issue 28 > nonfiction > halscheid
Dames Rocket by Elaine TerranovaReviewed by Therése Halscheid
by Elaine Terranova
Penstroke Press 2012
ISBN 978-096691779-6 $15.00
Elaine Terranova's fifth poetry collection Dames Rocket, opens with a frontispiece titled "A Street" (2). The author must cross this street for a bus on the other side. The moment feels grounded in reality, especially coming from a Philadelphia poet such as Terranova. But then it takes on a haunting quality, as she and those who cross with her are ragged, hesitant. None appear to speak. In fact they no longer seem alive. Even the bus driver knows nothing of counting change. It is a street that divides the past from the present. It will be a ride that takes the writer, and her readers, on a short course of her life.
Using the bus as a vehicle for memory making — we set off to experience real and imagined scenes. The writer's family, her feelings about them, surface in poems such as the "Broken Line." She writes: Do you know, family made me feel / like a broken line. (4). She then seeks comfort in making bows as a way to foster connection: In the air with my eyes. In my mind. / Two loops, the pulling through, / a simple form, so easily connected (4). In "Orphanage" we sense the speaker as a stifled child. Such feelings are represented by plants, as in the line: The parent plant / sends out a clutch of fingers (11). The cause for this is unknown but the effect is evident — as we see her walk with her parents past an orphanage, where she looks with longing at the empty swings. Defining the self through one's home life surfaces in "Identity Formation" when she admits: I will in time go forth, / glum like dad or puzzled as my mother, / imagining their days (12).
The moon is a reoccurring motif. In "So Many Moons" the writer splices the poem in half. Each half can be read vertically as well as forming one message, horizontally across. Here, Terranova is most playful with topography and language. The quarter moon represents the split ball her brother played with.Oh, pity the moon's scarred face, she writes (8). Yet even with a poem this lighthearted the speaker's mother appears, alone, out on the water: my mother / abandoned / is sailing / the boat of the moon (9).
The poet shares other influences. In particular, cultures outside of her own. The poem "Ike No Taiga and Gyukoran" speaks to the lives of Japanese Literati painters. Another poem "Ink Guest" — one of my favorites — honors traveling Japanese painters of the Edo, who pay for their lodgings with sketches. In fact many poems are ekphrastic; they write of or off of, visual art.
There is a searching quality to the collection, as a whole. At times the poet returns to her youth, to see the life she lived. At times she invents scenes as a way to play out memory. Many are psychological pieces. They share the interior views of the writer.
"Dames Rocket" — the signature poem — describes a thistle that blooms year-round. It shoots up into our consciousness, she writes. And this is the way one can feel about a Terranova poem. It rises up in us, and lasts.
Now and then, a line calls forth the initial bus, and we are once more traveling through the poet's past, as in "Summer" when she writes: Turn right, a hard right, / that slides into summer (22). It is a summer that gives way to a series of summertime poems, where the writer is an adolescent by the ocean. We see how her heart beat every second / like the sea (23). We see on the beach her wet green bathing suit / is nearly transparent (25). In the poem "Missing," a lost girl is on a bus. She has boarded to review her life. Only, this bus does not stop: Three rivers, she counts./Seven mountains. The suddenness /of corners. Life thrown from the back, forward (28).
In Terranova's poetry, what comes at us, as readers, is not thrust forward. There are no sudden stops or wild rides. Her voice is quiet. Scenes drift. She is able to make subtle connections between what she thinks and what gets said. In most poems, the speaker experiences herself in memory, as an outsider. Language is simple, delicate. Some are dreamy as in "Wearing The Bird Mask," when the speaker imagines lifting off the ground: Rising, skimming air, /the soft tips / of weeds. (34).
Part IV is a series of balloon poems, delightful as Terranova's playful moon in a previous piece. Each balloon poem offers a way of watching them, of showing how they are like people. People don't like to be alone / but the balloon doesn't mind, she writes (52). She writes of the balloon's rubber body as a creased and flaking map of the world; writes how the balloon would prefer to be / in two places at once (54). In Terranova's mind: Sleep to the balloon / is a waste of time (55). It sees everything, she adds (56). In appearance the balloon / assumes the distant aspect / of a person (57).
Like Elaine Terranova, a balloon can chart a course and it can find its way back. In Dames Rocket, the poet has done just this. What she shares of life — goes full circle. This is how we go over every inch of our lives, she writes (35). She writes: The human drops, lifts, drops back. / Each step is who you are (38).