A Review of Self-Portrait as Hildegard of Bingen

Self-Portrait as Hildegard of Bingen by Kate Fadick
Glass Poetry, 25 pages, $8.50

Hildegard of Bingen. I was looking for poems about Hildegard of Bingen. Maybe it was the ghosts of Catholic high school returned, or an echo of my teenage fixation on transcendent religious experiences, an obsession I thought I’d left behind. Making my way towards 30, I had only recently learned about Hildegard. I was curious about the women religious those theology teachers never found time to discuss.

“Glass Poetry has a new chapbook out related to Hildegard,” my friend Ron mentioned. “I think you’d like it.”

And so I came across exactly what I was looking for: Kate Fadick’s Self-Portrait of Hildegard of Bingen, an arid, crystalline, sparkling chapbook of poems.

Focused on reflections of the 12th century German mystic, composer, writer, and nun Hildegard of Bingen, these poems are full with air. They are the open spaces in the sanctuary—not the stained glass windows, but the light shining through them. Readers tumble through austere, surreal images of the natural world, “and the first berries/ripen in the coming//darkness” and meditate in a thrilling world of dark sound, “and the sweet ache/rises in my throat.”

Hildegard has been often called a polymath. In the 12th century, a time when few women in Germany could read, she learned how to read and write in Latin. Then, she decided to invent her own alphabet. Hildegard was intrepid in several fields: she wrote music and poetry, scientific treatises on diseases and the medicinal properties of various plants, and multiple volumes of visionary theology.

It’s difficult to illustrate the essence of such a complex genius, but Fadick has built Hildegard’s floating workshop brick by transcendental brick as “a fearless river/with no grammar.” The poems are surprisingly brief; Fadick crafted many of them in six short couplets. With three or four words on a line, readers have time to consume “a feast of blueberries/as the empty bowl/fills with//red trillium.” The spare, succinct images are delicious, delightful, and joyous. We eat slowly, savoring, identifying every intention and ingredient.

People like me use words like “queer” and “feminist” to describe historical figures like Hildegard, but Fadick’s poems allow readers to decide. They write in “These are the poems made of glass,”

blown at the edge
of the bent world

where Hildegard and I
lured by long nights

fed by a sweet name
we did not know

touched the rock
touched the stolen fire

I don’t yet know enough about 12th century mystical Christianity to understand every intertextual reference in these poems. I do know that Hildegard has come to represent non-male excellence in a world where we are still under-recognized for our accomplishments. In 2018, aren’t nonbinary and women artists, scientists, intellectuals, and musicians still accused of having “touched the stolen fire”? Is this warmth not what we continue to take for our survival? Is it not what we continue to celebrate? Such is the self-portraiture of Fadick’s collection.

Speaking to us through Hildegard across centuries, Fadick’s poems spark a new fire. A known healer, the voice of Hildegard performs treatments on us, demonstrating a vast expertise. What a joy to slow down with these poems and hear an ecology of questions.

Scientists and artists share a goal: the desire to describe our observations with precision. Hildegard was, by my estimation, the kind of artist-scientist we don’t have enough of these days, the kind of public intellectual whose work teaches us how to take the time to observe.

Fadick catches readers by the ear and asks us to meditate for a moment with “those who kept silence/with enchanting nothingness.” They dissolve what could feel like dense history or exhausting religious backstory by unearthing Hildegard’s lunar, mineral plane, “a gentle poultice/for the long night.” Fadick composes in Hildegard’s mystical language of power.

By Freesia McKee