V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




. . . poem after poem tracks twenty-first century calamities.
She focuses on the persistence of love despite disaster
in every case, particularly the bonds between parents and children.

Since you’re reading this, I bet you suffer from periodic crushes on dead or distant poets. I’ve experienced several particularly obsessive literary infatuations, but the most extended one focused on the poet H.D. It began with her memoir of Ezra Pound, End to Torment, read during a term I spent in England. In that book, H.D. recalls her college-aged self; I identified closely with those stories, mapping my own relationships onto her early crowd, the geography of my life onto hers. The obsession became even more intense in graduate school because of the community of scholars H.D. attracts. As I consumed her work voraciously, I also read H.D. criticism and tried on the identity of scholar for the first time. I didn’t resemble any of the professors I actually knew, but I could tell from my readings that H.D. scholars were learned, quirky, feminist, generous, and often poets themselves: maybe I could aspire to join that group of initiates.
    In those years, Charlotte Mandel’s name, among a few others, was talismanic to me. Words were all I had in those pre-Google days — I had no idea where Mandel lived, how old she was, what she looked like, or what besides H.D. occupied her life — but I admired the essays she published, especially one called “The Redirected Image: Cinematic Dynamics in the Style of H.D.” This piece identifies a poetic technique Mandel calls the “word-dissolve”: “treatment of time and space as segments to be altered at will; the moving camera eye.” My favorite among the examples Mandel offers is from the middle section of H.D.’s long poem of World War II, Trilogy:

        …now polish the crucible
        and set the jet of flame

        under, till marah-mar
        are melted, fuse and join

        and change and alter,
        mer, mere, mère, mater, Maia, Mary…

H.D. casts London as an alchemical crucible in which language itself is transformed. I still have my 1992 photocopy of the essay in an ancient blue binder, and I use Mandel’s term whenever I teach Trilogy
    When Mandel echoes those lines in her most recent poetry collection, therefore, they reverberate with particular power for me. “Front Page Photo,” like many poems in this collection, reflects on images of natural disaster, in this case a tsunami:

        Bitter la mer el mar marah—salt
        reclaims what came from it

Mandel re-edits H.D.’s brief montage for a similar purpose — to capture trauma and the transformations it can entail. Trilogy is a particularly important sister-poem for the lyrics in Rock Vein Sky because both works seek consolation for public and personal catastrophes through love, myth, and the rich materiality of language. H.D.’s poem sifts through the fragments of blitzed London almost archeologically, looking to uncover in the rubble “the meaning that words hide.” Mandel addresses, instead, a series of twenty-first century calamities as a parent, grandparent, and spouse, considering a range of losses and, ultimately how love for others can redeem us. While their imagery and references are often visual, both works succeed in large part because of their aural beauty.
    In the middle sections of Rock Vein Sky the visual imagery is sharpened by a fear of impending blindness. The half-crown of sonnets that begins section II revolves around this crux, and here, in fact, the references to Trilogy recur persistently: alchemy, jewels, cinematic vocabulary, and even the word “dissolve.” Like H.D.’s poem, though, “Afterimage” also resounds with other literary echoes, from Dylan Thomas to Shakespeare. As if in compensation for the dimming of the world, Mandel’s ear here is very sharp: her use of rhyme is original and evocative (bumblebees / obsequies; facades / odds / God’s).
    The most striking part of the book, though, is section I. Here, poem after poem tracks twenty-first century calamities. She focuses on the persistence of love despite disaster in every case, particularly the bonds between parents and children. I am enthralled by how “Flying with Infants,” for example — a meditation that should silence all those curmudgeons who protest the presence of children on airplanes, as if that’s not a gross display of prejudice — is followed by an apostrophe to an aborted embryo (she doesn’t use the word “baby”), which is succeeded in turn by pieces about resurrection, the bombing of the World Trade Center, the Holocaust, and contemporary terrorism. Section IV mirrors these improbably interwoven subjects by remembering Mandel’s own parents, the foods they cooked and the tunes they sang. A poem such as “Anatomy of a Yiddish Word” evokes a very different world than H.D.’s, and yet Mandel’s project is quite similar: to find destiny in a name, to reinvent etymologies and thereby rewrite suffering.
    Names do have power and I wish this volume had a different one: Rock Vein Sky does encapsulate Mandel’s interest in the interdependence of nature and human beings, but for me, that’s not the most urgent story this book tells. Exile is a recurrent theme, and Mandel as a poet is a fierce media critic — I think the volume would have been stronger if she had foregrounded those motifs. My favorite poem remains the one that echoes H.D.’s “word-dissolve,” in part because it epitomizes Mandel’s fixation on crisis and the humanity she brings to the subject. In it she describes how

        A father rode the massive wave his son in his arms now his
        head now the child’s
        above water until smacked against an edge
        the man will reach for
                voice caroling papa abba
                aboriginal vowel
        torn from his rib
                pulsating phantom limb
“Front Page Photo” may have been occasioned by media images, but what Mandel hears in the photograph will echo in me for a long time. That father embraces his child through a long passage of terror and nevertheless loses him. The child’s voice, however, persists in an almost joyous way. Those vowels are native ground to everyone; our language comes from them and will dissolve into them again. I am grateful that Mandel’s learned, quirky, feminist, generous vision carries those fragile notes forward for a while.  

Rock Vein Sky, Charlotte Mandel. Midmarch Arts Press 2008. ISBN 1-877675-62-1. $15.00.


© by Lesley Wheeler


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

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