Praying Naked (Ohio State University Press, March 2020)
A Conversational Review by Joanna Currey and Chris Ketchum
If there’s a single, unifying feature of Praying Naked, it is Katie Condon’s depiction of openness and possibility. Her debut collection of poetry celebrates women’s choices, regardless of the stereotypes associated with those choices, no matter which side of the ideological aisle would rebuke them.
A stunning example is “At Poetry Readings I’m Always Drunk,” which reads like ars poetica: “I put on lipstick & ride my bike to the reading for the erotic juxtaposition,” Condon writes. “I have conversations and pretend I smoke cigarettes by smoking them.” By blending two poles of a dialectic—sacred and profane, innocence and experience, slang and jargon—Condon introduces “the erotic juxtaposition” as a hermeneutic for the collection, a nod to her speaker’s Whitmanesque declarations and contradictions. “At Poetry Readings” is an ode to self-consciousness, describing the speaker’s academic and social posturing. Condon recognizes this uncertainty, associated with amateur artists and the culturally uninitiated, as the stuff of great poetry: “Sometimes, the poems aren’t afraid of mystery / & people get dense with quiet.” Here, she speaks to several features of her own work—if the poem isn’t afraid of mystery, the speaker, reader, and author shouldn’t be, either. And response to that mystery can be simultaneously profound and confused: “dense” as in slow-thinking, but also contemplating a difficult idea. Condon’s speaker, somewhere between literati and layperson, uses language that combines two antithetical elements of her own voice and experience.
Condon often aims her wit and irreverence at poetry’s idea of itself—its self-seriousness and stoicism. She has a talent for cutting canonical poets down to size, ranging from Sappho to Ezra Pound to Flannery O’Connor. Poems like “I’m a Kick-Ass Woman” jab at literary culture with puns, idioms, and sexual humor: “Listen: you can’t have passion / without ass. Or Parnassus. Make way for my poetic ass, / as essential & enduring as your thesaurus / but sexier. I’d tattoo the Cantos on my ass / if it would make it less boring.” Condon forces the idea of poetry to expand—poetry is the subject of ridicule, but also its medium. Poems are equally fields for criticism and self-criticism, as are the characters who occupy them. By mixing slang and allusion, religion and vulgarity, Condon presents a speaker in the midst of grappling with her multitudes and contrasts.
Of course, you can’t have an erotic juxtaposition without love, sex, and desire. The most exhilarating conflict in Praying Naked is the speaker’s effort to define her role in sexual power dynamics. Numerous poems develop a personal feminism (or an adjacent -ism) that doesn’t preclude Condon’s speaker from relishing the feeling of being desired—as the author puts it in “Giving Myself Advice,” “Katie, get off your ass & be somebody / somebody would like to fuck. / This does not make you an object—it makes you / Desire itself!” The collection is packed with similar self-talk, in which the speaker reassures herself that her choices aren’t necessarily opposed to feminism, but engender a different, sex-positive feminism that permits a woman to embrace her own “desire to be desired.” This is especially clear in “To the woman who accused me of not being a feminist, I’m sorry,” when the speaker argues women “are subject to / & act upon the same ugly desires / that fuel the men who’ve used us.” Poems in Praying Naked feature workaday controversies—men who keep their girlfriends secret at the bar. Slut-shaming notes scrawled in bathroom stalls. Subjects, scenes, and observations that allow Condon to lean into the murky territory around desire.
The books of the Bible’s New Testament were first written in Koine Greek, a dialect of Ancient Greek. Of the four primary Ancient Greek terms translated to English as “love”—agápe, éros, philía, and storgē—eros is by far the variety of love most commonly associated with volatility; tension and release. So when you pointed to “the erotic juxtaposition” as a hermeneutic for the collection I thought, yes, of course. The simultaneously signaled experience and innocence of putting on lipstick and riding a bike in “At Poetry Readings I’m Always Drunk” performs a certain palatable archetype of femininity: a woman both sophisticated and whimsical, alluring and non-threatening. In the poem Condon writes, “I rise from my chair with Holly Golightly-type laughter & grace / & I hope I am being sexualized by everyone.” Condon’s speaker has perfectly formulated this juxtaposition, this tension, for maximum elicitation of eros—which is to say, it’s a tension that elicits more tension.
