Read This: Narcissus by Cecilia Woloch
I am admittedly biased when it comes to the poetry of Cecilia Woloch. She's been a friend for years and one of my mentors, but since it's my blog and Narcissus ($9.95, Tupelo Press) is one of the best books of poetry published in 2008, I'm recommending you buy this book immediately. Narcissus won Tupelo's Snowbound Series Chapbook Award and was selected by Marie Howe, who knows a thing or two about good poetry. I'm sure Marie would agree with me that the poetry Cecilia creates is, in a word, elegant. This collection of 22 poems -- many of them prose "postcards" -- is cinematic in its scope. There is fluid movement in both the language and narrative flow as the poems recount the end of an abusive marriage.
The chapbook is grounded in the gorgeous "postcard" poems, written to friends back in the states from Paris and the Carpathian mountains. These poems have a wistful melancholy, and although they are addressed to others, they act as road markers for the narrator on where she's been and where's she going: "It's the middle of our lives and night and we walk toward everything." In other postcards, incredulous fear emerges, as in one postcard written from a Paris cafe, where the narrator tells of her drunken husband coming at her with a baseball bat. "He was only kidding with the bat. Like a child? Only taking it out on the air." Later, in the poem "Salt", there is a sad acceptance: "And then what you wanted was salt, a woman weeping at your back, but you could not turn to look."
At the end of the arc, the narrator has left the marriage, escaped to Europe, gathered her strength and unexpectedly met a gentle man who helps her learn to trust again. In "Grace," she praises him:
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 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.
I dare you not to be moved by this collection. Cecilia could have easily dipped into mawkishness and cliche, but this is no Lifetime movie of the week. There is clarity and strength in the resolve of these poems and even a bit of sympathy for the alcoholic husband (the narcissus of the title, who seems only concerned with his own self-destruction), but there's no burning bed here. These poems are about falling in love with a seeming familiar, the unexpected breakdown of that love and having the fortitude to leave it behind. This is real life filtered through a masterful writer. Here is one of the brilliant postcard poems from the collection.
Postcard to Myself from the Lower Carpathians, Spring
I slept in a room filled with white moths. In a wooden house in the lower
Carpathians -- Beskid Niski -- each silvery night. I made my bed in the room's
far corner, white moths settling like quiet petals on every surface as evening fell.
They folded their wings and clung to the walls without a quiver as I undressed.
I knew, as soon as I switched off the lamp, that the air would go pale with their
fluttering. I knew, in my sleep, one might light on my arm, on my cheek, in my
hair, without waking me. In this room, also, the seeds of wildflowers gleaned
from the meadows were spread out to dry. What I learned about gentleness
then. What I learned to be gently less wary of. I want not to forget those nights
in the lower Carpathians, deep spring, sleeping alone: the white moths swirling
as I dreamt; the meadows baring themselves to the moon.