Monthly Archives: January 2017

Review of Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes by Cheryl Dumesnil

Cheryl Dumesnil. Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 90 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Let me just say right off the bat that Cheryl Dumesnil’s Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes is among my favorite collections from the last few years. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and this is what I’ve come to: the writer’s confidence in her voice. These poems are tight but accessible. Every word pulls its weight—so often in less accomplished poems, the language is hesitant, characterized by a few too many modifiers and imprecise verbs that flatten the lines. Dumesnil’s poems, in contrast, are pleasurable, occasionally because they’re overtly fun and funny, but more often because they present experience exactly and concisely. It’s not just their content but their aesthetics that reward the reader.

Most often, these poems are composed in couplets, a particularly rigorous form because the abundant white space highlights lax writing. Poems written in couplets can be spare, reinforcing their stark appearance, or they can be almost hyperbolically rich, in ironic contrast to their appearance on the page, but it’s difficult for them to succeed at any point between. Poets can get away with more in long dense stanzas than they can in briefer stanzas that will never be mistaken for paragraphs.

“Notes to Myself on the Morning after His Birth,” for example, gestures toward the catalogue, but the items it refers to are developed so fully through imagery and implied metaphor that it quickly surpasses the expectations of that form. Having just given birth, the speaker hopes to remember everything, what it felt like to notice her son’s skin, breath, aroma for the first time. She captures that paradoxical combination of awe and loss that occurs so frequently to parents:

…his body’s
plumpness in the first hours,

like a cake’s perfect rise held only
for a moment, as if on the breath

of god before the exhale—you will
never get that back. Nor will it ever

leave you.

Although she will witness the miracle of her son’s breathing over and over again, she will never again be quite as stunned by the experience. The structure of this poem enhances the reader’s experience, partly because the couplets seem to float on the whiteness of the page, but also through the frequent enjambment which encourages the reader to hesitate, wondering if the meaning of the line  will shift after the break. In the excerpt above, the enjambment sometimes reproduces the meaning of the sentence, as in “held only / for a moment” where the reader pauses just as the breath is held briefly at its peak. The next line break accomplishes something similar, the baby’s breathing held “as if on the breath // of god…” Dumesnil emphasizes the subject of these lines—breathing—by breaking the line and stanza after “breath,” separating that phrase briefly from its object, “of god,” a phrase that heightens the significance of the infant’s breathing to the universally sacred. Then, the next break works differently: “you will / never get that back.” Initially, “you will” seems to gesture toward a positive accomplishment, and it is only as the next line begins that we realize the grammatical move into future tense signifies loss. But not complete loss—although the speaker will never again experience this awe in exactly the same way, the subsequent line confirms that she will always remember it.

The most poignant lines occur a few stanzas later, as the speaker begins to understand how radically her life has changed: “Mama, he warned, / you have signed on to witness / / a daily parade of exquisite / losses.” Parenting includes many experiences beyond this witness, but it never occurs entirely apart from this witness.

Throughout this collection, the speaker pays close attention to the world. In “The Flock,” for instance, Dumesnil asks, “If a house sparrow arrives on my sill, / sprig of language pinched in her beak, who am I / / to tell her no?” The “sprig of language” is one of the most evocative metaphors in the book, exploiting the habit of birds to carry literal sprigs in their beaks, juxtaposing that with the patterns of birdsong to accomplish some of the tasks of language, while also suggesting a closer relationship between humans and other animals than the characterization of humans as language-using animals would suggest. This poem concludes with imagery that indicates life is fundamentally paradoxical, that wishing it otherwise is a futile even if understandable desire: “The window-stunned robin who hunkered // on my deck for hours—that she flew away meant / one thing, that she left a red stain meant another.”

The poems I’ve discussed are thoughtful and thought provoking. I said, though, that some of Dumesnil’s poems are actively amusing, so if you’re looking for humor, be sure to read the genuinely funny (yet also poignant) eight-part “Tampons: A Memoir.” It encapsulates the experiences many of us have shared—so many of us in fact that I’m tempted to edit an anthology called Feminine Hygiene.

The control Dumesnil exhibits in the craft of each poem extends to the entire collection. It’s tone and content are nicely balanced between the internal and the external, the personal and the social, the serious and the lighthearted. I’m grateful I live in a world where this collection can exist.






