Sunday, November 20, 2011

Review: Ann Cefola's St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped

St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped, by Ann Cefola
Kattywompus Press
, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

In her new chapbook, St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped, Ann Cefola begins by exploring the transformational potential inherent in the ordinary moments of a woman's life:  having girlfriends over on a summer evening, kissing her husband goodbye in the morning, enduring a long commute to a downtown job, shopping, getting a makeover, reading a daily horoscope, celebrating an anniversary.

As the collection progresses, the subject matter grows weightier, in poems that deal with loss, grief, and the capacity of human belief systems to address the more elusive mysteries of human existence. 

In "Girl's Night Out," the child-free hostess of a garden soiree for friends glad to be relieved for a night from the responsibilities of motherhood imagines her uterus "untraveled as a new triple-digit Interstate,/ a wide boulevard Hausmann might have built,/ tree-lined and unpopulated, a passage I walk every day,/ sometimes fast, blindly; other times singing,/ My avenue, my very own.

In "The Boys of Iona Prep," who spy on the narrator and her husband's goodbye kiss from a coffee shop window, a daily ritual is charged with new erotic significance:  "Mid-kiss I catch his eye — unblinking —/ and I am no longer being but body, marriage no longer a distant vow".

In "Dance in the City," the darker voices of the narrator's family history won't be silent even amidst the most joyous moment of her life:  

At our wedding, the dead, close as my lace stroking the red
church aisle, chanted:  Lovrien's breakdown over grandfather's
affair.  Great uncle's depression-era suicide.
My father soon dead from drink.

All my life, I read their lives like so many required
tragedies, the twists to come or avoid.  We were like
that painting by Renoir, me creamy fragile in your arms,
you all black poise.  Music and color blotted out their voices
and we danced.  Anniversary after anniversary.  I tell
the dead to return to their tombs, but they won't,
they want our breath, they call it inspired.

"Teint Pur Mat," a poem about the seemingly frothy topic of a woman's lifelong romance with cosmetics application, hints at something deeper in the epigraph, a French proverb which is translated, "It's hard to be pretty."

In that vein the poem closes, "To swim toward grace, she knew what must be applied."

The title poem takes its name from a news headline, "Hospital changes name to Westchester Medical Center, White Plains Pavilion" and finds the formerly eponymous saint forced to roam the grounds, looking for new employment.  "Now she understands the dilemma of the dying:/ how they don't want to turn their backs on/ the sun-edged bloom, how one human spring/ can ruin paradise."

"Kerning" offers a pause for comic relief from the more somber tone of the collection's later poems with a defense of the punctuation-followed-by-two-spaces convention, comparing the white space they create within a page of text to "Twin beds made up perfectly./ Binocular lenses that form one image.  Miles/ of thought after reading a billboard.  The weekend./ Systolic and diastolic pumps.  Good fences/ that make good neighbors.  A swim lane's/ quivering blue lines.  Deus/ ex machina", exclaiming in the next stanza, "Save/ the double spaces!"  (For the record, this reviewer agrees.)

"February" speaks movingly of death in winter:  "If you must escape,/ the angel of late winter counsels/ my comatose father, do it now/ before the strength of green reappears.// Do it now before light floods day,/ before hope pierces maroon tree buds./ Before you see the unboxable blue sky/ and believe in beginning again."

"After" lyrically examines the moment at which the enormity of grief begins to give way to a certain curious haunting by what remains of the deceased:

Behind the opaque glass.  Not memory, not
bone — but unspoken balloons in a cartoon,
what would have been said, certain times.

We were quick to get rid of the clothes,
and she has not appeared in dream.
But the jellyfish that follows

squooshes underfoot, takes in 
salt water and sunlight.
That harms no one.  That floats.

The luminescent edges of its circular spine.

Finally, "Velocity" depicts the moments immediately before death, when it still seems avoidable, describing the Kennedys in the seconds before the assassination:  "His square head, jacket bunched at the neck, her wide delight/ as she turns to the camera.  Joy fills their bodies like/ an anesthesia that will fail them./ There is a prayer that says// Shield the joyful."

Despite Cefola's ability to look squarely in the face of human vulnerability and the chasm of grief, the poems in "St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped" tend to wind up accentuating the positive, crystallizing the moments of joy, wonder and clarity to be found in even the most tragic or banal circumstances, but in a truthful way and in clear, graceful language, without resorting to the convenience of window-dressing.