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. 

Comments

Lisa Allender said…
Coll, you are so dead-on in this review. The grace and beauty that Cecilia highlights, even in the midst of tremendous turmoil, takes my breath away. I have already read this collection three times.
jaxx said…
i'm convinced. i'm ordering a copy of that book today. thank you for the recommendation.

and whoever designed the cover is a genius. it is absolutely stunning.

i hope you're feeling better, collin!
I really liked her work in Limp Wrist Magazine. I'll put this book on my ever growing list.
Pris said…
Hi Collin
I came to tell you I tagged you on my blog and found this great review. yes, another to add to my list, too. I see below you've been sick. I hope you're beter by now!

Thanks,too, for ordering my book and offering a blog note on it, too. That's very generous of you.
Peter said…
Sounds like a lovely book. Thanks for the intro.
christine said…
Collin, I agree with Lisa's comment. I just finished this collection, and you articulate my inner reactions in your review, and even expand on my understanding of the poems.

I've read the poems twice, but will read them again. I love her language, the lightness of her touch even when she speaks of tragedy. And I envied the speakers ability to love with such passion. Don't we all want to experience that, even if it goes wrong?
poetwithadayjob said…
thanks for reviewing Collin. I had forgotten about this and I love CW. Popping over to get it now.
Susan Elbe said…
Collin, you don't know me, but I read your blog as I do many other young writers, and I religiously follow your AI postings during the season! :-)

I seldom comment on blogs, partly because I often read them from work and they block me from commenting.

But I just had to comment on this entry. Narcissus is such a magnificent book! I, like a couple of others who responded, have read it now several times. This is the kind of poetry I wait to find. You say you're friends with CW--please tell her that I'm awed by the beauty of this collection. Thanks for a great review of it--spot-on!
Michelle said…
My God, what a breathtaking poem!

And the words from "Grace":

"when I think of how you leave
the air untouched"

I haven't read Cecilia's work, Collin, but I'm going to seek it out. Thank you.

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