By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
By the time you read this, the thick humidity and pressing sun I know to be August will have come and gone. The zucchinis and their flowers will have been plucked and fried and devoured. Autumn will have spread its orange yawn on pool-parties and outdoor barbecues. And, of course, in the narrative of my favorite myth, Persephone has gathered her things and chased after whatever belongings to bring down with her to Hades. Summer with mother has ended; now, winter with her husband.
Every Fall I remember Persephone. I remember her torment and seduction. I remember the words of scholars and poets who have pondered over her purpose. I remember the black-eyed susans and lilies and the ripe tomato harvest from not so long ago. I remember how imperative myth is to my writing, to my understanding of human existence, to tradition. The poets I've featured in this season's column seem to reflect back on their past with this type of meditative perception, too.
Fall is my favorite season. I find peace knowing children's minds nationwide rejuvenate in the throngs of learning. The soft fade of the leaves from crimson to yellow reminds me that nothing is permanent; it urges me to record, to write. This season, I hope Nicole Rollender, Dominick Quartuccio, Claire Trévien, and Lisa Marie Basile shake up these bits of your mind. And, like the changing of the seasons, I hope their exquisite imaginations rejuvenate your sense of wonder.
For many, womanhood is an inescapable myth, a lifetime of predetermined emotions and values, of categories in which many do not fit: girlhood, sisterhood, motherhood.
"Now, you're supposed to feel baby legs feather kicking the walls
of your soft uterus..."
begins Nicole Rollender's "Quickening", winner of the Princemere Poetry Journal's 2012 Princemere's Poetry Prize. The poem agonizingly depicts the moment a pregnant woman first feels her baby flutter and shift in the womb. The speaker, who "birthed" her "only daughter close on forty", exposes the fears and pains of both carried and carrier. The carried, whose "blood's thick, heavy pumping is the sound / of [her] church's bells", and carrier, who reveals the "delivery room / doctor warned: You'll die, if you carry another baby" are the only two voices in the poem. Indeed, they are the only two who matter at all in the speaker's created world.
To confront the crisis of womanhood in poetry is not easy. Some risk sentimentality; others, demonization from readers. The wisely extended couplets of "Quickening" intertwined with a keen sense of enjambment creates the sense of longing and dependency needed for mother and child to coexist and share the same space. The empathetic nature of the speaker extends far beyond that of the expected, there is an urgency in the speaker's voice, for there is a chance someone or something may rip the life of either away. Understanding this, the speaker confesses:
"When you're an old woman and your belly is large and empty, you'll
reach down under the pelvic bone and cradle it."
Rollender has an ear for the bizarre, and at times her peculiar sonic intonations are as sharp as unsuspected labor pains. "Trying to forget" the advice and lessons from her past, the speaker recites names of butterflies: "Brimstone, Cabbage White, Clouded Sulphur, Rita Blue, Julia, Aphrodite Fritillary" and later "Malicious Skipper, Saltbush Sootywing, Long Dash..." only to reveal:
"Some female moths have no wings,
so they crawl all their lives on their bellies."
For some, the penultimate sentence is an unsettling image of deficiency, a natural example of a weak and unsuitable failure of a creature. For this reader, Rollender's analogy echoes the disturbing brilliance of Baudelaire. She, as the great-French master, exposes in life's waste and muck indefatigable strength. Even without wings, the moth moves on.
What's even more exciting to me about Rollender's work is that there is a compelling narrative. The poems are not disparate and fleeing. They are connected by the same voice, and when this sort of thing happens in poetry, when the speaker's voice is consistent, a dynamic relationship is developed with the reader. A kinship blossoms: a mutual understanding. The source of the speaker's pain remains consistent, as well, that troubling issue of motherhood, the crisis of love.
In "Necessary Work" the speaker attempts to busy herself after "the excruciating / parting of [our] two bodies", after a very difficult, perhaps unsuccessful birth. Again, Rollender utilizes elongated couplets to evoke a sense of endlessness. The poem, a harrowing lament for the "winged baby" to "sing", insists, in its way, that this mother/child connection is the speaker's purpose, her raison d'etre. Speaking to the child she says, "While you're / in the hospital, my kitchen is cursed" and later, after evoking the homely scents of her grandmother's "rummy yeast, of fennel and pale cabbage", she concedes, "My grief doesn't let me eat."
Unabashed to reveal her suffering, the speaker's aches and sorrows sink into the reader's gut. There is a line in "Neccessary Work" which seems to epitomize the trajectory of Rollender's work. It goes:
with the immortal, the dark in the brilliant death-light; the beautiful plum falling
from its long branch, then sweetly decomposing."