Review of Flour, Water, Salt by Ruth Bavetta

Ruth Bavetta. Flour, Water, Salt. FutureCycle Press, 2016. 73 pgs. $15.95.

The titles of the poems in Ruth Bavetta’s most recent collection, Flour, Water, Salt, will certainly pique the interest of most readers: “If I Were a Maker of Marzipan,” “Grandmother’s Bird’s Nest Pie,” “More Than Thirteen Lemons in the Rain,” “A World with No Chickens.” These titles suggest an imagination that is attentive to the world, to its detail, and one that is also engaged with language. These characteristics are born out in the poems, which consider the rituals of daily life, particularly of food and cooking, meals eaten with family members, the bodies that are nourished in kitchens.

The collection is organized into three sections named with the three nouns of the title. Several poems in each section somehow incorporate the subject, creating a thoughtful coherence, but the approaches are unique and intriguing, analogous to a collection of related short stories in which the protagonist of one might appear only as a fleeting pedestrian in another. The reader begins to anticipate the appearance of flour or water or salt and remains aware of the connotations of these necessities even when the poems don’t mention them directly.

Among the most successful poems in the collection is “More Than Thirteen Lemons in the Rain,” written “after Wallace Stevens.” Through its startling imagery and associative organization, this poem demonstrates the influence of Stevens’ famous thirteen ways, but its references and connotations are less obscure than in much of Stevens’ work. The poem is composed in couplets, each of which could stand independent of the others, but the accumulation of imagery contributes to a more pronounced effect than any individual couplet could. Here are the opening stanzas:

The tree, not in an orchard
but alone in an overgrown garden.

The fruit, brilliant
on this grey day, each one its own sun.

Lemon after lemon after lemon,
all the same, yet none the same.

Sour surrounded by bitterness
surrounded by light.

We see the tree first amid disorder, and then we see the fruit as light amid darkness. Couplets are perhaps the cleanest and most crisp stanzaic form, especially when each second line is end-stopped. Immediately, therefore, the poem brings order to the overgrown chaos of the garden, and to the almost profligate abundance of the tree, the “Lemon after lemon after lemon.” The poem is embedded with paradox—not only order and chaos or “brilliant” yellow against a “grey day,” but sweet and sour, wine and lemonade. The speaker refers to human beings in only three of the eleven stanzas, including two of the most memorable, stanza five: “He thought it was a ball until / the fragrance stained his fingers” and stanza nine: “Blood running down my mother’s arms, / the lemon’s thorns.” A lemon distinguishing itself as lemon through “fragrance” is not surprising, yet it is startling in the context of this stanza, when it is unrecognizable as fruit or even as living object until “He” smells it. This couplet prepares the reader for additional references to human engagement, but we are unprepared for the implicit violence in stanza nine. Aside from the “grey day” in stanza two, the poem overflows with yellow and yellow and yellow—shining bright warmth. Then in stanza nine, and only in stanza nine, we see a color that is equally bright and warm. Unlike lemon juice, however, blood is neither sour nor bitter but intimates passion and danger. This poem would have been memorable even without stanza nine; with it, the poem is haunting.

Bavetta exploits concrete imagery throughout this collection; her skill with imagery is perhaps her greatest strength. The poems are most successful when she permits the imagery to imply metaphor or to suggest significance. In some of the poems, the metaphors—especially as constructed “the x of y” with “y” and abstraction—feel self-conscious and even unnecessary: “whipped / into a meringue of longing” (“Queen of Puddings”), “dredged in the flour of expectation” (“Honeymoon”), “Drank the water of discontent” (“What We Did”). Some of these metaphors would be stronger if they were implied, e.g. “dredged in expectation” or “drank discontent.”

Flour, Water, Salt is a thoughtful collection whose arrangement creates a narrative of relationship. The tone is often compassionate, even when the speaker expresses anger or explores bitterness. That is, she treats others, including an ex-husband, fairly—although he’s described negatively, the speaker most often includes herself in her critique. In its entirely, the book is an exploration of anger and joy, hope and sadness that equates, ultimately, to acceptance.