V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Catherine Tufariello's Book of Poetry




The pleasures of formal poetry abound in Keeping My Name
In Tufariello’s sonnets you will find both exactness
and flexibility, a responsive freedom playing
within the form.  She loves rhyme and sometimes uses
it to enhance the sensibility or action of the poem.

The first time I picked up Catherine Tufariello’s Keeping My Name, I paged through it, reading here and there, for about twenty minutes.  Then I had to close it, put it down, walk away, settle my mind.  Here’s my confession: such a wave of envy gripped me!  I wanted to have written these poems; and, after a good number of further readings, I confess I still want to write poems like these.
    So if, like me, you enjoy these pleasures — a formal poetry that creates surprises within its careful forms; a voice that’s direct and immediate, all the while modulated by close attention to a chosen structure; a variety of subjects drawn from personal experience and distilled through concise reflection; a language both exuberant and disciplined — then Tufariello’s book belongs among those on your bedside table.
    Among my favorites is “Chemist’s Daughter,” which opens the book’s second section, Seasons of the Moon.  In the first eleven of its spare twelve lines, I hear the voice of a child remembering the physics her father taught at the dinner table one night:  “Thumping the dinner table, Dad would say / it too was atoms — massed in galaxies / made mainly of empty space.” Then the speaker reflects on the consequences of that knowledge for her, “At night, the bees’ / drone of electrons woke me”; she imagines “a Milky Way / was whirling on the tip of my fingernail, / ten thousand planets dancing on its pale / half moon” and wonders, “Would bed, desk, and dresser lose their grip / on the braided rug?” The child delights in scaring herself with these strange but father-true possibilities.  Finally, in line twelve, a marvelous pair of sentences that captures, mirrors, and extends the essential appearance/reality problem, the child transcends her own understanding and the voice breaks through in a surprising way: “The world looked solid. It was wild as thought.”
    That last simile/rhyme just stuns me with its acuteness, precision.  The rhyme pair “astronaut/thought” literally sails us through the stars, taking us from an adventurous child’s game, “playing astronaut,” to the really daring, unpredictable wildness of being human, “thought.” And then, doesn’t it open out into imagination, the world of metaphor that extends rational thought? 
    I find that that “wild as thought” quality, understated or sometimes only hypothesized, undergirds much of the work of this volume. In “February 18, 1943,” the poem in memory of Hans and Sophie Scholl, leaders of the White Rose resistance movement, for instance, the world “looks solid” to them, as they stand outside the university building, free, after having distributed resistance leaflets there between classes. But then, something makes them choose to brave the danger of returning, “…you raced together / Back to the empty hall / And up the stairs, to let the last ones fall.”  Tufariello uses questions to catch the wildness of their decision, but the questions themselves show how unequal to the task of understanding this act of heroism we are — “Was it that you suddenly felt young?” “Or was it the recklessness of the desperate?” “Was it the change in weather… .”  What, to me, embodies the wildness here are the luminous images as the leaflets, themselves literally “thought,” fall.
            I imagine, then, how you leaned from the great height
            Of the gallery railing into a well of light;
            How, giddy with boldness and vertigo,
            You popped the latch and—hurriedly this time—scooped
            The leftover handfuls out.
            For a few seconds, the pages must have swooped
            Like wind-torn blossoms, sideways in the air,
            Filling the gallery with a storm of white… .
What follows is the unfortunate ending: how Jakob Schmid the porter captures them, the other students drawing back as the classes change, “And the doors all locked.”  But what remains is affirmation: daring action, acts of integrity, can bring light — and lightness — to the solid, predictable world.
    I find this quality as well in the stories Tufariello tells of other characters — the little girl in “Dana Dancing”; the walrus in his Coney Island Poem; Ruth, and then Boaz in the “No Angel” sequence, the speaker of “The Dream of Extra Room.”  I find it also in the villanelle form she chooses for the mysterious poem “Snow Angel,” and in the tone of amazement that pervades the sonnet “In Glass.”
    The pleasures of formal poetry abound in Keeping My Name.  In Tufariello’s sonnets you will find both exactness and flexibility, a responsive freedom playing within the form.  She loves rhyme and sometimes uses it to enhance the sensibility or action of the poem. The couplets of “Keeping My Name” link up and satisfy and draw the reader on just as the game of finding words within her name has drawn the child and then the poet on. Those of “Twenty Weeks,” intimate direct address of a mother to her unborn child, image their unity of flesh and spirit, and draw into their lives the names and stories of those for whom the child is named.  The rhymes of “Florida’s Flowers” tumble along, a glorious, delighted profusion, only two unrhymed among the 82 lines.  “Epitaph for a Stray” uses clean-cut quatrains containing affection and humor to make its wry, ironic point. “Useful Advice,” is crafted from well-intentioned ordinary speech which accumulates as friends and strangers alike offer advice to a childless couple.  In fact, the speech is so familiar that the poem’s couplet form comes somewhat as a surprise; once seen, however, it transforms these platitudes into a darkly humorous but unbearable repetition of the couple’s failure to conceive.
    Other pleasures I find in the volume are equally satisfying.   The decorous, far-seeing Yeatsian overtones in “Twenty Weeks,” for instance, as both poets write prayers for their daughters.  Realizing that the arc of a journey is appearing in the arrangement of the poems and finding linkages, conversations, among them. Savoring the interwoven lyric of ideas and rhyme in the translation of Guizinelli’s “Al cor gentil ripara semper Amore.”  Finding “Useful Advice, the Sequel,” as it too captures ordinary language to celebrate both a young mother and child and, this time affectionately, the perpetual presence of well-meaning busybodies.  I could go on, but I’ll leave you to the pleasure of your own discoveries within this satisfying and accomplished first collection.

Tufariello, Catherine. Keeping My Name.  Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2003.  ISBN: 0-89672-529-4  $14.95

© by Kathleen Mullen


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

 [Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]