Saturday, September 5, 2015

At Night: Lisa Ciccarello


My tumultuous affair with poetry began in high school (where it does for most melodramatic folk) when I first stumbled upon the confessional, suicidal poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Admittedly, it was the fact that they had both caused their own ends that drew me to their work, but over time, these tragedies faded into the background, allowing their visceral, beautiful/grotesque & firercely raw poems to burn inside me. I wanted to be one of these women; I was already haunted by death in the romantic way young, sensitive people are often inflicted with. I wanted to write a small thing that took up barely a full page but that could sear a reader by the images conjured, by the uncanny use of normal words. I didn't succeed at poetry, but I wrote my undergrad thesis on Anne's work the same year I tattooed her initials inside my 'writing' wrist. I felt her ghost would linger if I gave my skin the power of her name.

Anne's book over time has become a sacred text to me as a writer. I always turn to her poems when in despair. My reading tastes, like everyone's have changed over time and after reading experimental garbage as well as being introduced to writers I still read such as Gary Lutz & Brian Evenson in graduate school, poetry fell from my reading habits. I returned to poetry this year after I attended AWP for the first time since it seemingly magically coincided with one of my trips out here to the Mid-West. I had known about Black Ocean Books vaguely as I had already owned a book by poet Zachary Schomburg, so I was happy when I stumbled upon their booth in a vast sea of presses I knew nothing about. 

Admittedly, when I'm 'cold' searching for a book in a store, I'm often drawn to their covers unless looking for something specific. Lisa's cover art drew me instantly, 'At Night' has a strange symbol akin to a voodoo veve, which are beautifully drawn symbols that are sacred to the voodoo religion and are used in ritual as representations of the loa, or the spirits that are the intermediaries between realms. These symbols, when used in ritual, act as astral beacons, drawing these spirits down to where the symbol is being used. Though I don't know much about voodoo, several trips to New Orleans have taught me a little about these symbols, as well as a deep respect for them....(or perhaps, in not using them. Many people get these designs tattooed on them because they are indeed intricate and beautiful (yikes) )

 I digress. The symbol on Lisa's book is not a reve, and only vaguely resembles one, as it also vaguely resembles other magical and old symbols.  The book itself has a butter soft cover that strangely makes it feel almost made of baby skin, and the back cover reads ' If you seek comfort, you will find none here.' I was immediately sold. This had my name written all over it before I even flipped the cover open. As the ether would have it, Lisa happened to be standing nearby and when I held her book in my hands, the kind folks manning the booth suggested I say hi. Ordinarily I shy away from unsolicited conversation, especially with other writers. I even had a giant pair of head phones on as I navigated the book fair. But meeting Lisa felt like meeting someone I already knew in the way that kindred ilk sometimes recognize one another, and I asked for her to sign the book, which she did so thusly ' I hope it makes you the right kind of miserable.'
With that I fell completely under the spell of the book and have carried its thin body tucked inside my journal with me nearly everywhere. 

Because I love this book so much, I wanted other people to read it to, especially since I feel people often don't seek out poetry or think they will 'understand it.' Because I love this book so much, I feel hesitant to write about it (hence my tardiness.) This may be why I'm continuing to digress, so here goes:

Here are some ideas that snared me:

* Immediately when flipping through or beginning to read the book, you'll notice none of the works are titled. In this way, it seems that all the poems are titled with the collective title 'At Night.' This decision may have limited Lisa when she was writing the book, but perhaps that drove the linked 'narrative' together so successfully. Although billed as poetry and often structured thusly ( despite the one liners from time to time), these writings feel more to me like secret conversations or confessions I'm not supposed to be privy to but am. Bearing witness to strangeness or mystery always makes me feel transcendent as a reader. It elevates the experience for me. I feel a bit haunted, in a similar way that Sleep No More makes me feel; an experience where I feel I'm in a place 'out of time', where I am a ghost in the company of other ghosts who cannot see me. We know the other is there, but there is no direct contact.

* Much like how the symbol on the cover suggests magic, so does the way these poems feel in the mouth when my eye moves over them. When reading them, their repetitions make me feel like I am invoking something beyond the page or preparing ingredients for a spell of protection or violence. This protection feels precarious however, the spirits looming within the pages are very real and present. Salt holds them at bay. Or tries to anyway.