However, the night doesn’t end on notes of satisfaction and high self-esteem. The one who controls the tension holds the power. And holding the power is ultimately a lonely, loveless position to be in.
So it makes sense that the exhilarating struggle with sexual power dynamics you identify in the collection would extend to God, Christianity’s foremost symbol of patriarchal power (notably, in poems like “Praying Naked” and “Ode to Gabriella,” the power struggle seems absent in instances of queer desire). It also makes sense that, in a collection called Praying Naked, the tension between sacred and profane/profanity, sacrament and sex, consecrated and crass, is the engine that drives the book from cover to cover. They’re not separate symbol systems, but rather mutually dependent, inseparable—“koine” translates to “common” or “shared,” meaning the Christian sacred texts of the New Testament were written in the common language of the people at the time.
As wryly shocking as this sacred/sex tension can be (looking at you, “Hymn,” a poem that juxtaposes somber lyricism with the refrain, “penis dick cock balls”), it’s not without ample precedent in Catholic writing and tradition. The Spanish nun Saint Teresa of Ávila wrote about divine ecstasy, spiritual marriage, and the mystical eroticism of the Old Testament book Song of Songs. The story of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (referenced in the collection’s poem “After All, Saint Catherine Is My Namesake”) recounts a virgin martyr who, after failing to die by torture and starvation, refuses to marry her persecutor, emperor Maxentius. Instead, she declares that Jesus Christ is her spouse and she’s consecrated her virginity to him. The Catholic-born poet John Donne’s famous “Holy Sonnet 14” opens with the line, “Batter my heart, three-personed God” and ends with the lines, “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” In short, people have imagined, claimed, and canonized sexual relationships with God for a very long time.
In the poem, “On the seventh day God says, What you’ve got is virgin charm & a knife in your pocket.” (innocence/experience again!) Condon rewrites Genesis 3:16, a verse in God’s voice in which he’s telling Eve what cursed, postlapsarian life will look like for women. But instead of, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” Condon’s God says, “Your longing will be for me, & I will dominate you,” blurring the line between God and human male sexual partner. The funny, surprising response on the next line, “& I’m like, Nope!” belies the emotional toll this power dynamic takes. A few pages later, in the titular poem, the speaker wonders if the reason she let a friend of a friend get “handsy” was her “own desire to be desired, since if a man / wants me, I know I have at least a little worth left.” Then, at the end of the poem, “Lord, if you will not let me exist / without shame at least leave me while I whisper // over my blessed mother’s naked body / the words you said would save me.” Not holding power is lonely and loveless too. And the only share of power Condon’s speaker can attempt to take when it comes to God is withholding belief in him, or at least withholding belief in his power.
Unlike Donne, Condon’s speaker is not sold on the idea of being ravished or dominated by God, but she’s also not sure she has a choice. Throughout these poems, she longs to be both powerful and vulnerable, desired and loved. But if God is a man and men are God, how can she ever balance this tension, this eros? How can she navigate sexual power dynamics in a way that is ultimately sustainable and life-affirming rather than unsatisfying, shaming, and demeaning?
John Donne reminds me of William Blake, another poet and Christian with an adverse relationship to the Anglican Church. Like Condon, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience have fun pushing back against the strictures of organized religion, to which Blake was famously hostile. In “The Little Vagabond,” Blake imagines what it would be like if you could drink beer in church: “And God, like a father, rejoicing to see / His children as pleasant and happy as He, / Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel, / But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.” The anti-clerical mischief in these lines reads like an ancestor of Condon’s disavowal of religion and its limitations on personal freedom.
Like you’ve said, some of Condon’s funniest lines wisecrack at God and his alleged authority. Praying Naked also displays the speaker’s power through form, repeating elements that break a typical convention of the poem’s established structure. “Ode to Gabriella,” “To Every Woman Who’s Been Kept a Secret,” and other poems use a uniform stanzaic structure (e.g., couplets or tercets), only to interrupt that regularity with a single line. Frequently, these lines directly address a woman in the poem: “Gabriella, you are beautiful.” By stripping the gloss of language, the rhetorical boundary between poem and world falls away—we’re witnessing an intimacy.
