ANN SILSBEE: THE BOOK
The Book of Ga is not a
of poems, but one whole poem,
created out of pieces which
much more than the sum
of their parts. It is a
hybrid, weaving in the voice
of the river, a current that
through the pages,
with that of the different
. . . .
In The Book
of Ga, Ann Silsbee has gathered up scraps and fragments — old
("waxed leaves in shoe boxes"), diaries, faded snapshots, a yellowed
from a newspaper, a clipping of a farm for sale — and quilted together
a whole new fabric, this book of poems, her imagination bringing into
what was left over, the sketchiest bits of a life:
flutter our fingers as we pick them up,
tap gold dust
from their wings into our palms.
["Closing the House"]
The Book of Ga is
not a collection
of poems, but one whole poem, created out of pieces which become much
than the sum of their parts. It is a lyric-narrative hybrid,
in the voice of the river, a current that runs through the pages, with
that of the different characters: the author, the twenty-first
"I"; her grandmother, Miriam ("Ga"); her husband Charles and their two
sons, Wheeler and Chuck; his brother, Rufe, the brakeman; and Mamselle,
Miriam's friend and fellow teacher. It says in the author's note
that Ann Silsbee grew up in Urbana, Illinois, and remembers as a child
visiting the farmhouse in the Maine woods that her grandmother bought
a mere song in 1902. She states in the preface, "Let this
life honor her real life, which we can never know." The book,
is a constructed life, made of the ties that bind a family together —
a harness, but "the thin line of his voice. . . ," "what pulls between
us / will not break." ["What Do You Mean, Praise?"] The
main theme is how
we never knew who dwell unsuspected
and ganglions, smiling us
walking with us all our lives long.
In discussing this book, I have to
that "I, too, dislike it; [narrative] poetry, that is" (to misquote
Moore), usually because it's usually boring, because the single-voice
is often tedious to listen to in poem after poem after poem. What
makes The Book of Ga come
alive is its use of multiple points of view, not only of the characters
already noted and the river that flows in and out of the story, but
the voice of a pickerel weed, (I don't think I've
ever read a poem from this perspective), also the voice of a
Also, in general, narrative poetry is stripped down, lacking in
and the use of figurative language that makes lyric poetry appealing to
me, but this is not the case here. "The current knotting its
("Ask the River") and " . . .a great blue heron / stretches up the long
stick of his neck / like a strange fringed orchid" ("Sunday Afternoon
the Ohio") are just a few examples of Silsbee's artistry with
And what an ear; you can tell she was originally a composer in her
lines, sinuous and supple as flowing water. Listen to the way the
repeated ck sounds knock
against the ge sounds
and fringed, and you'll
hear what I am talking about.
One of the deepest ways this book achieves
its power is through the elemental imagery used as a unifying element
the book: earth, water, fire. Of these, water plays the
significant part, as the voice of the Ohio River speaks throughout the
book in antiphons, short poems in italics, which, in liturgy are meant
to be sung.
The narrator tells us:
in her [Ga's] voice. She won't forget me,
my lines, nor will I forget
the woman who
made me before I made her up.
Downriver, we'll both be silt.
["Learning to Weave"]
The river is not the backbone of
but its bloodstream, veins and arteries. In the course of the
the voice of the river changes: ".
. . as if I could remain the same / from one month to the next / for
day one hour" ("Antiphon 2"). In the same way,
we all rewrite our own family history, as we relive it. No
ever told quite the same way twice; no river's quite the same when you
dip your toe in it again.
But the river has a shadow side as
let it fool
us to loll in boats, beguile us
Then it roughs us up with a flood,
Whatever we try,
it pushes us
on, sweeps us all downstream.
["Bluer than Sapphire"]
By the end of the book, the waters
more mysterious — not the muscular Ohio, but the placid Charles River
Boston, and the feminine depths: wells, lakes:
She gives herself to the
again on the ripples of Pickerel Pond.
sweet things the body
the touch and cool taste of loved skin.
["Ga Bathes in the Lake"]
The narrator searches for this well
Her Well" under "[t]his hint of damp. . .
[b]etween these mounds of roots . . .[i]n this ground dry with
In "A Circle of Stones,"
. . .
into the black,
signs of life hiding under the picture,
cups her hands
to taste, water brimming over,
it runs down chin, throat and arms.
She'd like to
wrap her roots around the well-stones
drink the water through her skin.
We sense that this is a search for
water, that this displaced family, swept along by undercurrents of loss
and circumstance, has finally found its home.
While fewer in number, earth images also run
as a thread through the book. In "Finding Her Well," it is "as if
my [the narrator's] grandmother had spoken / from the earth to tell me
where to dig." This digging is metaphoric as well, as Ga's spirit
informs the book, again not through tangible evidence such as a diary
a journal, but via a deeper channel, that of poetry. "What the
Brings" talks of caked mud, "black slime," "the river's black
In "Teacher of Domestic Science," Ga is compared to Gaea, Mother Earth
And there is also fire: the elegiac
"The River Won't Leave Us Alone," dealing with the death of Miriam's
Malcolm in a ferry fire, and Charles dies in the fire of typhoid fever,
"a mound of bone, / crumpled on his own pyre." ["Typhoid Fever"]
In the end, all the waters are transformed
into something else, the river of history, the river of time: "To
the Dead River":
. . .
spume is blowing white off waves
at the Dead
River's mouth, the slippery past
the future, its dust becoming
silt to feed
the living river, everything
here borne downstream,
bit of gravity with it to the sea.
The poet, writing to her
grandmother who acts/serves
as muse for this book, says:
of her to touch, nothing to hear,
yet the weft
of her untranslatable song
curls in on
me, knotting muscles in my throat
as I speak.
["So Full We are of Our Song"]
She (Ga) ". . .stand[s] straight
the forest of our past."
So who was Ga? "She's earth,
me in her humps and dips. / She's Ga, river in my own life's
["Learning to Weave"] This story is of a whole cloth, "my
mother, whom I hardly knew," yet "she strides in my body, paddles my
"My real Ga's the story I've quilted up / from cloth-scraps of my own
She's the double- / ikat that I've learned to weave." "My river
in her voice. She won't forget me, singing through my lines, nor
will I forget / the woman who made me before I made her up."
And neither will we, her readers,
read this gift of a book.
Ann Silsbee. The Book
Cincinnati, OH: CustomWords, 2003. ISBN: 1932339205,
© by Barbara Crooker