Negative Capability Press, 2014
Paperback, 52 pp., $14.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Later, Knives & Trees by Maureen Alsop is a book that rewards a second reading: it is then that the deeper nuances of the imagery come through, in the hints of what exists in the “sky beyond the meadow”; then that the “you” addressed in “Untitled (Winter)” who “closed the light. Then wrote a new twilight,” unfolds, reflecting the “she” who “inhabits shades turning in the grass at the doorway, sunbaked origins, amaurosis before language.” The twinning / mirroring / paralleling of self and the duplication of identity that inhabit nearly every poem form the warp and weave of this collection, and are indicative of the formation of a child in the womb, the splitting of the self to form a new life. Child is part of mother—as much a part of her, because formed from her, as her own arm, hand, foot, heart. The duplication / splitting of self does not stop with the body, but extends also to spirit, to the energy that gives a body animus.
The first reading reveals an attention to language evident in the lovely, intelligent sensibility; the wording and phrases are elegiac and the rhythm of the poetry echoes the ebb and flow of the tides. The moon appearing often, mother to the push and pull, mother to the water:
I never asked to see the future, but in the mind the moon blossomed, opulent, grossly indifferent. In the mirror agapanthus offers a slim dialogue. The sea is the mind where your face is glass sparkling back over the wind. (“Vetiver”)
Considering the effect the moon has on both tides and birth cycles lends particular poignancy here.
“Acta Sanctorum” captures many of the primary themes of the collection: birth (“That time when the narrow depth of the water bore us”), loss (in an image of reverse birth, a receding from the hollows with “we may no longer go to the caves no matter how they please us”), tides (“Presently the empire recedes”), and an awareness or meditation on the nature of the flame of life, the animus (“Inconsolable that every pinch / of flower-shaped flame might loosen from me”)—all are beads on this collection’s most luminescent strand, which is the central trope of “the need for truth.” It is in large part that search for truth and understanding, that meditation, which drives these poems.
Contrasts of light and dark are abundant: moonlight and darkness, the night-day phases inherent in the turning of the earth and the passing of time, and the representation of life and death. These contrasts also lend a painterly backdrop to the visual imagery, the sky in every scene. Sometimes the light comes from the sun, sometimes from another flame:
But you were no wanderer, the pale buttons on your felt hat, the simple sheep with their gold eyes, the scuff of the sea along your collar named you: maiden, my walking, magnolia blossoms flame across the river. […] The passage of your music, the flood of sunlight, that bronzed my throat. (“Missing Person”)
The language is tender and so visual as to be cinematic. In other poems, the light/dark imagery is used to indicate the ghosts of memory:
I did not take to the ocean. I did not call the woods into my skin. Still, as it is now, a layer of ghost milk burns. A white fire: moth and lily dust. Noon flares in the needle trees. What did I make of the slow smolder of my family’s disappearance? Does the tree brim with watermark? Is the wisp of my soul touched? No. Not by sun. Not even by the call of the willow at the gate of my house. And not by my body as I hook my breath to the braided mane of a horse descending into a bruised goldenrod, soaking its throat with gray florets of tumbleweed. […] Days have been asked. But it is only the trees that answer, their wet speech billows as they break into flame. (“Upon the Sea, the Blush of Sunset”)
The recurring imagery that informs the poet’s concerns also make way for a meditative spirituality; a contemplation of life, death, and the afterlife; the post-mortem destination of the animus, that flame. From “Nor Subtleties,”
The body’s slow infinity is a page
laid open on the linden leaves. Funerary,
a blurred photograph’s sun-muted patterns in water.
Along the chaparral a darkness
you define but cannot follow. You give yourself over
Nothing is truly static; often, as in life, the expected is upended in Alsop’s work. In “I Wake to Dream You,” a poem of contrasts and intentional contradictions, disappointment is “bright” and grief begets renewal, giving over to the concept of death, grief, darkness (in the sense of loss and pain) as a process and a path on the way to rebirth and renewal; that “dutiful problem of light” (“Dominion”) in which healing is painful, especially following the loss of a child; the mother’s wound is not only the physical result of giving birth, but also the pain of loss—both body and soul are rended. The poet writes, “My imagination blathered against both wound and reconciliation” (“Plexiglass”), and “Death’s visible crush—opened / my birth, a concurrent blueprint / of speech—separate from my body” (“Pontiac”). That separation of child from body is painful, both physically and emotionally, and more so the latter here for the utter loss and the grief that floods the wound. It’s a wound that never heals, and lives on in the mind and spirit (“my memory, wound’s convergence within wound” [“Inviable”]).
Later, Knives & Trees is elegy, tribute, memoriam—not only to a child, but also to the exploration of loss, grief, and healing. Alsop so expertly weaves that elegy into the poems that it is inherent not only in the themes at work here, but also in the word choices, the rhythm, and the cohesion of imagery.