* In the afterward, Lisa mentions how some of the "poems are inspired by and borrow lines from "The Newgate Calendar," a publication which gave " a full and satisfactory Account of the Crimes, Behaviors, Discourses in Prison and last Words" of criminals executed at Tyburn and Newgate Prison from the mid-sixteenth to mid-nineteenth century." I don't think this book needed this, I feel it stands alone perfectly, but when something like this is added to a text successfully, it makes my heart a swarm. These poems carry Lisa's voice as the creator, the voice of the 'imagined dead' as well as the truly dead, their words woven through her own seamlessly. The voices of the past echo into the future, into the book that sits in your hand.

* Perhaps what I was drawn most to is how important the body is in these works. Black eyes are constantly referenced, fingers in mouths, strands of hair, a binding of the body, a burning of the body, intrusions of the female body. If death has already come for these narrators, I don't imagine it was an easy leaving. Death by fire is hinted at quite often, which immediately makes me think of witch burnings. This subtly plays out like an unseen thread of anxiety stitched in the background. 

* Objects are often reassigned. The moon is all manner of things, a splinter, an axe, a shovel a tooth. Knives are pearls. The violence is both tender and not. It is asked for, and it is not. There is a lack of blood, instead there is salt and soil, death by curse. The longest poem in the book was one of my favorite, a tale of a murderous wife who seeks revenge on the favored wife. This proximity of intimacy and violence interests me, a kind of push and pull between Eros and Thanatos. 

There is more to say and hopefully there will be some discussion elsewhere. In closing, as much as this is a book of poems, it also feels like the recordings of a medium from another time. Lisa seems to be a conduit of a kind, channeling the night and its inhabitants into the constraints of a small book. I hope my thoughts will make you read it. 


ghoulnexdoor said...

I have not yet begun reading this, I was hoping to do so today, along with a few other slim volumes I picked up from Black Ocean. "The moon is all manner of things" - this phrase in and of itself sounds like spell work. I'm entranced already, reading someone else's words about the intended writings.

Jessye Finch said...

This collection of poems was on my 'lust list' since you first mentioned it to me, so I was quite happy that you chose 'at night' as one of this months reads, giving me a necessity to purchase a copy.

Firstly, I adore books that have this texture to the cover. They add a beautifully sensual nature to holding and reading whichever book they cloak; it is a detail I always appreciate. The added sensual layer to the book itself paired very well with the nature of the collection: silky, otherworldly, unexplainable.

I agree about the 'non titled' poems, I regarded them as almost a continuing prose. Some felt like a flickering candle on the other side of a looking glass; allowing us glimpses into a strange land, always of the same landscape, but the tilt of the light shifts perspectives in minuet but clear ways, making once familiar angles look new and strange.
I was surprised when, coming to the back of the text once the last line had been consumed, I found that she referred to each poem by their first line. Upon reflection, they seemed sum up each page perfectly.
As a writer of songs, which have a constant need to be 'titled', the ease and simplicity of crowning each first line really inspired me.

Throughout the collection, there were some lines that ensnared me so deeply that I have highlighted them and transcribed them into my notebook, such as:
* 'Every moment is a small strand of notes, a song we sing to the dead. We touch where we sing. We swallow & the song begins again.' (page 52)
*'This heart is a mouth.' (page 48)
*'Desire grew in me like the horn of an animal. I never slept.' (page 29)

The full page that captured me the most was page (23), especially the first sentence: 'Every night the thin layer of night multiplies itself, each nearly transparent layer building up a darkness that is luminous.'

The entire collection felt so close, layered, shrouded in a way where nothing is hidden. There was a strong sensuality that took me throughout the collection, seducing the senses into a velvet room, and a select few pages had passages of such visceral sexuality, dripping in aggression and lust, specifically 'the favourite wife dreams' (page 27-30).

I also shadowed your feelings of Lisa 'channeling the night and its inhabitants'.
Each page felt like standing alone in a dark forest; so alive, so pregnant, so unnerving in it's silence.

Marylyn said...

I really enjoyed how each poem seemed to live its own life. Not that I was expecting At Night to drag on, but cleverly sets the tone immediately. I really appreciate the structure of each poem as well. It was different and forced me to reread some poems multiple times to make sure I didn't just glaze over it too quickly.

I'm not too familiar with how to respond to poetry. Most of the time, I just try to enjoy the ride.

- Marylyn

Unknown said...

That sounds like a really good book, thanks for sharing!