Rollender's incorporation of universally understood concepts like mother, child, grief, or the sacrifice of love do not make her work easy. In fact, her work is haunting, it is terrifying, it is unrelentlessly lyrical and moving. And this mastery of language and narrative are just small indications of the skills she has stored.
Nicole Rollender's poetry and nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in various literary magazines and anthologies, including 27 rue de fleures, Alaska Quarterly Review, Creative Nonfiction, Dark Matter Journal, and more. She serves as media director for Minerva Rising Literary Magazine, and regularly blogs for Ruminatemagazine.com. Her poetry chapbook, Arrangement of Desire, was published by Pudding House Publications in 2007. Nicole, who has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Pennsylvania State University, is editor of Stitches magazine, which won a Jesse H. Neal Award for "Best Single Issue of a Magazine" and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) 2011 Magazine of the Year Award. She's also the executive director of professional development for the Advertising Specialty Institute, where she oversees an industry certification program in which more than 30,000 professionals are enrolled.
Simplicity is strangely affecting. In this way, the uncomplicated nature of Dominick Quartuccio's poems strikes a universal chord within readers. He writes of grandparents and childhood, of boyhood and being a son. To me, he reads like O'Hara, for throughout the conversational narrative of his work he manages to create small, delicate moments, and in those moments his language explodes.
"I rent half my parents' house.
They live on their side.
I live on mine.
There's a door between
the two apartments.
It's always closed,
but never locked."
begins "Notes and Things." Quartuccio's utilization of the vernacular sweeps readers into the speaker's family, where Dad "drops off [my] mail / watches [my] tv / and borrows tools." The scene unfolds so clearly, a pattern in which Dad leaves childhood trinkets and notes like "Dom, / Be shure to turn off the boiler after you shower" usually written "on the backs / of envelopes / in thick pencil lines / some words misspelled / some underlined..." Each day something new. After reading the notes, Dom "folds them in half" and places them in an old cigar box.
The specificity of the cigar box is important; I find Quartuccio's manipulation of space in "Notes and Things" particularly impressive. As important as the space created by the structure and organization of a poem (its stanzas and lines), the space described in a poem directly influences readers' sense of place. "Notes and Things" is a free-verse poem, meaning its visual structure is not constrained; however, within the content of this seemingly uncomplicated poem, everything has its space: the TV, the "little green army men", everything except for Dad. Only Dad roams freely between the "unlocked" but closed doors. The father figure is enigmatic and wide; his presence can't be contained in his own home, in Dom's place, nor in the poem. Naturally, the speaker/son craves to keep some sort of his father. Hence, the cigar box, where only Dad is placed. While the poem is able to reveal the intimacy between the living, between father and son and their daily rituals, it also reveals the speaker's innermost fear; that these notes and things from the ghost of his father visiting during the day will one day be ghosts of his father. This sentiment is emphasized in the repetition of the single line, which echoes and cuts in between stanzas, the way "all of the notes" were signed, "simply"
The family dynamic shapes much of Quartuccio's work, and they're a lovely family to read. Rarely in poetry do sons and fathers coincide lives or share televisions so happily. The typical poetic family falls under the trope of suffering and despair. It is refreshing to read of this group of people who seem to have gotten it right.
Harnessing the landscape of the natural world, Quartuccio's "Clamming" echoes a similar sentimentality towards the paternal figure. This time, Grandpa. The poem remembers what seems to be a fairly typical day in the speaker's childhood, a day clamming with Grandpa, who'd instruct his grandchildren to help find clams by doing "the Twist, / like Chubby Checker" in the sand as they followed him to the bay.
Quartuccio manipulates the ebb and flow of the water throughout the poem with a soft rhyme interrupted by stanza breaks, which control the reader's breath. Take:
"riding far ahead of Grandpa,
who always walked behind us
at a steady pace.
We were always in such a rush."
The soft "u" sound in "us" and "rush" is soothing, and mimics the ocean's rhythmic pattern while the purposeful moment of breath forces readers to recede, like the water, into taking a break. Later, the repetition of "Grandpa was in no such rush. / Grandpa was never in a rush" transforms into a litany for a life well lived. Grandpa lesson is simple: keep calm and clam on. The grandchildren learned to take it easy as they "did like grandpa did" out there, "necks in the salty water" "feeling for clams with [our] toes."
This is Quartuccio's poetic vision,
"on every beach,
happy as clams."
In the thrusts of sentimentality and lyricism it is sometimes easy to forget the matter of simple things. Quartuccio never forgets.
