Friday, June 13, 2008
This one's a beauty. Winner of Tupelo Press' 2006 Snowbound Chapbook Award and published in 2008, Cecilia Woloch's collection is a perfectly contained and controlled collection.
In spite of the collection's title, there is only one overt reference to Narcissus and that occurs in the epigraph that introduces the first of two sections: "Didn't I stand there once? / Didn't I choose to go back?" (from "Narcissus," by Patricia Hooper). Woloch then borrows not the story of Narcissus but the ideas contained in the story and with the most subtle of touches weaves those ideas throughout the collection. "Anniversary," the collection's first poem, engages the first line of the epigraph as its first line and thus introduces the nostalgia that pervades the twenty poems.
Just as Narcissus returned to the pond again and again, Woloch returns again and again to the past and with the same mixture of longing and regret. In "Postcard to Kim from the Cafe Les Philosophes," one of several poems that masquerade as postcards, the speaker revisits a marriage that once was blissful, then wasn't: "We were husband and wife in that house / because that's what we'd been pronounced . . . / Something / I thought had gone wrong with the language, with the meaning we make of / breath."
Just as Narcissus gazed at his own image, Woloch's speaker scrutinizes the person she once was. In "Girl in a Truck, Kentucky Highway 245," the speaker returns to her girlhood home: ". . . I almost wave, now, at the girl standing up in the bed of the truck in / the yard I pass. I remember myself at that age, remember the longing, almost / like rage, to touch and be touched, and my innocence. / . . . / I've come back to save what can still be saved of the girl who believed / —who goes on believing, shattered and shimmering, driving too fast—that the / beloved, oh beloved, all bright tenderness, will come."
This longing to return home, to have a home, is underscored by references to houses, hotels, and rooms that never feel like home. "Every room was a / borrowed room," concludes the speaker in "Postcard Beginning with a Quote from Mark C., Avenue de l'Opera." Similarly, the search for home is underscored by references to different geographical places—Kentucky, Georgia, Paris, the Carpathians—and by references to modes of transportation—train, truck, metro.
The idea of Narcissus' pursuit of love is carried out in images of water and its various manifestations: a river, the sea, rain, tears. Even the image of the mirror, what the water was to Narcissus, makes several appearances in the poems. And so, too, images of shining, shimmering, and shattering.
Even the numerous epigraphs and borrowed lines and the few ekphrastic poems imply a return to the past, to what came before, and they suggest as well another way of gazing at what we hunger for.
Here are two poems, the first from Section I, the second from Section II, that represent this collection's motifs and also display Woloch's simple but elegant language and her exquisite figures and images.
Didn’t I stand there once,
white-knuckled, gripping the just-lit taper,
swearing I’d never go back?
And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?
And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,
knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire
into the further room of love?
And wasn’t it sacred, the sweetness
we licked from each other’s hands?
And were we not lovely, then, were we not
as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?
When I think of how you move—
when you enter a room, how the room
enters you; when you step out
into the night, how the night sky
falls into your hair—
when I think of how you stand
as if with nothing in your hands
and I have nothing to offer you now
save my own wild emptiness—
when I think of how you leave
the air untouched and how you came
into the world my grief had wrecked
and made it shine again by simply
walking slowly through the dark
toward me—love, I think
the body is a miracle, that animal
whose graceful shadow
lies between us, calmed.
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