Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Angles of Departure by Marcene Gandolfo: A Study in Repetition with Restraint

Like the black hole at the center of our galaxy that retains on its event horizon all of the information about the matter it has swallowed up, Marcene Gandolfo's first full-length collection, Angles of Departure, pulls its readers into a place of absence--a place of lost pregnancies, lost futures, lost identities--but it is not a place of total emptiness "Because nothing remains empty. Come in. Listen with / me and we will hear the phonograph play the song that / was lost before we were born." ("Anamnesis," p. 11, lines 15-17.)

The virtuosity of these poems lies in their restraint and unfolding craft.  Hear both elements in the opening lines to the same opening poem:

My summerhouse is empty now.  You may know the
house. I built it one night in a sugared dream. The lights
are always on and the oven bakes cookies. The backyard 
trees blossom but fruit never ripens and the sweet-
toothed child eats strawberries and dances to a scratchy
phonograph song no one has beard before. But one
night, the music stops. I wake. The doctor says no
heartbeat and I see the child is only a folded cloud on an
ultrasound. Then I say my summerhouse is empty now.

Gandolfo's prosody is one of repetition. Not merely within her poems, as in the first and ultimate lines of "Anamnesis," but between poems, as they call and answer to one another like a mother and a child who is learning to sound like her,  like "evening garage doors open[ing] and clos[ing,]" like "peace flags [that] lined [the] street" shape-shifting their sounds, their images, the meanings we attribute to them as if they were the melodies and harmonies of a three-movement piece of music.  

The best poems in this collection are microcosms of the entire work, not merely by visiting yet another loss, but by tracing the evolution of the poet's growing metaphoric sense, with a growing consciousness of their own lines like these from "A Careful Angle": "Some days your truths are shoes / that won't fit: // so unlike the message that lies / in your doorway. // There's a technique to opening / another address, // a careful angle by which you unveil."

Gandolfo enacts this craft of cutting "careful angles" with lines of precision and restraint in the overwhelming majority of her poems.  In "Lost," "The summer after the baby died," we are told the story of  trying to "keep the cat alive, her old kidneys closing."

That's all I remember that summer, saline bags hanging from the wall,
the faithful drip of the needle, my hands

steady as I pinched her skin and pushed the needle under her shoulder,
where she would lie against my swollen belly and purr

as her hollow body filled again with hunger and she would dance young
for an hour and then moan for more water.  That's all

I remember that summer. Hanging those bags of water, breaking open
a new needle, finding the proper angle, the pinch and the push,

the push and the skin breaking and some days water spilling over
my knuckle, some days a drop of blood on my thumb

and the pushing and the dripping until one day the cat stopped crying
for water and only wanted to sleep

and the bag of saline was a folded lung on the wall.

All that is required to tie this story to the death of the poet's unborn baby is the one line "The summer after the baby died."  But Gandolfo is a master at reinforcing the relationship without hitting her readers over the head with similes: the couplets that end in a single line, the images of how her cat "would lie against [her] swollen belly and purr," of " . . . finding the proper angle, the pinch and the push, // the push and the skin breaking and some days water spilling over . . . , some days a drop of blood on my thumb, // and the pushing and the dripping until one day the cat stopped crying," the repetition of "That's all I remember that summer"--as if there were two remembrances, which there were.  Even the final line, with its "bag of saline" conveys the directness of a metaphor alongside the subtlety of the closing down of a life that cannot be forgotten with its "folded lung on the wall."  

In "In December" the idea of folding is modified and amplified: "It was the day for origami, / the day I taught my daughter to fold / a perfect five-point star . . . " to "feel each paper square / as a body, see its scars // and creases against our own."  The word "fold" or "folded" is used four times in this poem--each time growing in emotional intensity from "fold[ing] / a perfect five-point star," to "fold[ing] corner-to-corner," to "fold[ing] flat" to

When we finished folding
I couldn't tell her it happened again.
I couldn't say, "No Baby

in May. . . 

Galdolfo's use of call and answer, incorporating repetition never more slant, and restraint never more subtle, finds its zenith in the two poems, "Taking Down the Crib" and "A Tide," although the poems inhabit almost opposite ends of the book and concern themselves with opposite ends of a life. In the former, after an opening description of disassembling the crib and placing the pieces into a "wooden box," all that is left is "a press / against the rug, a smudge of dust, no stain / . . . [except] one streak / of light across the wall. It must have been / a sunbeam through the window, against bleak / blue paint. It bleached a line white. . . "  In "A Tide," we are presented with a car crash, the driver's life "an eyelash flutter away / from the river," and witness her "break[ing] / from the half-opened / door, scream[ing] to the black / morning and crawl[ing] / to the ground, worm[ing] her way / through mud and climb[ing] the bank."  Afterward she walks to town, limping at first. But then "her walk steadies as day / takes shape. A vein / of light scales the river bank / through the dark in the road / and her eyes open to a wave / of blue air, transparent."   

In Angles of Departure, Galdolfo takes her readers to places that at first glance look familiar, like the "There" in the ultimate poem, "Beatific."

There you can hear a child cough in a canyon. There you can see
her sweatshop awl bore your coat buttons.

There you can hold her calloused hands. There you can taste
the boho's bourbon and the blood on his broken dog's claw.

But upon a closer inspection of the details of this landscape, we find ourselves in unchartered territory:

There you can listen to the beaten child stutter all the languages
you've never heard.

But [we] "can't stay long, for fear [we] may dissolve." So we return to "where sweet plums grow outside [our] window," where we "can have meringues and tea // and read old books and dream in our comfortable chair."  But that place, these poems, come knocking: ". . . There where a hungry woman / offers // a piece of bread . . . / There where you find a book in your pocket. // There where you turn the first page and know it wasn't written here / in a comfortable chair. // There where you feel the poet's pulse rush from the other side / of the page."

With convincing poems, Gandolfo pulls us back to that other side enough times that she fulfills for me (in the words of Larry Levis), the reason I read and write poetry: "To stop time."  Thank you Marcene Gandolfo for not only providing us with "Angles of Departure," but so many angles of arrival, and the not-quite-empty, timeless space between them.