Two Sylvias Press, 2015
46 pages, $9.90
In Earth, winner of the 2014 Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize, Cecilia Woloch focuses on the major movements of life—across continents, between childhood and adulthood, and from life to death—in compelling poems that allow each transition its full measure of significance in a network of shifting pieces.
What I appreciate most about these poems is that they are not in a rush. Woloch develops each character, each family, and each natural setting to a fully-populated sense of self before reaching closure, and this strategy offers a particularly strong assertion of the pleasure of memory and meditation. In the elegiac “Harry and Pearl: A Villanelle,” for instance, the speaker entwines a couple in a dance-like repetition, attaching them to each other while tracing their habits of footwear into the afterlife. This surprising attention to the minute detail of family memory persists throughout the poems, which offer a balance of rich, symbolic imagery paired with rippling personal observation; trees, stones, and rivers serve as metaphors for transition and efforts at establishing a sense of home, while a mother bears “the wren’s / plain strength.”
These acts of noticing are often grounded in the position of the speaker within the family—often as a child, but always as a descendant examining the changing states of those around her. The connection and dissolution of the immigrant family predicates an interesting sense of being everywhere and not simultaneously; Woloch writes, “Once I was only a child in my sleep; then I awoke and was everywhere.” The interest in childhood also offers an optimism that feels simple and true, despite an atmosphere of persistent loss: “I walked around when I was small and spit my name into my hands. I wanted everything to shine.”
The poems are dense with the pleasures of alliteration and repetition—“streetcars slur” and the father appears a man “with his shadow in his shadow.” In many cases, these repetitions feel daring—their matter is often the imagery of the everyday, and yet the reader is challenged to allow each successive echo to be as joyful as the first (it is). In these poems, it is possible to exist and remain both within language and memory, yet to evade being transfixed by that location; one is able, also, to be present in a concrete location with a body and still not truly be present in the minds of others—“This is America, Teta. You’re dead,/ and our dying means nothing here.” Against the consistent struggle of location, the speaker turns again and again to the relative stability of her natural surroundings, both real and imagined—what if the role of grandmother is inhabited by a tree? Dreams prove an especially fertile ground for aligning the living and the dead.
The poems in Earth work to create a world that offers no particular resolution, but is at peace with the sense of movement, with the repetition of image, language, and character—where despite loss and upheaval, there is comfort in the act of narrative and the linked warmth of sound and image. Perhaps Woloch puts it best, in describing the final settlement within the narratives themselves: there is “no home but the story I’ve lived toward.”
Kate Partridge received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Arts & Letters, Blackbird, and Pleiades. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage.