Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Virtual Book Tour: At Night the Dead

Welcome to the sixth stop on Readwritepoem's Virtual Book Tour.
I have to say that I found Lisa Ciccarello's chapbook At Night, the Dead challenging to review. My poetry tastes tend towards what is often described as "accessible" although not too accessible. I found the sections of this book a little more mysterious and confusing than my usual poetic reading matter. If another member of my poetry group had brought them along, I would certainly be asking many questions - what do you mean here? I don't understand this. Why did you use this word?

The work is unusual in that it appears to be intended as a whole, since each section - apparently from the layout, a prose poem - has the same title. This is not the action of a poet who might publish any of them separately. The first starts with an air of menace -
You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead.

Initially, the sense of the dead being a threat that is somehow not quite defined is what I took from the book. Then I read Jill's review in which she says the dead love us. I went back to re-read and found that there too.

The dead need someone to smile at

Their love is just a little series of letters

The sections are full of very striking images. The moon is a plug to stopper the dark, it is a coin on the eye of the dead, it is an ember. The sky smells like tea.

There is a good deal of repetition. The dead, the moon, salt, coins, the dark. I feel the poems walk a fine line between being darkly obsessive and merely repetitive and boring. Sometimes they wobble a little, but never quite fall off the tightrope. In fact, on each re-reading, I notice details that I missed the first time, and they grow richer. In "accessible" poems, this happens less, because they offer a clear picture which we understand on first reading, and put all the pieces in place. With these poems which I find harder to understand, the mind at first rejects the details that don't fit the initial picture. Words change their meaning - salt appears to be symbolic, but what is it symbolic of? Does salting the sills keep the dead away, or does it feed the dead?

You salt the sills from the inside...
The dead...have no salt. Each one takes a grain of salt

The music of the poems also interested me. The sound does not always appear to flow smoothly. It is sometimes chopped up into many short sentences

A heart is just soil. Ask anyone. A heart is blinks. A long blink is a scream. A longer blink is sleep. All night a scream. There must be someone else

At other times there are long sentences with many clauses in which it is difficult to find a place to take a breath.

Regardless, when certain fish then jumped their eyes were coins made luminous by the luminous coin of the moon which was part of the earth almost recently enough to still remember the heat.

It is not that it is unmusical, but that to me it resembles modern music (modern "classical" music, that is, not "pop") - sometimes fragmented, sometimes discordant, not always easily singable but more exciting and compelling for its surprises.


Dana said...

You say some really interesting things here, and I want to comment on a one of them. (I’ll be back to talk about other aspects later.)

"The work is unusual in that it appears to be intended as a whole, since each section - apparently from the layout, a prose poem - has the same title. This is not the action of a poet who might publish any of them separately."

At AWP, K. Silem Mohammad commented about the obsession with the single poem and asked why more poets aren't focused on collections as a whole as opposed to the individual poems within them. I think it's a great thing to think about, and I personally feel that several factors are in play, including the fact that journals accept individual poems and the fact that we like to see development and completeness within a poem rather than across poems. We want poems to work in collections, sure (although there is even less of an emphasis on collections truly working as a unit that there could be) but we also want them to work as standalone pieces.

I've been thinking about how to balance the individual poem with the collection a lot lately, especially because I’ve started writing poems that don't work at all (or at least not nearly as well) alone. I have a series of 19 poems in "Robotherapy" that detail journal entries a human narrator makes regarding her relationship with and dependence on robots.

The pieces need to be separate to imitate the layered aspects of therapy -- that is, how we arrive at this or that or the next point as we work through something difficult in a semi-systematic way through the parameters therapy provides. So the pieces are set up as separate poems. But I doubt anyone would publish them as separate pieces in a journal. And I doubt any journal would take up the real estate to publish them as a whole.

(Maybe I should just call them a short story and then I would have no issues with the real estate they occupy.)

I am not really saying much here except that I like delving into this idea of the single poem and the collection of poems. I liked this collection precisely because it does work as a unit, and it helped me see how my poems that function as a unity might benefit from some of the techniques Ciccarello uses. I’m not really coming to any conclusions about poems and collections, just feeling different ideas and options out, exploring some new territory myself and thinking about what is gained and lost with different approaches.

Dana said...

OK, that comment was way long. I also wanted to talk about your cool comments about the experience you had re-reading the poems, but I think I will refrain so I don't totally take over your comments section. ;)

CandyDishDoom said...

I found this review very interesting and appealing, too.

Thanks Catherine!

Just read Dana's comment above re: individual poems versus collections and one interesting detail to point out is that even though 'At night, the dead:' does function well as a whole, some of its pieces HAVE been published as individual poems by several different literary magazines.

Also, Ciccarello has a separate chapbook length collection with a similar title and style called just 'At night', which was recently published online by Scantily Clad Press.

Speaking about my own writing, I've found that in recent years, I tend to write poetry in sequences rather than as individual pieces. I'm not sure what I mean by sequences exactly, but more often than not, when poetic inspiration strikes, three or more poems will emerge in a relatively short time span--and although they're all different poems, they're interconnected thematically and/or stylistically, so sometimes I'll even give them all the same title. Right now I have a series of poems that are all called 'Sink or Float' and a series of poems that are all called 'Designer Vagina', for example. But I still sometimes feel unsure about whether to submit such pieces as sequences or individually.

On a related note, in recent years I've also developed an impulse or inclination to assemble my poems into different short (chapbook length) manuscripts, almost as though that's just a natural extension of my writing process. I always seem to have multiple short manuscripts in progress, whereas assembling a full-length manuscript seems much more daunting to me.

There, not I've taken over your comments section.

Juliet Cook, Blood Pudding Press

SarahJane said...

Enjoyed your review, Catherine. I appreciate the difficulty of talking about something that doesn't immediately speak to you. You approach it well.

Catherine said...

Sarah-Jane, there were certainly lines that attracted me on first reading, but I didn't find it as immediately appealing as some other poets. I'm glad I stuck with it, though.

the discussion on individual poems vs collections is interesting. Juliet, I'm fascinated to find that some of the pieces in Lisa's chapbook were published separately. I do believe that in this case they gain a lot of power from being read in sequence as opposed to dipping in , in random order. And the idea of saying "well my poem At Night the Dead was published in x journal, and my poem At Night the Dead was in y review, and my third poem At Night the Dead was in z magazine", I find more than a little confusing! Still, there are many poems called "untitled", or "Sonnet", or "Vllanelle", or "Ghazal" so I suppose not having a separate title for each poem is not un unsurmountable obstacle.

I'm currently working on a sequence which I would dearly like to see published as one unit (it will be seven poems, I think, when finished), but I don't know where, given that most New Zealand journals seem to publish up to three at a time. Some of the poems in the sequence would probably stand well alone, but then others would be "orphaned" as it were - and I think the sequence will definitely work better read in the correct order. I guess I will have to see what happens when it is finished.

Jill said...

Your review prompted some very interesting discussion! I, too, am impressed with how you wrote a positive review when your first reaction wasn't the usual "poetry joy & love!"

The collection does evolve and change on each reading, I agree!

Interestingly, since reading At Night the Dead, and Juliet's work, I have been thinking a lot about poems in sequence and poems written to be published as a whole.

Great discussion!

Crafty Green Poet said...

I like your honesty in this review, it's very refreshing.

I am often disappointed by collections where the poetry seems to have no connecting theme though i haven't read many collections that read entirely as an entity rather than a collection. Though I suspect the collection I've just picked up to read will be an entity more than a collection