Dominick Quartuccio is a writer of poetry, plays, screenplays, short fiction, non-fiction, and greeting cards. His works have been published in Suffolk County Community College's Evolution, at Headlockpress.com, the 2009 LI Sounds Poetry Anthology, and other places, digitally and in ink. His short play, The Tie, was a winner of Stony Brook University's Ten-Minute Play Contest. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Literature in 2010, which spawned his first novel, Ghoul. He currently teaches at Molloy College and Suffolk County Community College and teaches creative writing workshops at local libraries.
As T.S. Elliot once said, "The capacity for writing poetry is rare; the capacity for religious emotion of the first intensity is rare; and it is to be expected that the existence of both capacities in the same individual should be rarer still. "Surreal yet honest, Claire Trévien's "Communion" takes readers on a journey where sin, not faith, is preserved. The gloom-stricken tone is set in the first two lines:
"The weather's gained weight,
sags its pebbled belly..."
across the city. The atmosphere is dreary and heavy air lingers. Even the speaker is pictured "slumped", "waiting" for the world "to decide" "whether to burst / or rapture itself away."
Playing on the duality of the symbol of wine/blood (the sin/the savior), the speaker finds the will to survive only after she has "found the wine spared / in collapsed cellars." From this moment, the symbolic power of the wine is boldly pronounced. But how should it be interpreted?
In a poem, even if the poet wants otherwise, wine is never just wine, just as the speaker is never just the speaker. Symbols and voices are seeped into our consciousness depending on our history, traditions, and religion. The magic of poetry is that it demands each object, place, and person be rich with multifaceted layers; anything incorporated into the poet's created world has given itself up to interpretation.Trévien's wine could be one reader's image of blood another reader's symbol of addiction. More important than the wine could be the vessel which holds it, the carrier of the life-force, what some may call the womb.
InTrévien's "Communion" readers are told "the world has ended, or, at least, / most people have." Though the poem's title dictates the union of an individual to Christ, the sharing of this holy, sacrificial blood comes sinister implications. The speaker believes grapes "have been crushed, made to sour" for her "pleasure." Invocations of greed and pride permeate stanza to stanza. At the heart of "Communion", darkness prevails.
The poem dances around the act of submission. And if the "broken bottles" and a "broken sky" surrounding the speaker are any indication, the speaker is not submitting to faith. At the close of the poem, readers watch as the speaker opens her mouth, waiting "for communion."
Trévien accomplishes something tremendous in "Communion." Speakers and readers are not satisfied within the narrative because, together, we are driven by a thirst for more, which is illustrated as we sit open-mouthed and patient to receive at the poem's end. Yes, we; together. That is what's tremendous: though we crave satisfaction in the poem, the poem itself leaves readers completely satisfied. We are terrifically engaged, equally satiated with discomfort and fear, we are all seeped into the language of yesteryear in a world we wish to be very far away. The type of control Trévien masters is not easy. Her readers are at her mercy.
She manipulates language in a similar way in "The Evening After." The poem, which at times seems like a twisted mockery of reality, begins with some narrative clarity:
"One evening, tired of games and each other,
we spent watching our reflections on a screen"
Like many of Trévien's poems, "The Evening After" contemplates the past. At one point as the speaker "swiveled / the puckering glass like a mock-dandy" readers swirl in the whirlwind of memory. The ten line stanza composed of lines of similar length aide in focusing the memory and in holding readers down into the poem. Literally, at the center of the poem, the semantics construct a noisy and vertiginous moment. Even "blood" slushes at the speaker's "temples." For a few lines "until the spill", the poem shakes in its sonic piquancy. But the shaking is fleeting. The poem finishes quietly.
At the end of "The Evening After", Trévien relies on the senses, both internal and external, on taste and touch, and on the eye-rhyme of "ough." The speaker has just spilt the wine. Before the spill, the air was lovely, sounds dripped onto words. The lack of action in the last moment of the poem roots readers firmly back into reality, and the simple quiet of the thereafter.
of salt, the patting of the fabric, perhaps enough."
The friction of the fricatives found in "gh" and "f" mirror the tension found in the content just a few lines before. But the content now is soft. This is poetic language at its full disposal. Luminous, tender, and frightfully emotionally accurate, Trévien will be a household and classroom name in years to come.
Claire Trévien is a poet and academic. She was born in Pont l'Abbé, France in 1985 and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Warwick in 2012. Claire Trévien is the Anglo-Breton author of Low-Tide Lottery (Salt, 2011) and The Shipwrecked House (Penned in the Margins, 2013). The Shipwrecked House was highly commended in the Forward Prizes and long-listed in the Guardian First Book Awards as the reader's choice. She edits Sabotage Reviews, Verse Kraken, Penning Perfumes, and the forthcoming anthology Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History.
