Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What I'm Reading: Tongue

73º ~ partly cloudy, summer sinking in

Last year, I wrote about Rachel Contreni Flynn's first book, Ice, Mouth, Song here, and I'm so glad to be able to write about her new book, Tongue, today. Rachel is another poet I was able to connect with at AWP. Her shining eyes and bubbly personality still give me happy memories of meeting her.

When Rachel handed me my signed copy of Tongue, she also gave me a kind of warning, although I can't remember her exact words. She alluded to the book being a difficult one. In content, she was exactly correct; however, the poems are so beautiful, that their beauty offsets the difficult subject matter. That subject matter is largely composed of a young, Midwestern girl as speaker and her relationship with her perhaps anorexic or mentally disturbed sister and her dying grandmother. It is interesting that I just finished Allison Benis White's Self-Portrait with Crayon, because Rachel's book also deals with a separation and an absence.

As was true with her first book, Rachel's poems are scissor-sharp, penetrating, yet highly musical and with a touch of whimsy that sets off the feeling of the fairy tale as told by the original brothers Grimm. As an example, here is the shortest poem in the book, all of three lines long.


There's a blade
in the hay mow

and we're jumping.

Poems as short as this rarely work for me; however, this one follows a longer more rambling narrative of the girls and their father. Perhaps its brevity against that longer backdrop provides some of the shiver.

There is narrative in most of these poems, and the book is divided into three sections. The first, "Gnaw," from which "Deep" comes, is mainly about the girls in their Midwestern home, as the one sister spirals out of control and the other tries to cope, tries to give voice to the chaos. The middle section, "Tongue," is a series of linked narratives telling the story of the speaker-sister sent away to Maine to care for the dying grandmother. There's a haunting cat, an axe, and a human tongue washed mysteriously ashore. All the while, in the background, is the knowledge that the other sister has been institutionalized or hospitalized. The last section, "Hollow," is the girl speaker growing up or grown up and trying to mend the frayed threads of her family.

As one last example, here is "Awake," which was just up on Verse Daily recently. This poem shows Rachel's strengths in blending narrative and lyric in a magical way. This poem also gets at the speaker's desire to give voice to what is happening to her family and being silenced in that solid, Midwestern way. We do not speak of these tragedies; we simply go on in the best way we can. Here, the speaker rebels against all that.


Of course it turns out
the tongue was just

a slice of sea cucumber.

That it took so long
for the experts to discern this

is ridiculous, and the girl

is suspicious. She believes
it's a lie so the island

may now be over-run
with placated vacationers.

She believes in the tongue.

That someone is coming
to take hers. But now she will

not allow it. She has constructed
all her barricades:

words, smoke, silence. Her safety.
The girl returns to Indiana awake.

Vigilant. Tough as a stump.

Support a Poet/Poetry! Buy or Borrow a Copy of This Book Today
Rachel Contreni Flynn
Red Hen Press, 2010

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