V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Ann Silsbee's Book of Poetry



The Book of Ga is not a collection of poems, but one whole poem, 
created out of pieces which become much more than the sum 
of their parts.  It is a lyric-narrative hybrid, weaving in the voice 
of the river, a current that runs through the pages, 
with that of the different characters . . . .

IThe Book of Ga, Ann Silsbee has gathered up scraps and fragments — old letters ("waxed leaves in shoe boxes"), diaries, faded snapshots, a yellowed advertisement 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 being what was left over, the sketchiest bits of a life:

          Like moths we thought dead
          the letters 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 more than the sum of their parts.  It is a lyric-narrative hybrid, weaving in the voice of the river, a current that runs through the pages, with that of the different characters:  the author, the twenty-first century "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 for a mere song in 1902.   She states in the preface, "Let this imagined life honor her real life, which we can never know."  The book, then, is a constructed life, made of the ties that bind a family together — not a harness, but "the thin line of his voice. . . ," "what pulls between us / will not break."  ["What Do You Mean, Praise?"]  The book's main theme is how

          the ancestors we never knew who dwell unsuspected
          in our corpuscles and ganglions, smiling us
          weeping us, walking with us all our lives long.

     In discussing this book, I have to first admit that "I, too, dislike it; [narrative] poetry, that is" (to misquote Marianne Moore), usually because it's usually boring, because the single-voice narrator 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 also the voice of a pickerel weed, (I don't think I've ever read a poem from this perspective), also the voice of  a tree.  Also, in general, narrative poetry is stripped down, lacking in intensity and the use of figurative language that makes lyric poetry appealing to me, but this is not the case here.  "The current knotting its ropes" ("Ask the River") and " . . .a great blue heron / stretches up the long stick of his neck / like a strange fringed orchid" ("Sunday Afternoon on the Ohio") are just a few examples of Silsbee's artistry with language.  And what an ear; you can tell she was originally a composer in her musical lines, sinuous and supple as flowing water.  Listen to the way the repeated ck sounds knock against the ge sounds of strange 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 in the book:  earth, water, fire.  Of these, water plays the most 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:

          My river talks in her [Ga's] voice.  She won't forget me,
          singing through my lines, nor will I forget
          the woman who made me before I made her up.
          Who's who?  Downriver, we'll both be silt.
                              ["Learning to Weave"]

     The river is not the backbone of the book, but its bloodstream, veins and arteries.  In the course of the book, the voice of the river changes: ". . . as if I could remain the same / from one month to the next / for one day   one hour" ("Antiphon 2").  In the same way, we all rewrite our own family history, as we relive it.  No story's 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 well:

          We let it fool us to loll in boats, beguile us
          with lilies.  Then it roughs us up with a flood,
          eats our houses.  Whatever we try,
          it pushes us on, sweeps us all downstream.
                              ["Bluer than Sapphire"]

     By the end of the book, the waters are quieter, more mysterious — not the muscular Ohio, but the placid Charles River in Boston, and the feminine depths:  wells, lakes:

     She gives herself to the lake-one-time river woman,

          Miriam, born again on the ripples of Pickerel Pond. 
          The water cradles, strokes muscles,

          . . .whispers sweet things the body
          had forgotten, the touch and cool taste of loved skin.
                              ["Ga Bathes in the Lake"]

     The narrator searches for this well in "Finding Her Well" under "[t]his hint of damp. . .
[b]etween these mounds of roots . . .[i]n this ground dry with needles,/fallen bark, twigs."
In "A Circle of Stones,"

          . . . Ga peers into the black,
          looking for signs of life hiding under the picture,
          cups her hands to taste, water brimming over,
          startling as it runs down chin, throat and arms.
          She'd like to wrap her roots around the well-stones
          underearth and drink the water through her skin.

     We sense that this is a search for more than 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 or a journal, but via a deeper channel, that of poetry.  "What the River Brings" talks of caked mud, "black slime," "the river's black gift."  In "Teacher of Domestic Science," Ga is compared to Gaea, Mother Earth herself.
     And there is also fire:  the elegiac "The River Won't Leave Us Alone," dealing with the death of Miriam's brother 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":

          . . . and today spume is blowing white off waves
          at the Dead River's mouth, the slippery past
          whisked into the future, its dust becoming
          silt to feed the living river, everything
          that's happened here borne downstream,
          pulling its bit of gravity with it to the sea.

     The poet, writing to her grandmother who acts/serves as muse for this book, says:

          Nothing's left 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 and slim/in the forest of our past."

     So who was Ga?  "She's earth, and holds me in her humps and dips. / She's Ga, river in my own life's continent." ["Learning to Weave"]  This story is of a whole cloth, "my father's mother, whom I hardly knew," yet "she strides in my body, paddles my canoe."  "My real Ga's the story I've quilted up / from cloth-scraps of my own life.  She's the double- / ikat that I've learned to weave."  "My river talks 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, after we've read this gift of a book.

Ann Silsbee. The Book of Ga.  Cincinnati, OH:  CustomWords, 2003.  ISBN:  1932339205, $16.00.

© by Barbara Crooker


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