Autumn House Press. 2018. 88 pages.
Reviewed by Joshua Jones
What a book does often matters more than what it means, and Melissa Cundieff’s debut book of poems, Darling Nova does more important work than most. The collection, which won the 2017 Autumn House Poetry Prize, might best be described as a series of thought experiments in grief. These experiments work through a life’s struggle of coping with death in all its forms, from the visceral to the abstract. In doing so, Cundieff confronts traumas that often get submerged in literary ornamentation and writes a book designed to matter and to move.
I call it a series of thought experiments not because Cundieff’s poems feel detached or cerebral but because each one methodically places itself in a slightly different position relative to death. The very first poem situates her “driving away from a childhood / friend’s funeral,” and the final poem assumes a posture of contentment and contemplation of death in the abstract— “Ambulances passing me by— / the knowledge that death is unknowable. / Private until it isn’t.” But between these two she systematically interrogates the various textures of loss—the death of an unborn child, the suicide of a friend, a father’s stroke, and more public tragedies. In “West” she even imagines herself dead on a road trip: “I died a year ago, and it’s only my afterimage / positioned in the passenger seat.” While the book follows no explicit narrative or plot and has no sections, it moves by association through various types of loss; this means that she often groups together several poems about a particular death or a particular way of dying. Never, though, does the book feel static or trapped in one mode for very long.
Many of the poems zoom in on the dynamic physicality of violence. “Fairy Tale” exemplifies this kind of attention as it imagines playground violence as a sort of myth that ends with a terrifying wish out of European folklore:
a better witch, able to turn sky into basement,
girl into surf, boy into tree, able to do anything
but envision myself someplace else where wolves
wear the skins of children, or, stuffed into the bellies
of wolves, terrible children wait for blood
to draw their fragile bodies again to the light.
Even while registering the specificity of each horror described, the speaker notices the grim birth suggested by that final image. But Cundieff knows the cost of imagining every death as mythical violence. She shows herself conscious of her role as a poet constructing experiences out of the grief of herself and others, refusing to “make a metaphor” out of the dead. She knows and laments that those whom she elegizes can no longer speak for themselves. Cundieff determines to learn from each death rather than romanticize it. In “Paradox” she struggles to articulate the process of learning:
the heart takes a name and greets me
on the outside or calls me on the telephone,
I realize I’m not dead yet,
that I can come back from fading
into the body’s old routine
of being alive:
At moments like this, Cundieff’s poems show themselves at their most spiritual, as a pursuit of awakening through these meditations on death.
But Darling Nova is by no means devotional poetry. In “Adam in Love” Cundieff revitalizes classic interpretations of the Genesis narrative ending with the observation that “When we / become so good at desire, we achieve / beginning and end all at once. Climax and ruin.” She acknowledges the conventionality of such observations when she makes explicit the insinuations of the Biblical story: “Adam thinks he would like to fuck the fruit.” Cundieff relies on more than occasional irreverence to avoid the sentimentality we might associate with devotional poetry. Her poems baffle the finality of death without resorting to resurrection or heaven. They envision human existence