Poetry as an institution, with its canon, rules, and tradition, resembles the church. By making her own rules of poetic form, Condon sticks it to authority and the idea of institutions as a whole. One of the most tried-and-true methods for rejecting authority and its jurisdiction over the subject is by speaking its taboos aloud. In addition to religious and sexual taboos, Condon writes against some of the poetic taboos of Modernism enumerated in Ezra Pound’s essay, “A Retrospect.” The section entitled “A Few Don’ts” instructs, “Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace…’ It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”
Condon’s like, “Nope!”
In “Getting Through Monday,” a depressive anti-ode to the labor of art-making, the speaker meditates on the creation of symbols:
. . . I watch construction workers
move across the roof they’re building
& consider how this scene could stand for time—
how each shingle is a year in our lives & each nail
something beautiful passing through it,
anchoring us to the scaffolding (which is memory)
& reminding us that we have no choice
but to be here until the rain
soaks us weary & we fall, leaving only
dust (which is the soul) & heaps of concrete.
Explicit reference to the hidden mechanisms of metaphor feels like a rejection of the rules that empower particular institutions—poetry and its obscurantism, religion and its chastity. The speaker (and author!) is tired of pretending she isn’t intentionally weaving image and narrative to manipulate the reader’s emotional and semiotic associations. Condon throws back the curtain on metaphor, inviting us into her writing process, to share a degree of power she has as god of her own poem.
Speaking of taboos, sticking it to authority, and throwing back curtains, I want to talk about the cover art. Anyone familiar with Katie Condon’s social media presence will know she was unequivocally elated when Dorielle Caimi’s 2012 oil painting, Until Proven Innocent, was confirmed as the cover for Praying Naked. Much is noteworthy about the painting, but I think the most interesting thing about it is also the first thing you notice: it features a realistic naked woman painted realistically.
The subject, like Condon herself, is a white woman with brown hair and brown eyes. Her posture is a bit slumped. She has a few hairs out of place. Her breasts look like everyday breasts and—my favorite part—the light sunburn reddening her neck and chest negates what appears to be a tank top or one-piece bathing suit. Her left hand holds the tail of a diamondback rattlesnake, simultaneously evoking Eve and a Pentecostal snake handler. She stares at the viewer, who has, perhaps, just walked in on her. Her right hand is held up in a gesture of innocence and de-escalation. But her face doesn’t signal apology, fear, or shame. Rather, affront. Consternation. Perhaps even disapproval, as if to ask the viewer, “What are you looking at?”
If you’re familiar with Katie Condon’s social media presence, you also know that Instagram algorithms and/or employees censored photos of this book cover multiple times, evoking Condon’s indignance (dare I say, holy female anger?) and many reposts of the image.
It would be easy to say that Praying Naked carries this attitude from beginning to end—to say that these poems all depict a woman who refuses to accept censorship, and, more importantly, shame. And yes, there are wonderful poems like the Whitmanian “Katie Condon, an American, One of the Roughs, a Kosmos in the Flesh” and “I’m a Kick-Ass Woman” that resound with self-declaration and self-celebration. There are poems where Condon’s speaker insists on being large and blatant, insists on the goodness of her own sexuality, where she follows the mother’s advice in the collection’s penultimate poem, “Practicing Digressions”: “You are a woman. Praise / yourself.”
But Praying Naked resists becoming a self-love meme or empowerment manifesto. Instead, it reflects the stark oscillations many women I know, including myself, can experience within a day—going from feeling big, beautiful, and legitimate to small and unworthy. In “Driving, 4 a.m.,” a grief-drenched poem situated in a grief-drenched section of the book, Condon writes, “It’s been so long since I’ve understood the world / as a place I deserve to be alive in.” The opening poem, “Origin,” births us into the rest of the collection with the lines, “I am born / from grieving. I am // as afraid as you.” Praying Naked shows us the triumph and the pain. It accounts for the arduous labor of becoming a woman who believes her existence justifies itself.
