"Poetry that often transcends its own bounds, spilling over into readers’ lives and forcing them to confront their own narratives."– Kirkus Reviews
A prose and poetry collection of meditations on family history.
This latest book from Augustine (One Day Tells Its Tale to Another, 2014) is an intriguing mélange of prose segments and verse interludes of varying meters. She provides a broad spectrum of subjects and time periods but concentrates on her own family’s history over many generations. The narrative swoops and swerves between historical characters and vignettes, ranging from Ireland to America to Trieste, where the author’s ancestor Otillie Augustine lived when it was still an Austrian territory. Otillie speaks in her segment as if she’s the living receptacle of a genetic memory extending back centuries: “Between us we have known every happiness and a thousand catastrophes,” she says. “We will sing our death songs in low voices.” The elegant grandeur of some moments contrasts sharply but fruitfully with the quotidian details of others; Augustine plays on these contrasts with steady skill that enhances both types of memories: “I go home to the fifth floor walk-up on Christopher Street,” one verse declares, “where I live with Jim who plays a ghost on Dark Shadows.” The narrative voices and perspectives often change abruptly, and the verse forms have an almost equal diversity. Such tone-shifting can be disorienting, particularly as the quality of the verse varies dramatically. Some lines, for example, effectively mimic the epigrammatic power of Emily Dickinson, who’s invoked at the heading of every chapter, such as “My grandfather let me bang on his inky Underwood.” Others, however, display a slangy, free-verse laziness, as in a bit about the 2015 shootings of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris: “Shoot the Piano Player, / shoot the cartoonists. / Shoot. Cartoon. / Oooo sounds. / Bad moon rising.” Still, Augustine’s ambition throughout is obvious, and although her technique sometimes falters, she vividly evokes many individual characters and shows a consistently vigorous imagination.
An intriguing, if tonally uneven, work that looks at the many faces of the author’s genealogy.
Like a well-wrought memoir, this medley of free- and fixed-verse poems combines vivid personal narrative with probing self-reflection.
“So, I did the thing / I would never do,” confesses a young dancer upon landing an art-smothering, body-pulverizing contract job in “Paid to Dance,” one of many seemingly autobiographical poems in Augustine’s debut collection. One can easily imagine the same confession from the older narrator sleeping with her friend’s husband in “Wine and Cheese Villanelle” or the jaded lover of “Sestina,” who “learned to play double, just like him.” Compromise and disillusionment are frequent themes here but so are resilience and learning, although the narrators are often too busy navigating their lives to recognize their growing wisdom. Augustine often layers the perspectives of the narrator, author and reader to bolster the poems’ realism and emotional sincerity, and it’s a technique she hones to near perfection. On rare occasions, the poet usurps the narrator and lapses into bathos: “As we sit at this café table / in Montmartre, sheltered / from the downpour, I see our future. / I will write it down on torn paper, / using a sapphire pen,” seemingly taking seriously Billy Collins’ satirical advice in his poem “The Student” that poets should, “[w]hen at a loss for an ending, / have some brown hens standing in the rain.” On the whole, however, Augustine demonstrates much greater control and precision as she works through multiple iterations of love and loss, employing to great effect forms as varied as the prose poem, the concrete poem, the villanelle, the sestina, the sonnet and the ballad. She reimagines fairy tales, evokes foreign lands through bodily sensation, valorizes women’s perseverance, and revels in the rollicking pleasures of sex, even when they come with risk. As her narrators age, she tightens the circle, mourning and celebrating with equal intensity. One narrator contemplates the “Three Things That Did Not Happen”: “I almost saw Nessie,” “I almost won the jackpot,” and “I almost had a child. / She was there in my womb / until chromosomes killed her. / My God, that would have been something.” Among the losses, though, it “appears gone for good are dramas and bothers, / threats and therapists, drunk, needy lovers. / And…lovely, lovely, lovely is my cat’s furry belly.”
Poetry that often transcends its own bounds, spilling over into readers’ lives and forcing them to confront their own narratives.