Double Effect by Martha Serpas. Louisiana State University Press, 2020. $17.95, 73 Pages
Fans of Martha Serpas’ work—with its imagery and language, bordering on local color; its treatment of spiritual conflicts and loss; and its formal regard for semantics and linguistics—will encounter familiar ground in her fourth collection of poetry, Double Effect. Serpas was born in Galliano, Louisiana, was raised as a Cajun Catholic, and has a Masters in Divinity. These foundational elements of Serpas’ perspective inform her entire body of work, which grapples with love, loss, and healing.
The poems in Double Effect are dramatic monologues, lyrical or narrative. The first poem in the collection is the “Author’s Twelve-Word Bio,” and the poems are a chronological sequence of reflections on the author’s life experiences. The protagonist, Beb—whose speech is both elevated and seasoned with Cajun French—ages from beginning to end, moving from childhood into early womanhood, and finally to marriage in “Flat Water,” which is dedicated to Serpas’ wife. Yet Serpas’ poetry is more than confessional; her poems are works of spiritual witness and are concerned with conciliation. In Double Effect, readers are treated to poetry that is more personal than Serpas’ prior work, as well as more covertly a means to explore the nature of time, paradox, identity, and morality.
The title, Double Effect, refers to a theory of conciliation postulated by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, the basic premise being that acts have “two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention.” Though some actions may have an unintended “bad effect,” the good intention and the good end “compensate for the bad effect.” The first section is a prologue, three-poems long, illustrating the premise of double effect in several settings. “Preface” deals with the manifestation of double effect in the natural world, or “the island primeval,” while “Contrition” concerns the speaker’s desire for conciliation—or a spiritual and emotional experience of setting one’s (good) intentions in response to the bad effects of prior acts. “Contrition” also sets Beb’s intention for the book to represent a path to salvation through truth and realization of the law of compensation: “O my heart, if I let you witness, don’t tell lies about me … flutter as if only down lined the scale.” The final poem in the prologue, “The Deuce Makes Itself,” adds other illustrations of the rule of double effect: science (such as Newton’s laws and the neurology of imagination and memory) and games (including Monopoly, The Game of Life, and the card game “pedro”). The collection continues this examination of “double effect,” as it impacts one’s interactions with the ourselves, others, and the world.
The remainder of the collection is organized according to the “four formulations of the theory of double effect.” The first section depicts “Good, Bad, or Indifferent” acts—causes that begin the chain of effects developed thereafter. “Good, Bad, or Indifferent” concerns Beb’s recollection of, and feelings about, her childhood experiences with women. The book, in fact, is dedicated to Serpas’ mother and her “second mothers.” Her mother is depicted as driving to escape, such as in “Betsy: A Mandatory Evacuation.” Mothers are sleeping, absent, and dead. In “Original Sleep,” the mother is a “body put to sleep,” while Beb, a newborn child, cries, “O fluorescent lights! / Wake that woman up!” This refrain is repeated in “Mother Tongue,” but the mother in this poem is dead; it is her cousin whom we see “scream in her ear, / Wake up, Mama, everyone’s here.” Second mothers are teachers or the wives of preachers, such as in “Mother’s Tongue.” Others, such as Miss Lucy in “Patriarchy,” are mute, cooking and cleaning house for their cheating husbands. In “Double Effect: St. Joseph’s Altar, March 19,” grandmothers are devout Catholics—even though Mary is missing from the altar they build: There are “St. Joseph and the Christ child centered before a fan of palms” instead. These conditions of motherhood experienced by Beb in her childhood affect the intentions, acts, and outcomes depicted by the remainder of the book.
The second section, “Voluntary,” contains poems that express intentions: Beb’s and other women’s desires and their corresponding actions. In “Changeable Letters on the Jet Drive-in Marquee,” the opening poem concerns Nora, who gives up her virginity and nostalgia, an “offering to make parents of children.” Other offerings are to “Local Gods” or are a “Saturday Afternoon Confessional.” Beb begins speaking to “You.” In “Apostrophe,” she writes:
See, now You are finally offstage where we can talk …
Just you and me.
Just me, actually …
Me talking to You in Your most present absence …
You listen to my footfalls
circle from the best damn hissing place of all.
The poems represent a deliberate conversation with the absent You, which figures as the speaker as well as God, and even Joy, in “Just Call Me Beb,” which concludes this section:
if God said anything, God said,
Beb, I liked you from the first,
It was the best thing that ever happened
to me, you said.
I should call myself beb every day.
Overall, the intentions are conciliation through a growing relationship between Beb, herself, and the ever-present Divine.
The third and longest section, “The Means,” aligns with St. Aquinas’ formulation that “A good end does not justify the bad means.” If “Voluntary” is about yearning and desire, then “The Means” illustrates how those intentions are experiences. Intentions are realities—they are our word and acts—as postulated by the opening poem “The Landscape Is the Language.” Here, intentions are acts, with ends both good and bad, such as in “Generation,” “Doxology,” and “Fallacy.” More than anything, there is death, such as in “A Ghost Story Recanted” and “Oleander Avenue, 1927.” The subject of the deaths of mothers returns in poems such as “Yachtzee” and “I’m Tending a Bit toward Living These Days.” These poems, however, nestle glimpses of final conciliation, or “The parting you were born for: / release the mother you mourn for,” as “Are You My Mother?” concludes.
These poems concern the paradox of joy—of a life that requires death—a theme that the final section of the collection, “Compensation,” drives home. These poems return to, or mirror the prologue, with time presented as cyclical through this overarching structure, as well as a wheel motif appearing throughout the collection. In the opening poem, “To the Tripmaster,” Beb figures a driver and teacher on “a quest … for a balcony, uphill … a flyer, a hoop torch, / a Ferris wheel.” In “Née – Décédé” (or “Born – Died”), the game table becomes a Thanksgiving table, around which are seated people “all dead.” The collection not only grapples with the absence or loss of mothers, but with the absence or loss of love, life, and self. Yet this is exchanged with renewal and rebirth, for which Beb is thankful, as she expresses in the final lines of “Double Effect: December 31”: “the bridge closes behind you / and in closing it opens for me.”
The collection’s intimacy and universality combine with elements of local color to convey a spiritual witness and conciliation concerned as much with individual identity as it does with exploring spiritual quandaries and the workings of logic and language. In this way, the collection strikes a balance within itself—as well as with Serpas’ prior body of work, which focuses more heavily on spiritual, cultural, and social identity—with the end being a profoundly appealing read.
Michelle Antoinette Nicholson is a NOLA native, Loyola alumna, and second-year MFA student at the University of New Orleans. She has graduate degrees in education and English literature and gets her grits by side-gigging as an editor, teacher, and journalist. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Ellipsis, Talking River Review, ANTIGRAVITY, and elsewhere.