Condon’s speaker is real, and she is as touched by the world and weather she lives in as the woman with the sunburnt chest in Caimi’s painting. Like periods and leg hair, women’s sexuality and desire are simply part of us, in all their diverse and sometimes messy manifestations. Removing the lenses and filters that shield us from other people’s potential disgust and disapproval is scary business. But we mustn’t continue to play along with the harmful myth that so many aspects of women’s reality are gross secrets. The fear is worth facing to arrive at the moments where we can say, Here I am, unmitigated. I’m a kick-ass woman. I praise myself.
Yes! Portraying women realistically, as Caimi has, is part and parcel of Praying Naked. Those visual details you mentioned, where the world has made its impression on the subject, account for my favorite part of the painting, too—the woman’s hands. Short, almost stubby fingers, broad palms, and skin slightly wrinkled around the second joint of her fingers, as though dried or callused by manual labor. It offers a counterpoint to the black-gloved, “Holly Golightly-type,” a hand with a cigarette holder balanced on her thumb and forefingers.
The snake, the nudity, and the raised eyebrow ask us to entertain the more weathered aspects of her appearance not in opposition to her sexuality, but as part of her appeal. Condon’s writing demands that we apprehend all those qualities at once, without grouping traits in masculine/feminine binaries. Sexuality doesn’t have to match only with elegance, coyness, confidence, and privacy—there’s room for a more capacious sexuality that incorporates female desire, self-consciousness, fantasy, boredom, bombast, and pride. Sex as it is honestly experienced, in all its less-than-perfect breadth.
One of my clearest memories of learning how I should relate to my period as a young teenager was watching the movie Superbad in which Jonah Hill’s character grinds with a woman at a party, then realizes he has period blood on his pants. His response is to begin gagging and retching, and the partygoers—women included—tease him and laugh at him. Leading up to the 2016 election, my childhood neighbor, a long-standing Republican who has always been kind and generous toward me, had nothing to say about Trump’s appearance or agreeability, but referred to Clinton as a “fat bitch” in front of me. A few years later, I found myself at a dinner table explaining to my friend’s dad why it wasn’t gross for his niece (who wasn’t there and who I’ve never met) to choose not to shave her legs—even though, as he brought up, her leg hair is thick and dark.
I have memories of my father and brothers giving me unsolicited opinions on my clothing, hair, makeup, piercings, and more without asking what I thought about their appearances in return. My mother and my mother’s mother are profoundly resilient women who are widely respected and admired in their communities, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve listened to them deflect compliments and criticize their bodies. I remember being a teenager and mentally going through the list, from head to toe, of everything I would need to change about my body before I’d be comfortable letting a future partner see me naked.
We all have pain to bring to the table—complicated pain attached to our complicated backgrounds and identities. And focusing on, celebrating, and ultimately attempting to normalize a realistic woman portrayed realistically is not a new or revolutionary idea to me, especially if that woman is white and cisgender as I am, and therefore automatically closer to mainstream American society’s narrow ideals. And yet, when I first read Praying Naked, I had to reckon with the cognitive dissonance between what I believe intellectually about the book and my ingrained biases around aesthetics of womanhood. Like Condon’s speaker, I also have to reckon with the dissonance between what I believe intellectually about myself and my ingrained sense of deficiency and shame. Until celebrating realistic womanhood in all its diverse and “unseemly” dimensions is familiar in practice, not just in theory, I think Praying Naked is not only an act of speaking out by default, but an act of vulnerability, courage, and healing.
Joanna Currey is from Virginia. She holds an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University, and previously earned her BA in English and Poetry Writing from the University of Virginia where she wrote mostly about plants, bodies, family, and religion. Joanna works as a gardener, and her writing has appeared in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, Nimrod International Journal, and Alaska Quarterly Review.
Chris Ketchum is a poet from northern Idaho. He is an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University, where he has served as a poetry editor for Nashville Review. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Five Points, New Ohio Review, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere.