza Browning, Sundress Reads
Philosophy joins with nature and spiritual insights as the stories progress: "Today I am observing western pond turtles,/many orders beyond the paramecium./Desire for renewal hides beneath a carapace."
From people-driven choices and perspectives while volunteering to a historical review essay, 'Horses in Dust and Ash', these poems and literary works are astute, thought-provoking examinations designed to connect and reflect on history, culture, generational experiences, and social issues alike.
Its contrasts between hope, love, and processes of renewal are nicely done and easy to relate to, making Genealogy Lesson for the Laity a highly recommended contrast in various approaches to life.
-- Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review
Cathryn Shea, in this collection of muted, eloquent poems, takes the reader on a journey through illness, loss, and grief, carefully pulling along so one can’t help but feel everything precisely. The poems are rich in place and moment, beauty and story. They tremble. They weep. They pray, with answers or without. Genealogy Lesson for the Laity is a powerful first book from a writer worthy of attention. It examines what’s at play when one thinks about suffering, but also about survival. This collection will stay with you long after you put it down.
--Ace Boggess, author of I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So (Unsolicited Press), Ultra Deep Field, and The Prisoners (both from Brick Road Poetry Press)
Both thought-provoking and full of humor, Shea plays with the dialectics of hope and disappointment, irony and acceptance. In Genealogy Lesson for the Laity, history and the natural world are subtly interwoven with the intimate. Her perceptions are both finely observed and wise: in “The Postponed Grief,” she says of her mother, “Hope is penciled in the margins/of her cookbook”; in “Watches,” she observes how “Imagination is a peculiar clay,/infinity captured/ in the dark matter we don’t understand.” A delightful read.
--Jeanne Wagner, author of Everything Turns Into Something Else, runner-up of the 2019 Grayson Books prize
In Genealogy Less for the Laity, the poet explores the essential elements of history, family, motherhood, ancestry, and all the layers in between. The poems in this collection are a delight and remind of us what is vital for a fulfilling life. The work in this book discovers the beauties of the falls of Idaho, the sacred history of trees, bookmarks for maps of the world, and all the epiphanies in between. The poet’s images and language traverse through the journey of the body and tells us how to stay whole in the midst of waiting rooms and bone density scans. When “every pot hole is a wound” this collection shows us that “grace is a funny color that streaks through the curtains.”
--Connie Post, author of Floodwater, winner of the Lyrebird Award, and Prime Meridian (Glass Lyre Press)
Shea’s writing in Genealogy Lessons for the Laity is both calm and meditative, but also constantly moving, propelling a reader “lost in a world of words.” Lines here are rich and luxurious, yet surprisingly spare, as we explore the body in the context of heredity, personal history, nature, and the social world. A body that is both fragile and framed by steel. Each section moves us outward, but also spirals in to a very still center that unravels us then rebuilds us anew.
--Kristy Bowen, author of sex & violence (Black Lawrence Press), and founding editor of dancing girl press