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.