Tuesday, January 24, 2012

my review of Voices Through Skin

ISBN: 978-0-983-29310-1
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I first read Voices Through Skin by Theresa Senato Edwards early last year. I'd previously published some poems from this manuscript in Autumn Sky Poetry, so I knew what to expect when I first opened the pages. Imperfection. Difficulty. I said as much in the blurb I wrote for the back cover. What I didn't explain was the sense of vulnerability that permeates so many of the poems. Life is often frightening and difficult. Body and mind are inexplicably linked while navigating tragedy. The book illustrates this duality in its two sections: mind and body.

"The Smell of Alcohol" is a poem in the second part of the book, the 'body' section. It opens with imagery that places the speaker firmly in the hospital: the message tube used by the nurses is akin to "a clear snake ready to attack" and the reader immediately knows this is no comfortable poem. The speaker is afraid. We know this because the poem tells us that the child the speaker cares for is afraid. This fear bleeds into every description, every image the woman has of her daughter in the throes of illness. The poem ends on a deceptively light note. The girl is nearly grown. The mother is pleased her daughter doesn't remember the hospital. The girl places "her long, strong fingers" on the mother's hand in a strange reversal of care-giving. The mother hides the fear that still lurks in her mind, in the remembrance of alcohol. They say smell is the strongest memory trigger.

I came away from this poem remembering that smell from when my own child was in the NICU. It's a strange thing to fear years after it's all over. The imagery of the poem highlights this fear extremely well with its focus on blood and fever and alcohol. The poem is set within the 'body' of the book, but every time I read it I am forced into memory. The main focus of the poem for me is the very end, when the speaker is lost to the memory of her daughter's illness. Body is tied to the mind. It will always be tied thus.

In the first part of the book, the 'mind' section, the poem "Battered" is terribly visceral. The imagery is extremely physical for a poem set in the 'mind.' The speaker's body is vandalized. The speaker exlains this in great detail, using such words as "rammed" and "forced." Strangely, the poem's opening belies the reality: "No man who shared his sex with me / broke me." One would think this is a mantra, proof of un-brokenness, but I found it not so. The poem is almost unbearably tragic. For really, what rape is a sharing? The poem tricks the reader into hope at the beginning only to take it away. The poem ends with this: "I remember being 26." This is a tragedy. The speaker begins with the mind then shows how the brutalization of the body betrays the mind. Memory is all the speaker has left and it torments her. She remembers being whole. Being young in mind, as she no longer is.

The rest of the poems in the book are similarly heartbreaking. Frightening, at least to me. "Your Attempt" in the 'mind' section begins "I'm sorry I wasn't there to stop you." "Her Rituals" details the difficulty of OCD, a common theme in several poems. "Inventing Dead" ends with "Absence is hard, comes without granting. / I make my voiceless appeal."

In the 'body' section the poem "Walls" ends with this idea: "I promised myself I would learn karate, find a new home in the spring." This poem haunts me. One doesn't need promises or karate unless one is a captive. This is an oddly metaphysical idea for a poem that's set in the body. "After Surgery" details the burden of "the throbbing of flesh gone." Of course, it's the mental difficulty of surgery that seems worse in that poem, providing the reader with yet more evidence of the marriage of mind and body.

Some of the poems are written in third person, clearly with a less personal narrator. Some are so achingly personal I felt the furtive embarrassment that comes from reading someone's diary, yet I could not stop reading because as I said in my blurb on the back cover, each poem illustrates the way suffering makes us human. The scars anchor us to the world. I wouldn't accuse this collection of poems as being easy. They're not. They're not comfortable.

They're worth reading anyway.

The scars one carries in life are proof that one has lived and survived. Both the mind and the body carry these scars. The poems document this in a way that the reader can't ignore. Voices Through Skin is a kind of celebration. An inscription. A testament. This collection pays tribute to what so many quiet, courageous people have discovered through suffering and despite inevitable death: life is worth something. Worth everything.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

my review of Dark And Like A Web

Dark And Like A Web by Nic Sebastian

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Last April, as I wrote a set of poems for NaPoWriMo, I also read a set of poems by Nic Sebastian. She called them "prayers and charms" and I eagerly clicked over to the website she'd set up for them each day. I didn't want to miss any. My life was growing more hectic and difficult as the year progressed; her poems calmed me down. They helped me think about the deep spaces of the mind and heart and soul and how my internal landscape informs my dreams and wishes. Back in April 2011 I had no idea how much more insane my year was going to become.

Nic published this collection of NaPo poems later in the year, calling it "Dark And Like A Web" after a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke. She set up a website that offered online access to the poems as well as recordings of her beautiful voice speaking them with depth and emotion. I couldn't help but wonder if she knew how these poems would help me get through my year. Every time some disaster occurred (death, earthquake, hurricaine, blizzard) I invariably picked up her chapbook and read one of the poems. They aren't all peaceful.

In "there are howling wolves" the narrator explains how "their voices tesselate" the night." How "we vibrate." It isn't a comfortable sensation. As the short poem progresses, the reader stumbles over "shattered constellations" and "pieces / of this night." There is no comfort to this poem, except that very discomfort creates a sort of truth that comforted me. At the very end of the poem, the speaker talks of how "we are not coming" and "never were." People don't always figure it out. After an unexpected death in my family this past summer, I felt comforted by this truth. The poem is completely surreal, but the core of it is emotionally real.

Other poems in the chapbook resonate similarly. In August I went on vacation with my family to Washington, DC. While we stood on the National Mall, an earthquake confused our day. People wandered everywhere while random sirens pierced the streets. Two days later we were in Ocean City, Maryland, trying to finish our vacation on the beach. Hurricaine Irene dismantled those plans and we were evacuated along with thousands of others. Cars packed the roads and I read Nic's poem "containing prayer beads and Bangkok."

This poem is set in Bangkok and Seattle but really the cities don't matter. It's the internal landscape of the poem that accompanied me on my journey. I wanted what the speaker of the poem wanted: peace. Love. But, "he tells me to find / my own mantra." The poem speaks a list of exotic places and fills them with gorgeous imagery: "black hair / kicking in the wind" and "gold-shot pain / of sunset." The beauty is always accompanied with an active rushing away from peace. The end of the poem renders the speaker mute. That is what disaster does to a person. Once again, I was strangely comforted. This chapbook was the friend who lived across the country from me. The friend I couldn't talk to very often. The friend who nevertheless understood exactly what I had been feeling in the midst of destruction.

Last year I promised Nic a review of this chapbook. I could go on about the imagery of the poems, their beautiful lines and surreal verbs. How they spoke to me even when I thought I couldn't go on because the earth was covered with snow and a lack of water. Or how the characters in the poems let me dream about places I wanted to go: mountains and rivers and temples. Ultimately, I can't really review this collection of poems, can't say: "oh, I give it three stars or five or seven." Because this particular chapbook of poems carried me like a boat over the drama of my emotions this past year. I can't help but love them. As the opening poem of the book states: "I think you are / a small flame embedded / in silence." Thank you Nic, for giving voice to that flame and letting it light my way for those difficult months. Thank you for that gift.