In “Altarwise by Owl-Light,” Thomas weaves together several themes to produce a richly layered meaning of personal and universal experience. Most prominent of its themes are the surrealistic events of Christian history, the trials of human sexuality, and the joyful labors of poetic creativity. In the end, all are one and the same, identified by the mysterious force of language itself.
Christian history is portrayed as very individual, as the speaker of the sonnets may sometimes be the poet, sometimes Christ, and sometimes the mother of Christ. Crucial episodes of history are taken as moments of illumination for all time, past, present, and future: the Nativity of Christ is a significant repetition of the genesis of the world, of the creation of Adam, and it is significantly repeated in the birth of every person; the Crucifixion of Christ repeats the Fall of Adam, and every person’s pain/death is a reenactment of the Fall and the Crucifixion; the Resurrection confirms the promise of new birth and new life for all, a return to Eden (the “flying garden”) of the Old Adam through the New Adam of Christ.
Wherever there is creation, there is also some pain and, sometimes, there is comedy. The sequence follows the ironies and paradoxes of sexuality as blessing and curse: from the “hangnail cracked from Adam,” to “the gender’s strip,” “marrow ladle,” and “manwax,” masculine crosses feminine sexuality with its “shapeless country,” “milky mushrooms,” and “house of bread.” The theme of poetic creation crosses all with its elaboration of the major pun on the “Word” as the Beginning of All; hence, there is a “walking word,” a “book of water,” “medusa’s scripture,” “my fork tongue,” and “a rocking alphabet.” To create babies and poems is to create the world anew, to renew paradise and triumph over death; to joy in re-creation is to be wise, converting the atlas of the world into an altar of renewal.