By Guest Reviewer Cara Dees.
As the title suggests, Darling Nova explores both the intimate and the infinite, documenting the brilliant, immense fragility of human and animal life immediately before and after it has dimmed. Melissa Cundieff’s first full-length poetry collection announces its obsessions from the first poem: “reminiscence is an augury / backwards, a slow bullet returning to us, now.” Here, speakers mourn not only those whom they have lost, but also the futures that will never come to fruition, consumed alongside the dead. Like the return of the “slow bullet,” reminiscing is a form of retroactive self-destruction. In this space, Cundieff seeks to warn, remember, and record, “To show the crows / that coins can be plucked after all from our friends’ eyes.”
Cundieff’s attention to the transient and the evanescent echoes throughout the many elegies piercing the collection, whether it portrays a child mourning the loss of “a floating pinpoint of dust” or a speaker’s first experience with death after watching a hawk’s “pupil turn...so black / I felt as though I had been blindfolded and led high up / a cliff, then pushed.” Settings range from a John Wayne movie set seeped in carcinogens, to a mass killing in Oklahoma State University’s homecoming parade, to the island of Kos. The latter is the backdrop to “Ellipsis,” an unblinking lament for Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy made famous in the photograph depicting his drowning:
Trying to think of a next, selfish line,
I’ll hear his breath like white noise.
(Looking past the water’s surface, pennies
in blue sleep. Is it not built into our eyes
to be sorry?)
Most often, the elegies of Darling Nova focus on the deaths of children and the “never-born” from the poem, “Hurt Music.” The voices of the dead disappear and reappear, a “living ghost to my edges,” reminders of the adult’s ironic outliving of the young existence she cannot shield from harm.I cannot help but think of Joanna Newsom’s gut-wrenching song, “Baby Birch,” the lyrics of which serve as the epigraph to the collection: “And at the back of what we’ve done / There is the knowledge of you.” Though only mentioned once, “Baby Birch” haunts the book, whether in the unflinching portrayal of abortion (“The bell’s emptied space / has no name”) or within the immeasurably delicate tissues of a man receiving the news of his terminal illness in “A Scene”:
When told decay
has made its way into his absolute,
where thinnest vessels flicke
in synapse and in remembered birdsong...
In this poem, the subject’s future is suddenly amputated, any prospect of survival cut short. The speaker is left to recognize and contemplate what the man “doesn’t recognize...all those losses / parading the bone-white god’s breath / of x-ray with its careful promises.” Like the image-driven lyricism of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, in which “the dead can mother nothing...nothing but our sight,” Cundieff is concerned with the act of witnessing death, the survivor’s consequent trauma, and the unreliability of written accounts of that witnessing.
Cundieff speaks to this witnessing with an incisive, luminous detail that permeates elegies like “Poem for Infinite Returns,” in which the speaker vows to “not make a metaphor of you,” or in the poem, “Hoping Wherever You Are, You Are Not Watching”:
In this trial of willing
you and your dogs to the widening, altered sky, I will call,
but you will not answer, because you, like our father, cannot,
could not ever, bear the asking noise of my voice.
Though often confronted with silence, abandonment, or the dark, laconic responses of household objects and animals, the speaker insists on finding answers in the voices of the past, even though she warns the reader of the danger of this undertaking, as in “Adam in Love”: “The risk of remembering is guilt, my friends, / and the clock’s beating lockstep, real.” There is real consequence in this struggle against forgetting; remembrance carries with it both guilt and the fixed grind of time.
Cundieff’s insistence on mourning, despite its certainty of guilt and pain, recalls Larry Levis’ declaration: “Every revolution ends, or it begins, in memory / Someone remembering her diminishment & pain.” As in Levis, the voices that answer the speaker—if they do answer—tend to be brutally, bitingly honest, as in “Eyeteeth”:
So often I ask my house
for its honesty. It answers back: stacking doll, rind, bitch,
chanteuse, fist. I ask again. This time, what is memory made of?
The house answers: compass, compulsion, headlights fugitive at night,
teeth speaking their white, a birthday cake on fire, a mirror’s
ten thousand scraped and silver darlings.
If remembering is an act of revolution or defiance, it is also an act of love, one that insists on praising the “silver darlings” of the smashed reflection alongside the bright ferocity of fire, teeth, and bone.
At times Cundieff moves into the realm of prophecy and myth, with speakers centered between the living and the dead, the spoken and the unspoken, the past and the present. These aphoristic interjections, typically set off in italics, are a trademark of Cundieff’s work, as in the never-born’s command to “Carry me in the bell, betrayer. / In the apogee of your voice / to my voice.” In “Indexical,” both the “necessary message” of the leaves and the speaker’s thoughts take on an oracular weight:
assemble a necessary message, the bright red
of their dying a symptom of denial.
The weather knows there is no such thing
as the absolute absence of hope. I doubt
in a year we will even be talking.
The speaker is not only a reader of signs; she is also a translator and messenger, even if that message is one of silence or of the unspeakability of love or grief. Poetry and song have within them the potential for both ecstasy and transcendence. In Darling Nova, that transcendence is less about rising above the human realm and is more dependent upon confronting and staring down decay, transforming it into the human. “I sang my old / language with a worm in it,” the speaker of “Rebirth” intones. “[A]nd the worm dangled / with every exhale it took to conjure the distant / vowels of humanness.”
In the second half of the collection, “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” and “Paradox” mark a shift in focus; while continuing to contemplate mortality, humanness, and language’s incapacity to fully encompass the two, there is a growing concern with desire and the living body. In “Paradox,” the heart, which “cannot speak at all without / metaphor,” bursts beyond human expression, compelling the speaker to “realize I’m not dead yet, / that I can come back from fading / into the body’s old routine / of being alive.” The heart offers the physical pulse and rush of blood, but it is also uncontainable, powerfully elusive, and a testament to the limitations of language, “just a tongue not knowing / not even touching, / another tongue.” Later, in “As Beginning, As End,” the mother speaks to the daughter who wishes to travel back in time to reclaim her infancy, “We have left each other / for each other. The body wishes. The body is a wish.” The mother and daughter have, by necessity, separated into two solitudes, and the infant daughter, “all tangle / before word” has disappeared. The body is more than the vessel of a soul, spirit, or consciousness; it is its own hymn to vitality in all its devastating impermanence.
Darling Nova conjures a deep loneliness, the ache and anodyne of motherhood and daughterhood, and the finite scope of language, itself. There is much that distinguishes this collection from others—its subtle musicality and fierce, fearless imagery, for starters—but part of what makes these poems tick is also the incandescent steel of the voices underpinning the universe Cundieff creates. Her speakers do not shy away from “our anxieties / over death, over divorce and children, / [that] stare out like fallen fruits.” Rather, they “hold the rotten pear” and “stab...the wolf / in its yellow iris.” They fight tooth-and-nail to praise the body, to name suffering, to “tell the leaves above me that I've come here / to watch them change.”
Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and teaches at Vanderbilt and Fisk University. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and was named a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, The Journal, GulfCoast, and Southern Humanities Review. Recently, her first manuscript was listed as a finalist or semifinalist for the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.