issue 23 > nonfiction > reviews > fox
Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu
Cinnamon Press 2010A book review by Valerie Fox
ISBN:1907090061 80pp $12.98
"I've seen the interior, now I close it."—from "Dollhouse"
If you're an avid reader of the prolific Arlene Ang, you could consider her use of vivid imagery a strength if not a kind of trademark. This strength is conspicuous in her fifth and latest collection, Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu.
The artistic object in miniature and numerous painting styles are often suggested by these poems. "Ant trails" is one of many that recall the still-life style that depicts decay, and thus causes the viewer to reflect on mortality. The ants "lead to the peach on the counter. It is overripe,/and your nail has left an open wound. Streetlight bathes//the kitchen into a shipwreck." Ang's ant-vision, a view of and by the ant, emphasizes some correspondences between animal behaviors and the rituals and tendencies of human animals.
Also notable in the collection is how the poems often seem to talk with each other, and to tell the reader how to read them, without seeming to be heavy-handed about that.
In both "Leopold's Room" and "Dollhouse," the image and idea of a dollhouse are explored. In "Leopold's Room," we're told the story of Leopold, who "stole furniture/from the dollhouse of his girlfriend, Sheila." Leopold has died, and our visit to his room is a meditation on his dying, his childhood--a montage of memories and scenes. Two pages later, in "Dollhouse," the narrator goes through a house the way we do after its occupants have gone. "I've seen the interior, now I close it." The poet casts into the light the imaginative, lively, and emblematic games of children, which often are an unacknowledged kind of "interior."
Intertextuality and experimentation with traditional form are each apparent in Ang's use of the sonnenizio. The book includes a cluster of poems on lines by Ros Barber (three poems), Merryn Williams (four poems), and Jean Cassou (two). Ang doesn't rigidly follow the sonnenizio form, as devised by Kim Addonizio. Ang does maintain the use of the found source line at the beginning of each poem. She includes, as well, many sound repetitions and repeated words and these suggest the rhymes and repeats in Addonizio's often playful form.
The four poems inspired by Williams make a suite built around scenes in a woman's life (or women's lives). All four poems begin with the same Williams' line: "The baby crying. Gulls and North Sea air." The first poem, "Abandoned," sets the scene. Background is drawn against the litany of daily news: "On the radio, the latest ceasefire in Fallujah/and dead seals washing up on shores." The next three poems delineate the woman's actions and thought processes dealing with loss. Throughout the set there are subtle and insightful variations of point of view.
Ang's use of form, across her work, is decidedly variable. This sonnet set demonstrates that her innovative artistic spirit is not incongruent with the styles and concerns of formalist poets. Perhaps the gravity of the prevalent themes in this book helps to explain this reach to the formal. Old forms and old words can provide comfort in times of grief, illness, or separation.
Ang's descriptive precision, use of repetition, and blending of registers (in terms of word choice) help us to rethink words and what they mean. This contributes to the sense of poem as an object made up of materials.
"5:37 p.m." riffs on its title. The twenty-one line poem, broken into two stanzas, begins with statement of fact and quickly spins out into reverie.
Arthur's hour of death was 5:37 p.m.
And now 5:37 p.m. is Arthur. I am powerless,
like when you fall asleep and the house
fails to exist. Every day I step into 5:37 p.m.
clapping my hands to announce
my presence. I am the intruder here.
In the first six lines of the of the second stanza, she continues to negotiate the meaning of self in a time-suspended hour of grief.
I find myself playing the music
5:37 enjoys--the kind done in so many voices
that you forget you're actually alone.
While 5:37 p.m. is permanent and invariable,
I am a translation of events
that take place outside 5:37 pm.
Ang here masterfully depicts the out-of-time sense that can accompany grief. It's implicit that in so doing, Arthur's life, his presence, is somehow memorialized. As a "translation," the narrator's world coexists with the absent Arthur's; as translator, the narrator communicates something back to this other world. Through some delicate mental maneuvering--a kind of personal séance--the emptiness of the human loss is, at least temporarily, suspended.