Monday, October 14, 2013

Poetry Salon: Charlotte Mandel

Charlotte Mandel is our guest today for the Poetry Salon. Her new collection of poems, Life Work, is her eighth book of poetry. Her previous books of poetry include Rock Vein Sky and two poem-novellas of feminist biblical re-vision— The Life of Mary, and The Marriages of Jacob. Charlotte began writing poetry in midlife, went back to school and earned her MA. She founded and coordinated the Eileen W. Barnes Award for older women poets and edited the anthology, Saturday’s Women. She recently retired from teaching poetry writing at Barnard College Center for Research on Women. Her awards include two fellowships in poetry from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Woman of Achievement Award from NJ Business and Professional Women, and the 2012 New Jersey Poets Prize.

Diane: You have had a long career as a poet and have published several earlier books. Tell us how this book differs from those earlier books. Or do you see it as a continuation of that earlier work?

Charlotte: I come to my keyboard or notebook looking not for answers but for questions. The questions are wordless, the asker anonymous. To hear the questions, I must listen to silences within, and translate them into language. My early poems, begun in midlife, often show language working through a process of discovering my own voice. The poems in my first book, A Disc of Clear Water, focus intently on life experiences as wife-daughter-mother and pay close attention to nature. Those concerns have continued in my poems, with changes as my life and work evolved. 
My later collections, Sight Lines and Rock Vein Sky, extended previous themes such as marriage and nature, but added poems catalyzed by terrorist acts, humanity’s sufferings from ongoing wars and environmental damage, themes that continue to resonate in my new book, Life Work. Loss of my husband after our long marriage informs the first part; a section is devoted to poems dealing with art and artists; other sections include poems such as “News of the Day Pantoum,” “Sight Loss,” and poems about joy in the birth of a new child.
Diane: Are there particular poetic techniques you like to use?

Charlotte: Often, I’ll work with received forms, or an original form may be developed by a poem during creation. The discipline enables my unconscious self to speak because my critical barrier self is engaged by concentration on details such as line order, syllabic count, rhyme. I discovered this ploy when working on my first sestina for a workshop class assignment. Freed by my absorption in the crossword puzzle aspect, a repressed childhood memory surfaced to become dynamic content. Metaphor, for me, evolves with the poem. To start with a conscious comparative notion may be useful as a way of honing language skills, and can produce an attractive invention, but it may have left out the quality of a silent source.

Diane: How did you select the title for your book?

Charlotte: “Life Work” is the title poem, a crown of seven linked sonnets, where the last line of the first sonnet becomes the first line of the second, and so on. The crown form requires the last line of the seventh sonnet to be the first line of the beginning sonnet.  The poem takes off from a painting by Edouard Vuillard. Imagining the view of the young woman in the painting, I went into the progress of a young couple’s courtship and lifetime marriage. The poem became surprisingly autobiographical. The idea of “life work” is consistent with a retrospective of an artist’s paintings. Similarly, the concept seemed an accurate overview of the new collection. Poetry and life are intertwined in my book.

Diane: Tell us the story behind your cover.

Charlotte: My son-in-law, Vincent Covello, has created a marvelous garden at their country home in Long Island and takes beautiful photographs of the various areas. At present, we are completing a forthcoming book of his garden photographs opposite poems I’ve written in response. When seeking cover art for Life Work, I asked him for a photograph that would show a garden view that could evoke the book’s quality. I chose this one for its intrinsic beauty of color and place, and because I have loved to sit at that antique table writing in my notebook. This photo captures the sense of a path towards sunlight, green woods, and open sky.

Diane:  What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Charlotte: A poem is not fulfilled until it is shared by a reader or listener. I hope that the book may offer comfort by articulation of life experiences related to their own, that they may take pleasure in the sounds and images, as in music, to elicit impressions of their own. It is wonderful to discover that the work I have done in solitude may resonate with feelings and thoughts of another person. 

Diane:  Please choose a favorite poem for us and, if you like, tell us why you chose this one.

Charlotte: Writing this poem, “Crossing the Calendar Bridge,” helped me deal with an important year of transition. The poem, a sequence of three linked sonnets, begins as elegy, reenacts the start of my poetic self-discovery, and finds a way to transcendence. 

Crossing the Calendar Bridge 

The first New Year's Eve without your turning
in grateful wonder: “Lucky us, we’ve earned
another year.” The mirror on the wall
granted pardon: throughout life’s judgment-hall,

one question persisted: “Why am I here?”
Name: doctor, mentor, science pioneer,
father—and sorcerer who alchemized
state-of-loneliness into you-and-I.

We laughed at a third in bed—our snug down
quilt—perinyeh—in childhood mother-tongue.
Light as a ghost but warm, the featherbed
rises and falls with my uncertain breaths.

If I could say “he’s in a better place”
might I foretell his welcoming embrace?

I did not always welcome his embrace.
Corralled in a split-level—breathing space
defined by husband/children schedules,
reassured by unwritten “good-girl” rules.

No studio: my clattery machine labored
under window with view of the neighbor’s
house wall. Marriage, like a boat poised at anchor
unswayed by flickering ripples of rancor,

kept us safe. Yet rhythm known in my bones
formed instrument, mute raised, like saxophone
riffs that tumbled into words. And we sang
off-key, happy, lyrics in differing language.

Our rhymes were true or near or simply free.
Five stages of grief compose an elegy.

Five stages of grief line up for elegy:
deny - rant - reproach - barter - and agree
to let you go, to cease reenacting
hot/cold days/nights of vigil. To distract

mind from memory’s sweated matted strings,
loosen knots, twirl his-and-her wedding rings
doubled on one finger, kiss them for luck,
and recognize the shape of me, unbroken.

Not to muse “if only you were here”
as the glittering ball slides down Times Square. 
Get past the calendar, switch off the screen
stop conjugating “is” as “might have been”

Yet how to tell the poem “don’t reminisce”
all moments lived are sparks to genesis.

Readers, please enjoy a glass of chilled Prosecco, some imported cheeses, crackers, and seedless green grapes.

Overheard at the party: “It is Mandel’s poems on her husband’s death I will remember above all this year for elegance and restraint. She chooses formal diction in verse to achieve a firm focus while allowing gifted flexibility within the lines. Our complex lives are richer for the clear beautiful eye of Charlotte Mandel—whether writing about a new sweater for an aged father or an estranged brother’s death, she grasps us out of our wilderness to say look at this truth, how language retrieves us from turmoil.”
                —Grace Cavalieri

Please be sure to pick up a copy of Charlotte's book, Life Work.

Click Cover for Amazon


  1. I enjoyed learning Charlotte's reasons for calling her newest collection "Life Work."

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