Advance Praise for Cleopatra Mathis
Review by Tryst
There are books and books and more books and such little
time. I mourn the fact that I shall not be able to read them
all and will miss some great books in my lifetime as a consequence
of having too many to choose from. But once in a while when
I read a truly great book, I feel compensated, even blessed
by the powers-that-be for writers as Cleopatra Mathis. I have
an advance copy of White Sea published by Sarabande
Books due to release July 1, 2005 and this is one of those
few times in my life I am actually anticipating a book's release,
anxiously awaiting its arrival. I want to announce to the
world, "This is poetry!" and by God, it is!
Any struggling writer with doubts needs to know that great
poems can be created in their lifetime, but it must take the
dedication of the entire self towards that end and I believe
Cleopatra Mathis has reached it. Just listen to these lines
All those years I went the way of grief,
turning my stony eye on disorder,
something to be cleaned
fixed. I was lost, scrubbing away at the hidden,
hating the vase where the fruitflies nested,
the artful bowl that held
away the rot, I said, making myself saint
of the immaculate, not knowing a thing about the soul.
By the time you've read those introductory lines, there's
no stopping midway, no putting the book down. Dinner will
get mysteriously burned, phone calls will have to be put on
hold. But don't make the mistake that this is a reading marathon
even though it's taken me almost four months to read and absorb
every poem in the book, a good book can't be skimmed over--not
one single word.
White Sea is divided into three sections. Section
I consists of poems that take place in rural Louisiana. It
is about a young girl coming into awareness as in "Want"
(narrated in retrospect) and "Waiting":
I come back to paper scattered on sand, shutters banging
and my young self still out there,
stumbling on the blowing beach,
high tide sucking her ankles
as she fights her way in a sideways gust.
I can't see her through the storm
of so many years, and what can I do with her anyway?
Furious girl, daring it all
I could still turn away. The tree,
another gorgeous southern thing, held me
from a longing so fierce I would go numb with it.
That world outside would claim me, close the self, lock
and what would it take to open again?
In Section II, the death of the writer's friend, Linda,
is the subject of most of the poems. I've read a lot of death
poems in my life, and in this instance, I'm recalling some
of the poems by Marie Howe and Mark Doty. I'm often turned
off by poems that become maudlin and exploit death. Perhaps,
the one poem in this section that leaned a tad toward foreshadowing
and sentimentality was "Linda's Poem" but then again,
who would deny the writer this personal reflection any more
than her grief? The rest of the poems in the section were
full of pathos, sometimes angry, sometimes bitter, but above
all, they were dignified. I cried, in spite of myself. In
this particular passage, I was touched by how the poem validates
the brother's feelings: giving a voice to the survivor, suffering
that is not commiserated between the two, but silently understood.
(Called Back: II)
Now she called a truce, she'd withdraw, return
to her brother waiting in Providence, the station's
faint salt air. He took her bag, always the same
desire to please her, his same sweetness,
though the gesture now seemed watchful, conscious, part
her essential removal from the life of ordinary things.
She was not ordinary. The trip was not a whim.
The fact of dying took up every space, all her weight
belonged to it, all her self in its service.
As for Section III and the rest of the poems in this book,
I don't want to spoil it for the reader. There is no end,
no beginning, just this wonderful constant flux of words that
thrum to a lyrical passion. Mathis' uncompromisingly clear
and uncomplicated vision aches with beauty. You can study
her work for years and never know how she developed the language
skills to match that vision. I sense instinct--years and years
of honing her instinct, working at her craft and I thank her
for that sacrifice.
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