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Book Review Jennifer Kearny

Cecilia Woloch
BOA Editions Limited ($13.95)

Cecilia Woloch opens her third collection of poetry, Late, with the startlingly lyrical prose poem “Aubade,” through which she introduces the theme of bereavement that pervades her work and establishes the tone of acquiescence in the formally varying and highly musical poems that follow. As the title of her collection suggests, Woloch explores our negative associations of loss with ‘late’—delayed, aged, deferred—to argue, inversely, for a positive connotation as in the notion of ‘developed’ or ‘fullfilled.’ Through the title of her poem “Aubade,” Woloch suggests that the late and low light of sunset remains just as brilliant, if not more beautiful than the dalliance of the noonday sun. Moreover, her description of the barren autumn treescape maintains that loss actually predicates beauty: “Now the trees stand outside of desire, stricken with silver, stripped leafless,/ alarmed. Still they long to be seen, throw themselves skyward with open arms.” Woloch’s collection of poems praise more than the “brilliance of a beautiful thing in a world of beautiful things”—the poems serve as homilies to the “suffering [that] shimmers and means.” “Aubade” signals to readers that the speaker in the collection, like the setting sun and the defoliating trees, experiences loss and suffering yet refuses “to be rid of [her]self.” Stricken, stripped, and alarmed, she welcomes loss as an “undressing” rather than an annihilation of the self. She asks the world, full of beautiful things, to hold us all up to the light that reminds us “There is so much to lose that we haven’t lost.”

While Woloch intensely recounts a personal life wrought with feats, mistakes, loss, re-growth, suffering, and recovery, she dilutes the raw emotions and omits the humiliating details that confessional poets Anne Sexton and Lisa Lewis can’t seem to avoid. Like Jane Hirshfield and Dorothy Laux, Woloch uses both physical and temporal distance to dissolve the concentration of her experience. The speaker of her poems “can step back from the window or not…can choose to be just as lovely without ever being watched,” and Woloch encourages her reader, also, to step back from her poems, from experience itself, to experience the loss. In “Blink” the reader witnesses how one girl, not just Woloch’s speaker, attempts to use fervent prayer to obliterate what she perceives as flaws in her appearance:

here’s how the world turns a girl on the wheel of herself,
what wasn’t murdered in me:
a face that stares back from the glass of its long-for death,
alive, and loves what it sees.

Here Woloch defines loss as the “rich disfigurement” we fail to eradicate from ourselves, the “trapped thing” we learn to accept and also to love. Conversely, in her remarkably ambiguous poem “Hades,” Woloch notes the intoxicating danger of accepting less than the fullness of life, the hazard of adjusting to and resigning the self to “a constant, cloudless storm.” Persephone divulges how the devise of her entrapment dissolves:

his arms are no longer his arms
they’re mute as smoke, as my first white dress,
and the spear of his name, once ferocious,
dissolves on my tongue
like sugar, like birdsong, I whisper it:

Late collects and celebrates instants such as this one, when the speaker simultaneously experiences loss and gain, whether or not she can fully understand or act on the moment.

In fact, the most astounding and salient “love poems” in Woloch’s collection do not praise the unnamed fallen god who “lifted [her] over the wall of the garden and carrie[d] [her] back to [her] life.” Rather, they eulogize the narrator’s father—“lashed down in that bed, shrunken and bent”—and honor her mother—who “wakes alone and feels the house is hollow,/ though [her] father in his blue room stirs and mutters.” In “Beauty,” Woloch maintains, “we can’t kill beauty.” Though the speaker’s father, “half bird, half man,” requests his family to cover the mirrors, so he will not have to see his debilitated body, Woloch notes the strength, beauty, and humor that radiates from the remains of his flesh. As mother and daughter clean him while they think he sleeps, he pinches them, and they “had to laugh.” Woloch praises the father for his ability to find humor, and a sense of control, in the midst of his humiliating dependency and demasculination. Through a simple pinch of their flesh, her father reveals his power, albeit limited, in his helplessness. More important, her father uncovers the beauty in his bed-bound existence—“he kisses the hands that dabs at his mouth, calls LaVerne, LaVerne, whispers beautiful.”

What Woloch achieves through narrative and imagery throughout Late may be summed up in a few lines from her poem “Nocturn.” Using H.D.’s words “only night heals again” as her epigram, Woloch maintains,

The ruined world still holds, the ruined world
still harbors nightingales, mockingbirds, still
harbors the bobwhite my father whistled to
when I was a child, he was whole.

More importantly, she argues that, despite loss, the world and the people in it remain beautiful and continue to make beauty: “some go on singing, some sing even now,/ though nothing replaces what everyone’s lost.” In fact, Woloch implies that one recognizes beauty “only” after the close of day—later—as if beauty must be aged, delayed, deferred, until the one who appreciates it has developed enough, lost enough, to realize beauty.

Although Woloch imbues her work with the Romantic valuation of loss as beautiful, she by no means exclusively presents a philosophical aesthetic. The one who acquiesces to and accepts loss as gain does so only after suffering. The speaker of these poems spends many nights praying, weeping, contemplating—foreseeing her future, eager to escape or grasp it, despite the fact that “every fresh beauty make[s her] wince.” “[F]aith is hard,” she says, referring to the man who “loves the smallest, least-winged things” and who “touch[es] the wing bone of [her] shoulder with his breath.” In her prose poem “Blazon,” Woloch relates, through a series of humorous hyperboles, the acts of faith she will not only endure but inflict on herself for his delicate touch: “For you, I’d stick the little pins of joy in all my arms. Stitch my eyelids shut with stars…I’d drown the wine with more wine…Drag strings of fish along my waist. Sigh like a heap of broken glass.” On a more serious note, however, the speaker acknowledges the risks, the pain, the hope involved in loving another person, losing another person. Woloch welcomes this loss wonderfully in her poem “The River Esk,” whose epigram warns, “Dark as the love that lays us low.” Asserting a greater truth about love through lovemaking, Woloch triumphantly asserts, “Oh love, in the act of love you are mine and not mine—shining, drowned.”

Ultimately, Woloch defines loss not as a lacking but as a letting go, a laborious acquiescence that one manages only through continual experience and development. Witnessing her father’s decline and death, observing the way her mother copes with and cares for her frail father, finding and losing both lovers and herself as she grows from girl to wanton woman to beloved—these struggles, these losses, strip from the self the excess weight that prevents recovery. As Woloch suggests in her closing prose poem “Late,” one can be “lifted over the wall of the garden and carried…back to life” only when one lights herself and consents to risking faith. Indeed, Late enacts the development that occurs between nightfall and sunrise, between autumn and spring—the healing that allows one to “step naked from the bath, away from grief—” and into the world where “[t]here is so much to lose that we haven’t lost.”