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 as a series of revolutions around some central mystery. In “Perigee”—which the remnants of your middle-school astronomy class will remind you is the position in which a celestial body comes closest to the body it orbits—Cundieff meditates on a news story about a car crashing into a homecoming parade. However, Cundieff doesn’t dwell on that irony, a homecoming cut short, the inability to return in light of the tragic deaths; rather she continues to revolve around the driver of the vehicle that crashed into the pedestrians, peppering her with questions about her awareness: “Do you know that people died?… Do you understand what you’ve done?” No easy answers exist in the aftermath of loss, despite how much we want them, and the process of coping with death requires coming to rest in the absence of explanations, “Her answer is not / a house but its doors.”
For all the wisdom and freshness found in these poems, there are moments when Cundieff’s language stumbles over its own music. For instance in “Perigee,” I have trouble seeing how a “burst fist” can be “gripped by little dolls.” The phrase’s involuted pattern of consonance and assonance is gorgeous—which is, I suppose, why she uses the phrase “burst fist” again in “Poem for Infinite Returns” to describe the sun—but it’s difficult to put together the image she’s suggesting. Similarly in “Role Call (2)” Cundieff sacrifices sense for the sake of the line: “Taken early from her mother, / my father told me she might not make it.” These occasional lapses in syntactic precision distract from some of these poems more ambitious and transcendent moments. At the same time, Cundieff avoids confusion rather deftly in other poems. In “A Scene” she describes a stroke clearly without ever explicitly naming the condition:
When told decay
has made its way into his absolute,
where thinnest vessels flicker
in synapse and in remembered birdsong, he wants,
as if to overflow
with a stranger’s skin, to be a starfish
Here, she conveys the factual information of the stroke as well as the confusion of having suffered one while maintaining a rigorous syntactic exactness that, though it might take a few readings, stands up to scrutiny.
Darling Nova turns the reader’s attention inward in a way that’s startlingly unfamiliar. Its poems dare to do the kind of introspective work that investigates grief and leaps toward insight. Any poet can make a reader experience their loss, but Cundieff finds a way to make her loss an opportunity for her reader’s growth. That ambition toward a poetry of healing, of moving through and beyond grief, makes Darling Nova worth the confrontation and certainly worth rereading.