Reviewed by Brian Watson
From the beginning of Without Saints (Black Lawrence Press; Oct. 2022), I thought I knew the journey these little gem-like essays were taking me on. I could feel the first pages viscerally, the looming evil of a destructive faith present in the author’s youth as it had been in mine. A darkness to beware, I thought, and I began to read more slowly. Perhaps my self-deception allowed me to think I was savoring Christopher Locke’s writing—and it is lush, worthy of such savor. But perhaps the beginning chapters hinted at traumas that I also knew, and I feared turning a page to run into my own memories head on.
The chronologically arranged essays are grim. Childhood sex abuse, substance disorder issues, relationship trauma, and then the tragedy that befalls his youngest daughter near the book’s mid-point are hard to read. But Mr. Locke possesses an enviable gift: His writing style maps with a poet’s precision—unsurprising, as Mr. Locke is also a published poet—to each stage of his life. I am feeling his teenage years with perfect clarity as each sentence passes by. His twenties and thirties change his writing, or perhaps it is his writing that captures those decades with the same crystalline focus.
An unexpected benefit of my slowed reading was an openness to the author’s moments of self-reflection within each essay, growing more profound as the book progresses. In the essay “Fleeting,” Mr. Locke recalls his friendship with the writer and poet Donald Hall by way of a memory of reading one of Hall’s essays in 2012:
“I read the essay all at once one morning in bed, the house to myself because [my wife and daughters] were all off to Spanish class. The ending made me cry, particularly because of this line in the last paragraph: There are no happy endings, because if things are happy, they have not ended.”
I found myself coming back to that dog-eared page, to re-read those two sentences. Not only is the reflection of life’s poignancy perfectly captured—the point, I believe, of a well-lived life is to know the pain of endings that show us how deeply we can love—but there is also a reminder to accept and acknowledge ephemeral happiness. Happiness is not an end state, as Mr. Locke’s clearly illustrates, but happiness are moments caught in the corner of our eyes, barely in focus, that only require a wink and a smile to capture within memory.
The final essay, fittingly so, brings such a moment of brief, yet recalled, joy. Voice returns us to the author’s experience of teaching within a prison, specifically to his plans for the last class. He brings fourteen poems to the classroom, all of which were particularly resonant for Mr. Locke at one point in his life. Each of the fourteen inmates selects one poem at random to memorize and recite.
Magic is afoot somehow because the inmates unknowingly select poems that are resonant for themselves, too. The last five paragraphs of Without Saints: Essays shook me as each vignetted an inmate with their poem. Let me share the third of those five:
“And Mr. Russell, who read Jim Daniels’ “Wheels,” about the speaker’s brother always waving in photographs from behind the wheel of a car or truck or motorbike. We all learned in class just the other night that Mr. Russell’s younger brother died at age because he snuck out in the family car and crashed at a hundred miles per hour. When Mr. Russell looked at us and said, “my brother’s feet/rarely touch the ground-/waving waving/face pressed to the wind/no camera to save him” we realized the poem was now a kaddish.”
I wanted to end this review on that note of intense, somber beauty, but I recalled that moments of the author’s personal enlightenment—moments worth speaking to—lie waiting within each essay, growing more profound as the book progresses. In the essay entitled “The Night Faerie,” which takes place after the dog attack on his youngest daughter, Mr. Locke reports a conversation he has with a friend who better understands the post-traumatic stress disorder that Mr. Locke is experiencing. This remembered exchange hit me hard:
“Sometimes those recovering from trauma will even act out the trauma experience again, exactly how they remembered it. Then they’ll sort of wake up, not aware they went into a trance at all.”
North Americans are raised on worsening traumas. Building on the systemic racism, misogyny, and other ills that plague us, the last few years have added the horrors of pandemic to the increasing violence that surrounds us. But then I re-read that paragraph above and the word recovering leaps out. How many of us are recovering? How many of us see the trauma that embraces us? Thank you, Mr. Locke, for elucidating even the smaller trauma experiences and, ultimately, for charting a way to recovery.