Sundress Reads: A Review of The Machinery of Grace

As part of our effort to promote writers who have been impacted by COVID-19 and all of the other challenges that 2020 has wrought, we’ve invited writers to submit their books for review. Here, Sundress Editorial Intern Ada Wofford reviews Patrice Boyer Claeys’ The Machinery of Grace:

The Machinery of Grace is a collection of cento poems named, not after Richard Brautigan’s “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” a title referenced frequently, but after a line in Michael Donaghy’s poem “Machines.” The complete line is, “The machinery of grace is always simple,” though Claeys’ poems are anything but simple, making the title a somewhat ironic nod of what’s to come.

This is my first foray into the world of cento poetry, a form sometimes referred to as collage poetry as it consists solely of lines taken from other poems. It’s an idea that immediately intrigued me, reminding me of the method known as sampling in music production. Most sampling functions as either a hook or a nod so, it’s very obvious to the listener that what they’re hearing has been appropriated. Even classical composers such as Charles Ives would include snippets of other pieces into their compositions and for the same reason. What makes Claeys’ cento poems so special is how seamlessly they are constructed. If I didn’t know these were collage poems, I never would have guessed it.

Intimate pieces such as, “If My Mother Had Spoken of Her Childhood” and “The First Autumn Following Her Death” sound personal and immediate; not at all like an amalgamation of several disparate pieces. Claeys masterfully weaves together myriad lines of other poems into something wholly unique that possesses a singular and unique voice. It’s a truly amazing feat of patience and research. The author’s bio at the back speaks of Claeys’ love for puzzles and it certainly comes through in the impressive construction of these poems.

My favorite poems are the ones that focus on objects and things. “Jazzed” explores the music of everyday sounds and “Drinking It In” celebrates the various liquids that become integral parts of our everyday lives in ways both odd and profound. “Life Lesson,” which is perhaps my favorite poem in the collection, is a short little meditation on the importance of remembering. It’s a poem that, like the work of William Carlos Williams, manages to say so much with so little.

The Machinery of Grace is not just impressive because of the method with which it was constructed but because of the beauty of the language used throughout the poems. Observations from life to death, from the grandeur of nature to a cup of coffee, are lovingly pieced together from the fragments of other thoughts and other worlds. Scholar and writer James Longenbach says that a poem should make the reader feel as if through the act of reading it they have written it. Not only is Claeys’ entire method a take on that philosophy, but these poems leave the reader with that same thrill or as Longenbach states in his Art of the Poetic Line, “An experience we need to have more than once, an act of discovery.”

Claeys’ cento poems are a true act of discovery and The Machinery of Grace is certainly an experience we need to have more than once.

The Machinery of Grace is available at Kelsay Books

Ada Wofford is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Library and Information Science and was recently accepted to the University of Rochester to earn an MA in English. They graduated Summa Cum Laude from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in English Literature and their work has been featured in a number of publications including McSweeney’s and Literary Heist. They are also a Contributing Editor for The Blue Nib and the founding editor of My Little Underground, a music review site written exclusively by musicians. You can follow them on Twitter @AdaWofford.


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