Divining the Elegiac

Reviewed by David Leahy

What these collections of poetry have most in common is the elegiac mode—especially its humbling challenge when trying to communicate diverse registers of loss and grief in short free verse lyrics. Many of Merle Nudelman’s poems in The He We Knew are about the accumulative estrangement of a son—Keys clatter into my palm. Silvery / ones for the car; bronze for home. / No note. A muddle, keys / to our lives from the son // who made this his goodbye.—but many other poems turn away from that downward gyre; express what it feels like to be sustained by a flame / that sings of odyssey: // the enduring loves, travail, / the final flash to nightingale.

In Slender Human Weight Sue Chenette’s frequently autobiographical slices of life can invoke the likes of an empty house (Draperies Relaxed in Their Folds), simple domestic actions (Intimacy), or a found object, and succinctly imagine the lives and secrets they might reveal. Such is the case with To The Woman Whose Notebook I Found in the Puces de Vanves: The recipes—for you? a friend? a mother-in-law? / Is it her hand that alternates / in strong forward-tilted strokes / with your round and sturdy backhand? / Did you share a kitchen? / Could you hold your own? The understated account of the nature morte of Chardin’s The Silver Tureen can prompt an eidetic memory yet refocus our sense of the painting’s magic upon the more banal foreground: Partridge / and hare just that side, / the apple this side, / its life located, held / in view, potent, miraculous. This said, a few of the poems are slightly ingénue, as when we are told a self-referential anecdote about a street person in Paris who passes off copies of lines of Victor Hugo as his own petit poème, but the majority are thoughtfully disarming.

The pièce de resistance is Susan Briscoe’s book length cycle, The Crow’s Vow. Like The He We Knew unsettling material predominates, but via more concise, precise meditations on the slow, painful threats to a marriage and its tentative renewal. Like Chenette, Briscoe has a talent for dissecting, often via stunning figurative juxtapositions, the lurking threats and paradoxes of our relationships to a deceptively idyllic world. Consider the grotesqueness of the concluding couplets of Spring . . . : We wake to a field mouse, / soft brown fur and clean white belly. // I could skin the whole family, / stitch pretty mittens. The collection’s imagistic mapping of the weight and fancy of the seasons in an almost exclusively rural domestic setting builds inexorably to overt feelings of despair, of emotional dams breaking—You have been pulling the stones for months— / thought I wouldn’t notice, / but I knew . . . / Wake downstream and wet, / wade, stumblingly, back. Briscoe’s delicately handled yet forceful ability to capture, contain and convert a sense of betrayal, fear, and failing love into something more uplifting yet unsentimental in couplet after couplet is impressive; as when the understated images of the cycle’s last poem dramatize the tension between the renewal of the marriage bed and its tenuousness, its potential to melt away with yet another change of the seasons of the affections: Still night in the morning, you / still beside me. // Snow banked to the eaves, / the driveway diminished // to the length and width of one car, / one door slightly open. // The path to the house / is of snow // packed by our boot prints. / Single file.

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