this is not a review: ‘magnificat’, by k.d. miller

One of my annual pleasures is Steven Beattie’s, 31 Days of Stories, a tribute to the short story form by way of highlighting and reviewing a wide variety of work, from current to classic. I try to make a point of reading the daily posts (printed out on paper even) with tea each morning. I’m a little behind.

Just got to ‘Magnificat’ from K.D. Miller’s gorgeous collection All Saints.9781927428634_Cover_
It’s been a while since I read it but I didn’t remember it quite as described.

So I read it again.

And this is the most wonderful part about art of any kind, that there are several takes to be taken. The artist’s. Yours. Mine. And the millions of yours and mine’s out there reading/hearing /seeing/experiencing the same thing.

This never fails to fascinate me.

As a writer I enjoy hearing various takes on my own work, the way something I thought so obvious is missed or, conversely, something I hadn’t even seen appears to someone else as THE WHOLE POINT.

Who’s to say what’s right? The artist’s version, in my world anyway, merely counts as one opinion, one vote for ‘what it is’. It may appear to carry more weight because it has all that intention attached, but what it becomes when it flies through the atmosphere of our individual experience, can’t be denied.

And so, with ‘Magnificat’, for instance, my take is a little different from the one I read this morning…

In a nutshell–

Julia, an unattached, never married, middle-aged woman with blisters on her feet and a pretty ordinary life notices a young couple, Cathy and Gabe, having it off in the park. Only something’s not right about the scene and it makes Julia remember an incident of sexual abuse at the hands of a man who recited religious passages, which caused her to sing the Magnificat … essentially, a  survival technique.

“She remembers lying in bed, imagining herself the Virgin Mary.     Imagining the eyes of the angel on her. And his next words, the ones that would change her life forever, giving her cause to sing the Magnificat. My soul doth magnify the Lord…”

Beattie saw Julia as someone who has not experienced sex on any level and who witnesses the rough play in the park between Cathy and Gabe with a kind of lust. Whereas I see her watching with a sense of helplessness. Because of her own experience, she senses Cathy’s complicity in the situation and knows there’s no point in intervening and no crime to ‘report’. That for whatever reason people, often women, feel they deserve abuse of various kinds and, in order to survive it, are able to find a twisted sort of pleasure therein.

This experience of abuse may be the very thing (coupled with her parents’ cold relationship) that put her off the idea of marriage. Oddly, it may also serve as one of the reasons she’s drawn to the church… a convoluted means of putting things right that were made so wrong in *god’s* name.

That she sees not taking a husband as a “choice”, I think is a reference to burying the memory of the abuse. Anything that triggers it, is a source of discomfort.

And yet… she follows this strange couple, Cathy and Gabe, into a remote area of the park. She is afraid as she does so,  “… In a queer, thirsting way.”  The way she takes off her shoes, puts them on her hands to relieve her blisters, daring herself to continue past the pain… mirrors, in a way, what Cathy is doing, allowing herself to be drawn into the relationship with Gabe, hating it, fearing it, yet fearing it might end.

I see this as Julia wanting, at last, to confront her demons.

And yet… another reference to angels, this time from Cathy’s perspective in the middle of the aggressive and degrading sexual act:

“The grass is chafing her knees. Her fingers dig into the dirt… But she is surrounded by angels… Gabe. And Owen. And now this lady who is watching her… She is in a blue robe and a kind of white headdress, like a nun’s. Her feet are bare. She is wearing shoes on her hands.”

Julia watches the scene unfold as Cathy (also dressed in virginal blue and white) is undressed.

“When she saw the blue tunic come off, she pressed her palms flat to her heart. Prayed through dry lips… Then when the white T-shirt and the flesh coloured bra were shed, she wrapped her arms around herself to stop the swaying of the freed breasts.”

Julia begins to sing the Magnificat, and Cathy receives it with gratitude while her fingers dig into the dirt during the sexual act. This brief and unspoken connection, this understanding between the women is powerful, transporting Julia back to her childhood and when she comes back to reality, she finds herself checking to see her clothes are intact, “clutching at herself” as if to protect Cathy from the hands of this man, and herself from the hands of the abuser in her past.

Note: The Magnificat is a hymn of praise to god, in which god recognizes “the lowliness of his handmaid”. A song, no doubt, written by a bloke.

UPDATE: Was gob-smacked to find Steven Beattie’s re-visit to Miller’s story; even more gs’d to know my interpretation resonated. Because, well, what do I know?? Anyway, this is CanLit at its best: stories, discussion, open-minds.

I doff my cap.

All Saints  is available for purchase online at Blue Heron Books. 
Show indies some love.

6 thoughts on “this is not a review: ‘magnificat’, by k.d. miller

  1. Interesting reading of Miller’s story, Carin. I confess I did not share your reading of Julia as an abuse victim; rather I read the passage you quoted straight, as her imagining herself as the Biblical Virgin being visited by the angel who would announce the immaculate conception. In my mind, the “he” in the passage is the angel, not an abusive cleric.

    However, I confess to being made uncomfortable by the story, for reasons I’m still not quite able to put my finger on. It is entirely possible that my reading of the story is quite off base, and that there are undercurrents in it that I either missed or were unwilling to see. (I read the story, quite naturally, as a man, which may also colour the way I view the characters.)

    In any event, Miller’s stories yield levels at each reading; I’m sure I’ll return to the book many times and discover many things I missed or, in fact, got wrong. I appreciate your take on the story.

    And, it goes without saying, thanks for the kind words about my site, and thanks for reading.



    1. I think it’s amazing, really, when a story can be so deeply read from varying perspectives. A huge compliment to the work. Miller’s ‘version of events’ would be interesting to know, of course, but not essential. It’s like seeing a perfect pear in an abstract painting and the artist coming along and saying, oh, that’s a plum. Well, okay, not entirely ‘like’ that, but you know what I mean…

      I can see how and why the story struck you as it did… no quibbles there (it’s a brilliant little chameleon); it was simply that it ‘was’ able to strike me so differently that I found fascinating.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting. And, even more, thanks for the extraordinary work you do on Shakespearean Rag. The 31 Days is always a special treat.

      All the best,

  2. Steven Beattie’s comment made me wonder to what degree stories are interpreted differently depending on our own experiences (including just the given experience of being male or female). Very interesting.
    I have put a request in for this book twice at my library over the past year, and haven’t heard a word. I just might have to buy this one.

    1. Buy it, Naomi. You won’t be disappointed.

      And thanks for chiming in. Definitely interesting how experience/gender/wotnot can or might influence a reading. At least of work that touches on certain subjects… where there’s jiggle room for interpretation. Would be interested to hear your take on the piece, if you care to share.

  3. Naomi: I had exactly that conversation with my wife this morning. I think personal experience is impossible to discount in the way one approaches a work of art, though one job of the critic is to try to be open to alternate perspectives and approaches. I am a man, so I can’t help reading as a man, though I make every effort to let the story – and not my own biases and prejudices – dictate the way it should be read.

    That said, I’ve known many Puritanical, religious, censorious figures who resemble the woman I characterized Julia as being; I am certain my experience coloured my interpretation of the story.

    The weird thing is, I’ve read the story several times for various reasons over the past year, and not till reading Carin’s post had her take even occurred to me, notwithstanding the fact that I had to work much harder to justify my own interpretation. Having read Carin’s post, I can’t see anything else in the story.

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