Cecilia Woloch's third book, Late, is not only full of tender, sensual poems, but it is also imbued with realistic inspiration in facing deep losses. This is a book of mature modern-day love poems, love of family and place, friends and lovers, with a knowing eye on the price of such loving, paying the price, and moving on, loving again. What is most compelling is that throughout these poems Woloch never concedes to being overshadowed by lovers or for that matter her own sorrows, and therefore the poems pay close lyrical attention to the beautiful in life, even in dark moments, and to living bravely.
In the title poem that also concludes the book, we are given, in the form of anaphora, a condensed progression through young love, conflicts of the heart, failed marriage, and a widow-like disposition. When newfound love comes, the soul nevertheless leaps to the occasion. The poem is a miniature of the book's structure.
With the line, "Or had I met you in the early wind of my solitude, I might have snapped," one is reminded of Mexico's celebrated feminist poet Rosario Castellanos, who oftenportrays damaging passion in a male dominated Catholic world. Castellanos is attracted to self-annihilation as in "Warning to Whoever Comes":
. . . all I wanted to do was sleep
long and deep the way
a happy woman sleeps.
But unlike Castellanos, who often sees death as cleansing, Woloch is willing to rise from the ashes:
Instead, you came late, you came after I'd made myself into harbor and chalice and wick. More like the ashes than any warm hearth. More like a widow than wanton, beloved. And you lifted me over the wall of the garden and carried me back to my life.
Among the central themes is Woloch's love for her father and the inevitable grappling with his death. She finds inspiration again through reading Rukeyser at the father's bedside. In fact, a number of exceptional woman poets are quoted or invoked to become Woloch's guiding spirits. Rukeyser's words come as if from a ghost.
When I'm dead, even then . . . I will wait for you in these poems. Who was speaking then, and to whom? I'm still listening to you.
In "Here's to You, Jesus Robinson," Woloch recounts through her own imaginings the childhood story of a German friend, who was sent off to the countryside for the duration of the second world war, and how an African-American soldier, in a moment that resembled Communion, had given him chocolate wrapped as a gold coin. The experience is visionary: the first black man he had ever encountered is both beautiful and generous:
How sunlight fell into his hands; how darkness melted on his tongue. How a man named Jesus Robinson stopped the war inside him once.
Woloch's lyrical voice resonates naturally through a range of poetic forms. Her prose poems are often as incantatory as her pantoums, but always with a relaxed, accessible diction. Woloch's method is not only a heightened attention to rhetorical structure but also to the multiple senses of words themselves as in "Dzien Dobry."
Dzien, I called out
to the bright empty room—
having meant to say
thank you, dziekuje,
and said only dzien, only
day, for dzien dobry,
good day—when I woke
to the grace of eat that
which is offered, knew,
in that light where to turn.
"Dzien Dobry" is set in the lower Carpathians, just one location in a book that travels from childhood Kentucky to LA to Paris, whose filth Woloch exuberantly honors as honest and liberating: "Paris is beautiful like this; it's the beauty of love of the body of love."
Woloch accepts that happiness is forever endangered, an understanding reinforced through reoccurring images of the ephemeral, birds and ashes, but above all, particularly in a time full of anger and hate, she knows when to open the curtains, when to celebrate life through her generously humane poetry.
Jeffrey Greene is the author of two collections of poetry, To the Left of the Worshipper and American Spirituals, as well as the memoir, French Spirits. He lives in Paris and in Burgundy.