A Lisa Marie Basile poem slithers with seductive intensity, punches with a ferocious honesty, and her lines stay within readers' minds like an age-old proverb reigning true. She writes of universal themes and experiences: sex, abandonment, neglect, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to love another woman's body. But she approaches these subjects with a meticulous sense of grief, and such pain sets her apart from the rest.
By the time readers reach the second line of "The Summer I was the Virgin Mary", we already know we are in a world drenched in sin. Readers can't help but begin the poem with flashing images of pure-white kindness and morality, after all, these are the traits of the Virgin Mary. When the speaker begins by revealing "today my father came to pray / black denim & brown suede", the purposeful opposition of the unsaid color (white) to said colors (black and brown) shapes a startling image of character. The father is stained. Keen readers immediately understand he is not there to pray for peace in the world or shelter for the homeless; the father prays for forgiveness.
The poem continues in its development of the father:
" a little tattoo of something holy
only he isn't holy
he was raised at a church"
The storytelling is grievous in the poem, which is void of capital letters except for four important proper nouns: Ambassador, Playboy, Italian, Madonna. Ambassador: the sedan where the father would sit and pinch his sister. Afterwards, he'd set fire to those Playboys, and if and when he'd pray, it'd always be in Italian. It is the image of the Madonna which finally provokes the speaker to reflect on herself. She admits she has "dressed as" her before, and in doing so divulges a particular understanding of how to behave like a good daughter for her father. The description is chilling:
a little pushup bra,
with some bubble gum & beach spray.
The descriptions are paradoxical: The body's physical actions, bowing and simultaneously closing shut, and what the body is wearing, the veil, which conceals, and the push up bra, which reveals, clash against one another like faith and science. Perhaps the speaker is teasing the idea, perhaps she wants to pray, but something within her is not fully devoted. Something within her wants a little more. Expertly done, the bubble gum plays with readers' sense of sound as we hear the chewing and snapping, mirroring the tick of the clock. This sense of time is crucial in developing the tension within the poem: Is the speaker a young girl? Is her innocence slipping away? Is she aware of the power of her body, or does she still believe in the virtues and freedoms of the world, that intoxicating youthful scent, that "beach spray"?
The poem, at some points, is agonizing, but Basile's dark matter is not for nothing. She recounts the summer/memory in an attempt to further understand herself. In the last stanza, she writes:
"when you hear a man's apologies
you are embarrassed by his honesty"
his truth and acknowledgments, the speaker admits, makes her feel "small / and dishonorable." "The Summer I Was The Virgin Mary" is also a display of Basile's linear command. The poem shifts between short lines and compact stanzas, relies on enjambment and breath to help fill narrative. The under-case orthography assists in expressing the speaker's own self-doubt – "i've" is not "I've" – an aesthetic indication that she has very little control over her own self. In "The Story of Isolde & Marie", the reliance on indentation and punctuation is equally important.
In a way, "The Story of Isolde & Marie" echoes Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Brothers" in that they are both based on sensual language and the tale of two children of the same-sex. A scholar of Queer pedagogy could write pages on homoerotic undertones and subconscious desires of the poem, which begins with the two girls
"under corbeau wigs tied wrist to wrist
in the linen closet."
The young girls' palpitating hearts are measured in sync with the steady use of language and internal rhyme, and mirror the speaker's fascination with breasts. At the very center of the poem, we hear the word and we taste the word, but what the speaker craves, to touch the breasts, never comes. The focus on the breasts mixes the said and unsaid, as well as the oral and the aural. We see it and say it but it is not there. The girls' mixture of emotion and excitement ultimately enhances the sense of confusion the speaker feels towards her friend. Locked in the closet, about to come out, with "one stocking down" her "ankle", she is furious with desire, but does not know if her playmate feels the same. The poem ends
"I still think of girls--"
How else to express the unknown but through the hyphen? The period would be too conclusive, and would allow readers the peace that the speaker has figured herself out. This is not the case. The speaker still struggles with her desires, she is still trying to understand her own self; the endlessness of the hyphen maintains such chagrin.
As she reinvents universal tropes like girlhood, innocence, sex, and familial relationships, the scope of Basile's poetry is brave enough to declare
"it is possible to be a woman
without the parasite
Lisa Marie Basile is a NYC-based poet. She's the author of the chapbooks Andalucia (The Poetry Society of NY) and triste (Dancing Girl Press) and the forthcoming full-length APOCRYPHAL, and the founding editor of Luna Luna, a diary of art, sex and culture. She is also the NY editor and a writing instructor for The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. A graduate of The New School's M.F.A. program, her work has been seen in PANK, Coldfront, Thrush, The Boiler Journal, Huffington Post, New York Daily News and other publications. She tweets at @lisamariebasile.