Review by Lizi Gilad
by Cecilia Woloch
BOA Editions, Ltd.
250 N. Goodman St.
Rochester, NY 14607
2009, 96 pp., $16.00
Cecilia Woloch’s Carpathia is a fugue-state journey through lands exotic and distant as the mountains for which the book is named, as close and homegrown as rural Kentucky. This collection of poetry is the poet’s search for home as well as an examination of what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, in a familiar land, and even in a moment of time. As a first-generation American, this feverish search for country and home, as well as the meaning of these words with all their implications, are personally important to me and inform a significant portion of my own work. The theme of home is explored repeatedly in this collection, and–I have a sense from the little I know of the poet–in her life as well. I do not know Cecilia Woloch personally. I have never heard her read her poetry. But I am an avid reader of her work and I am on her email list. Every email she sends ends is signed with her name and the following line written by Virginia Woolf: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
According to Woloch, the book title and the physical setting for many of the poems “refers to the mountainous region in Eastern Europe from which [her] father’s people came, a source of mystery throughout [her] childhood and a place that seemed…for a long time, more imaginary than real.” In the notes section of the book Woloch describes how, as an adult, she traveled through the mountainous region and the little towns pebbled at the base of the mountains. She has found how very real the region is, and even now spends a portion of each year living there; yet she has also discovered it’s essential magic. The mood of magic and surrealism is maintained substantially throughout the book.
There are two primary techniques Woloch utilizes to establish the dreamy, surreal effect. First, the repetition of words used in different ways (anaphora) creates a rhythmic, musical lulling. Second, contradiction. These two techniques are employed from the opening lines:
It’s late and we’ve stopped to lean against the rail of the Pont Marie. Or the Pont Louis-Phillipe. Or some other bridge—which bridge? It’s cloudy; the moon is veiled. Or it’s clear, but we can’t see the Tour Eiffel.
Again, in “Be Always Late”:
One should always be late. One should be running/half-running in high-heeled boots through the streets with the church bells ringing the hour one should have already arrived.
The author demonstrates her view of contradiction’s ever-present and necessary existence in her poem “Postcard to Sarah, in the Carpathians, from Paris, the Rue Vielle du Temple”:
It’s twilight and, Sarah, I’m teetering in the woozy blue of it all. Walking: he loves me; he loves me not. I could fall to my knees at the river’s splendor or button my coat and just cross the bridge. I could do both if my heart were bigger: love him; love him not.
A woman lands her bicycle in the midst of the pigeons’ ascent. This happens all at once…
Two things can happen at once: landing; ascent.
How the birds move in chorus, somehow, as if at a signal. Then how far apart.
With these lines, Woloch alerts us to the cornerstone of her work: the mystery that exists in everything including (and especially) the commonplace, and the constant dualities of life. She rubs contradictions together to make friction and build a fire out of her poems. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. We know, then, we are journeying through the landscape of a first-rate mind when we read Woloch’s work and for this reason alone, readers will leave her book sharper than when they first opened the cover.
An interesting counterpoint to this chimerical mood are the poems about Woloch’s father, his presence in life and in death. These poems feel grounded by the minute details called up by the poet. Their pace and tone is slower, as if to match her aging father’s pace, as if to slow down the effervescent push of time. In this way they work as a moment of stillness, a respite, from the floaty distances she travels in the other poems. For example:
Sometimes when I wipe the bowl with my bread
when I scramble one egg, two eggs, with milk
when I stir the kasha until it’s thick
when I sit at the table and bow my head
I think of how my father ate…
(from “Ghost Hunger”)
The father poems are slow, much slower, and meditative. The have a weightiness to them which Woloch names in “Watching Him Die”:
The stuttered Thank you
When I cut the meat on his plate.
The heavy hand on the top of my head–
The whole weight of fatherhood in that touch.
It is the able poet who builds a window for the reader into the essential sacred within the quotidian. Woloch accomplishes this feat repeatedly. In her poems, moths, tree limbs, tall grass, bridges, apple juice, glass, and even the lowly bathroom feel seen, worthy of our attention, and sanctified. Each day, night comes. Every night, the moon looks down on us. Yet Woloch makes these words and themes feel as fresh and undiscovered as the furthest corner of the world: virgin territory. For example:
The river, the wind. It’s cold and our coats are thin. It’s spring and the blossoms the trees breathe scatter like petals of snow at our feet. It’s the middle of our lives, and night, and we walk toward everything.
(from “Postcard with Sarah, to Sarah, from a Bridge In Paris—Which?”)
…and the wine in our glasses, ruby and bright,
and the teeth of our waiter when he smiles
and our voices like coins in our throats…
Still, we worked until 4 a.m.,
dipping our rags in the basin, our hands
moving over the body’s ruined landscape like flags…
(from “Last Fever”)
This is the green we grew up in–the humid blue of the blur of our adolescence; the weedy heat. These are the roads we drove into the country with whoever had sweet, cheap wine. The song of gnat and firefly and nightingale and frog…Wild onion in the high grass and magnolia…
(from “Postcard to Ben, with Ben, from Paris, Kentucky”)
Approximately one third of the poems in Carpathia are written as “postcards” to various recipients. This form reinforces the feeling of reading a traveler’s scrapbook (scrapbook as opposed to journal because the poems are exploratory and revelatory, but far from confessional). The forms Woloch uses, mingled with the specific words she chooses, deliver the reader to mysterious landscapes which are somehow both simultaneously hazy and light-filled. More than anything else, Woloch is a proficient mood creator. This book of poetry, her fifth, is like a steamy sauna that swirls around the reader with longing, exploration, discovery, ache, loss, gratitude, and acceptance. Woloch makes writing poetry seem as easy as clouding a window with warm breath. There are few collections of poetry that have so many poignant, successful pieces. Each turn of the page is a different journey; each poem plucks another chord of our hearts. In one of the book’s opening poems, Woloch writes: “I’ve wanted only to sleep and dream and wake in some country my heart could call home.” This collection of poems is a record of that desire and that journey. It’s a dream log, a travelogue, a love letter. It’s touchwood for the rest of us wandering souls.
Lizi Gilad is an MFA candidate at UC Riverside Palm Desert low residency program. She has work published or forthcoming in Foundling Review, Melusine, HOOT, Boston Literary Magazine, and others. She doesn’t travel as often as she used to.