The poems in Keiran Goddard’s new collection Votive (Offord Road Books) ‘look painful things in the face and tell the truth about how much they hurt’.
This anguished and beautiful book charts the rise and fall of a turbulent romantic relationship, ultimately exploring how to let go of someone you love. While eschewing an obvious narrative, there is a sense of quest, even pilgrimage, in the three sequences, which are named after churches where the speaker has wrestled with loss.
The title, ‘Votive’, is key. As an adjective, it means “given in fulfilment of a vow”, or, relatedly, “symbolising a vow or wish”. A votive candle can symbolise an individual’s prayer; it is a small but hopeful action, and is the first image in Goddard’s collection. A votive Mass is a Mass performed for a specific purpose or occasion, such as to honour the memory of the dead. In the same way, this book has a liturgical echo. The speaker seeks to reorient himself from one emotional and spiritual state to another, while also looking beyond his personal situation.
I was fascinated by this book. It is esoteric and mysterious, and left me with many questions, so I spoke with Goddard to find out more.
Maria Apichella: I was intrigued by the title, and the imagery of candles in the first poem. Can you describe the significance of the title, and how it relates to the book as a whole?
Keiran Goddard: I was drawn to the idea of a votive candle in two primary ways. On the one hand, as a small, fragile, repeatable gesture of hope. And on the other, as something defiant, as the fulfilment of a promise, and as something that is transformed (and transformative) when experienced as part of a collective.
In terms of how that relates to the book: well, in the most basic sense, the book itself, and each of the poems, are themselves offerings, and promises. And I’d also hope that there is something about the brittleness of the work that might evoke spiritual (and material) precarity in the same way as a tiny flame in a massive building might do.
Beyond that though, the book is about honouring things. Love can often allow (force?) us to imagine new ways of thinking, and being, and world-building. And in the process, illuminate the compromises and cowardice we’ve allowed to govern us. But how do you carry those lessons beyond the relationship itself? And how might you fulfil the promises you’ve made to a person, and to a potential way of being?
All of those are personal questions, but they are also political. How long can you spend theorising freedom while at the same time accepting the smallest possible life?
MA: I am interested in the fact that the three sequences are named after churches in Oxford, Toronto and London. Why was this? Could you talk me through the reasons you chose these particular churches and cities?
KG: The ‘plot’ of the book takes place across those three cities. And it also coincides with a period in my life where I began to revisit theology (specifically Ernst Bloch and Herbert McCabe) in a relatively serious way. I suppose I’d begun to think about different ways of ‘knowing’, including via ritual, the body, prayer, the symbolic and the overtly religious. I was also re-reading the Bible periodically. So, I found myself skulking off to churches in each of these cities in an attempt to process a set of experiences that struck me as genuinely revelatory, and that simply refused to yield to any of the other tools I had at my disposal. Basically, books stopped working, so I tried crying in churches instead…
MA: One church is Evangelical, another Catholic, and another Liberal Anglican. What do these strands of Christianity mean to you as a poet?
KG: I didn’t know this, so thank you for telling me. If I have an attachment to any particular religion, it is Irish Catholicism. In terms of how this influences my writing, it is difficult to say. In some ways, I suspect that the symbolism of the trinity has just sunk in extremely deeply, almost as a governing structure for how one might think about all the weighty things that always seem silly when you write them down. But beyond that, it is probably the physical, embodied, erotics of Catholicism that have influenced me most. Understanding that the body is (or can be) a site of knowing and redemption — and resistance.
MA: Building on the previous question, do you see a connection between poetry and prayer?
KG: Yes. And for me, if you take prayer in the broadest sense (inclusive of hymn, incantation and so on), I increasingly don’t make much of a distinction between the two. To answer this in any serious way would take pages and pages. But perhaps it is enough to say that both are ways that we can make demands on the future, both are ways that we can have a meaningful relationship with the possible, and both are ways that we can access the power of language in a way that moves beyond the purely instrumental.
MA: I noticed a few references to the Psalms, which, as you know, are often used for various types of prayers such as praise, petition, and lament. Does the Bible have a conscious influence on your work? If so, how and why?
KG: All I’d like to add to what I’ve mentioned above is the way in which working with the language of the Bible helps to move my writing into a more prophetic modality. It’s a sort of future perfect tense, I suppose. And it has two main functions. First, it helps me to be braver. And second, it helps me lie to myself about the potentially disastrous consequences of my ‘bravery’.
MA: There is an interesting mix of religious and erotic imagery that has a long tradition in lyric poetry. This seems to be a book about many different types of love. Can you elaborate on this?
KG: Perhaps one way of looking at it is that the book is really only about a single type of love, but one that is refracted and experienced in a number of different ways. In the same way that all light ultimately has the same source. Prayers, joy, song, bodies, voices, hopes, poems — they can all provide intermittent access to the source. But if you are really, really lucky, if you are blessed, then you find someone or something that provides that type of access so consistently and so mutually that the refraction becomes indistinguishable from the origin. The book is about catching, and ultimately fumbling, that gift.
MA: The book opens with a quotation from Simone Weil’s Waiting on God: ‘The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.’ What is the significance of this quotation?
KG: For a start, I just love and admire her work. And the way she simultaneously handles the political and the spiritual (and, later, the mystical) has always meant a lot to me. In terms of the quote itself, I wanted to signal the intent of the book, i.e. to look painful things in the face and tell the truth about how much they hurt (there isn’t much irony in the book!).
I was also struck by the idea that when you love someone, you want them to have the biggest, boldest, happiest, most liberated life possible. But that there is also a regressive tendency to sneak in an unstated parenthetical claim that goes something like … (p.s. but ONLY if that big, bold, happy, liberated life includes ME!). One of the questions the book asks is how to remove that parenthesis.
MA: In the acknowledgments you say that no poem in the book had been published before. Is this because the poems came quickly from a particular period in your life, or were they disparate poems you had been writing for a long time that suddenly came together? What is the story of how this book came into being? How did you come to format the poems in this order, and why?
KG: Not to publish individual poems in advance was a choice. I wanted to focus on the whole, and was also unconvinced that these particular poems carried nearly as much weight out of context. The book took about three years to write, intermittently. Originally, it was much longer, perhaps double the length, but my editor Martha Sprackland did an incredible job of culling and re-ordering. Perhaps most important, though, was the process of slowly removing the cowardly poems, of which there were many.
MA: Is there a particular poem which captures the essence of the book?
KG: I’ve tried to read the final poem in public three times now, and failed on each occasion. So let’s go with that one.
MA: What do you hope readers will glean from your book?
KG: I’ve had a half-remembered, half-garbled quote running around my head for about a year. It has something to do with Kierkegaard, but it is now so mutated I can’t trace the source. It says something like: ‘One does not become free by owning the things that you love, one becomes free by owning that you love the things that you love’. So it’s that, I suppose:
To own that you love what you love. And to be unafraid to honour it even after it stops loving you.
MA: Thank you!
We’re grateful to Keiran Goddard and Offord Road Books for allowing us to publish the last, untitled, poem from the collection.
Astonished is a word
I will slowly learn
to use again without guilt
and I will learn to confess
that the steam of your skin
makes me pedant and hoarder and clerk.
I will be unembarrassed
that this density of breath
feels like something to salvage
that it hits like the swelter
of a boundless summer
spent unwarping wood in the silence of heat.
In prayer I will remember
that the strong upward reel of you
taught me that I was ecstatic
and that it sang my every excess,
and that I could not turn away,
and that I could not turn away.
You can find out more about Votive from Offord Road Books.