Review by David Lee Garrison
WHAT I KNOW OF INNOCENCE
by Cathryn Essinger
Main Street Rag Publishing Company
PO BOX 690100
Charlotte, NC 28227-7001
2009, 69 pp. & accompanying CD, $15.95
Cathryn Essinger weaves philosophical themes into almost all of her work. In her first book, A Desk in the Elephant House (Texas Tech UP), she has a poem that revolves around a trick philosophy professors use to convey the idea of the suggestibility. “Don’t think of a bear,” they say, and suddenly we can’t think of anything else. Essinger goes on in that poem to relate this to the act of creative writing when she tells us that she has welcomed the bear into her own reality, “bought him a bed, checked his teeth, / paid the vet. All that is left is to name him.” In essence, writing a poem means naming the bear, identifying that amorphous, indistinguishable thing that lumbers into the imagination and that we manage to put on the page. Something takes shape in our minds; we get to know and understand it by writing it down.
The main thread of her new book, What I Know of Innocence, is the simple philosophical idea that things have meanings. The poet muses about these meanings—what they are, where they come from, how they affect us. The meaning of a mouse, for example, is pondered by professors who discover one in their office building and feed him. They decide that he has “informal tenure—a permanent / position with no job description other than / to be a mouse….” The next poem has to do with the nature of the black cat who “resembles everything that she is not—/ she is the word you cannot recall, the phrase that cannot be taught, // a piece of the night….” In various other poems, Essinger considers the meanings of aging hippies and their need for causes, “the gourd / that grows / into the shape of a saint,” a newborn who inspires inarticulate sighs, a blue ball that gets lost and winds up in the underbrush for an entire winter, and finally something that seems truly meaningless—a murder.
The meanings we give to our world go back to Adam’s act of naming, the poet suggests in the title poem, and sometimes things get so “freighted with story” that they become nameless again. The poet’s imagination of things, her attempt to name them, offers us another look at the world, one that is sometimes comic and ironic, always interesting and haunting. Although according to the poet “symbolism is rampant,” we often cannot understand why things happen or mean what they do. In the opening poem, she broaches this idea with the question: “See how the light chooses / one goblet, but not the next?” In “Shadows from Another Life,” she suggests that “In every house there is a window / no one has ever opened, a dog / no one has ever seen,” and goes on to conclude that “Soon / a door will swing open, a face will / appear, and someone you love will / call for help….” The poet drops these eerie thoughts on us in language that is simple yet startling, as in this passage, one of my favorites:
I remember how my youngest used
to watch the blackbirds gather
along the wires and sometimes
he would ask, “Mama, Mama,
Is that the bird that calls my name?”
Odd, where children get such things.
But it’s true. If you listen carefully,
or sometimes not at all, if you just let
the sound creep up on you,
you can hear something like a name
in the sound of their voices,
something whistled, high and far away.
The sound of a bird is something so mundane that we barely notice it, but through this poem we hear it calling us by name. The idea, the connection between a name and a bird song, is so surprising that it makes us want to hurry out and listen to the birds. These poems creep up on us, tap us on the shoulder, tell us to listen.
The entire final section of the book, “Dark Flower,” has to do with the murder of a young woman by a serial killer. We learn about it from various perspectives. There is the woman who suspects something and does not allow the killer into her house when he knocks on the door and asks to use the phone, the photographer called to document the scene of the crime, the photographer’s girlfriend who does not want to look at the pictures, the coroner who examines the body, even the murdered woman herself. (Various readers interpret these poems, movingly, in the beautiful video interpretation—produced by David Essinger, the poet’s son—that comes with the book.)
The victim remains unknown until we reach the poem titled, “Finally, they name her,” in which, ironically, she is not named. The poem describes how the woman puts her baby down for a nap, combs her hair, gets dressed, and feels pretty. None of these acts distinguishes her from other people, and yet because they are the last things she does in life, they take on all kinds of meaning. The poem endows them with a kind of holiness and makes them, despite their banality, memorable. As readers we take them into memory, which is the theme of the final poem. Memory is, the poet tells us, “forever present, // forever gone, a flower forever / unfolding.”
These poems are indeed memorable. They keep unfolding in our minds long after we have read them. Perhaps the world is made different for us by every book we read, and this one certainly has that effect. But it does something more: it helps us look at the world again to see if we can name some of the things and ideas and people in it. Louise Gluck wrote, “We look at life only once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” Cathy Essinger gives us a second look and lots of memories.