Song & Spectacle (Harbour Publishing, 2012) by Rachel Rose for a further Marrow Review re-issue

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What Shines: I must say that this gorgeously bird-smattered book, along with the American poet Sharon Olds’ “Stag’s Leap” and the recent BC Book awards winner (previously Marrow-reviewed), Sarah de Leeuw’s “Geographies of a Lover”, stand as the three collections that have affected me at my core over the past year. Each, though they deal with wrenching subject matter, more from how they use language and form, than for anything they are “saying,” as needs must be, but is too infrequently the case, with all poetry. In what should be key reading for any poet, the essay “The Word and the Stone” from Random Walks (1997) by David Solway, speaks of how psyche-altering poetry crystallizes out of experience rather than dissolving into it (57). There is a vast richness of experience in Song & Spectacle, from lesbian parenting to suicide to war and the awareness of environmental damage, yet most of the poems soar through and beyond either the quotidian imagery or potentially dreary abstractions that often bust like the hundred Horatian-heads of Cerberus from poems purporting to “deal” with massive, pressing issues. The sequence that jewels darkly throughout the book, all titles beginning with either “What We Heard About” or What the ___ Perhaps Heard” are consistently engaging, especially “What the Sea Perhaps Heard” and “What we Heard about the Suicide” and “Death,” with their devastatingly clean couplets and lines such as, “Beloved: we heard there was a scythe, grim/slice of last breath, last song flooding the lungs/and then would come the end of ends, the beginning/ of beginnings, the silence of silences.” Other superb pieces are “Delivery Room under Renovation,” the “Maternal Sapphics” trilogy and the exquisite, serious-silly ditties, “Hymn to Shit: Four Movements” and “Resume of Failure” which blends “Failure to complete a single/sudoku” with “Repeated failure/at prayer.” The book closes with the gut-tearing admonition: “If you’re not sure, stay. Stay/at least until you put out/the love letter/on fire at your door.” I’m not going anywhere.

What Stumbles: The book does pick up resonance as it flows along and seems to veer from simple slips into the picturesque into a more risky zone.  Perhaps I just “tuned into” Rose’s soft, fierce voice more acutely as I read but from about “Drunk” on I started to cry out “YES!” at every poem. I think only her pieces that move into the realm of sexual pain and that veil it in myth as in the aubades of Grendel’s mother or Buddha’s wife are less stirring. To draw upon these stories to tell our own we must know them utterly in our blood (whether she does or not I couldn’t feel it in the way I do with McCaslin’s oeuvre). Ending with lines like “Shalom. Namaste. Another dawn will come./Palomino-pulled chariot, bridal gown undone” does not do the rupturing justice. And I wanted her traditional ghazal on Neruda, “Tired,” to do more leaping. Regardless, this homage to being wholly alive is almost consistent aria.

What it Echoes: Joe Brainard’s “I remember,” Natalie Dessay singing Stravinsky’s “Le Rossingnol,” Anne Sexton, The Song of Songs, Sharon Olds, Gluck’s “Medallion” painting (1937), “The Hours” (2002).

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