The woman lying under the tree was once a spider
whose slight movements speak the history of appetite.
The lovers in the movie theatre were once those vines
tangled and knotted on the sides of buildings.
One is never born again, one goes back.
Susana H. Cases’s new book 4 Rms w Vu offers a New York City apartment, small and compact in the form of poems and comprised of the rooms needed to do the business of living and leaving—bedroom, family room, storage room, dying room. 4 Rms w Vu begins in the bedroom with the second husband, the space where the couple, the beloved and the I/eye ball socks:
…over opposite sides of the bed
as if it were a boxing ring,
which it is not, most of the time (18).
Such domesticity being done by both members of the couple challenges traditional gender roles while also offering the complicated give and take of any relationships, the way we dance and struggle on the same carpet square in turn. Marriages might very well be dangerous as Einstein wrote (10), but in this danger there can be mutual love. Case doesn’t point blame at the husband over marriage squabbles, the lost family dog, the cramped couch they share, without owning her own dark matter, her own faults, those fault lines of guilt. She writes,
I’m always hungry
until it gets too hot and then
I’m never hunger (7).
Here in the opening poem to 4 Rms w Vu, Case points to the wandering map of our tight square-footage, of complicity in our struggles, the way our interior spaces merge with our exterior ones—those loves who walk with us here. And if we fight, we also love. It is in this urban space where lovers bring red lighters and cigarettes, patchouli oil and good food that we battle with ourselves over territory asking, “If I were not your wife, would you choose me now” (12). We battle and we fear what might be taken away. In “And Now Lets Revisit Sex and Death” Case worries over an odd bump on the husband’s lip, thinking “I’ll shoot you myself, kill you right now/ for carelessly leaving me in this fucked-up place alone” (17).
Moving from present to past, part two of 4 Rms w Vu is situated in the family room, the place where Case’s parents and her own young self reside. Here, her parents attempt to make peace with the female wild child conceived late in life with no second child to serve as companion. Still “against/the safety of a red brick wall” (21), Case is chaos, the girl who gets black eyeliner tattooed on her eyelids, the one who never bleeds and then bleeds too much, the teen who flows “into every boy who offered” (26), and the one who “with these legs/ knows exactly how to want” (31). Wild, reckless child or not, despite a car crash mid-argument with a young lover, Case is careful to present what didn’t happen to her, but could have—boys wasted on smack, girls who kill their babies or at five months pregnant kill themselves rather than face the reality of teen pregnancy in the era of Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, and teens who smoke in parks. She writes
Without two pennies to rub together,
they rub together—that respite
before adult life…. (26).
In this room, Case is as watchful as her parents, as full of care as those meant to care for her and in so doing she, sure-footed and city smart, charts and survives an urban childhood that any of us would count ourselves lucky to survive.
The final two rooms in 4 Rms w Vu are the storage room of former lovers, that open house of memory, and the dying room of those lost or who may be lost in the future, including the self. In the first, Case reminds us just how big memory is, “More than four and a half million people/ ride underground each day in New York” (37), and “The house was noisy, a hundred people” (40). In such a floor plan, these urban brick apartments, bricked up buildings, are places where we are both together and separate. “Loneliest Planet,” a poem that responds to a film, reminds Case of a former lover when watching the cinematic couple “because even before they’re not talking,/ they’re not talking” (43). These are not easy poems to walk through and that of course is their art; this city real estate, this emotional arrangement is the world couples build and tear down, refinish and repair, for we either stay where we are and patch the cracks and water damage or we are “pleased to be leaving you for a better/ more affordable space” (45). In the last room, the dying room of section four, Case presents a shortened book of the dead—friends, lovers, creatures, strangers—but even among these dead, Case offers a prayer, an incantation, a hope. She writes, “The best thing to die from is living” (65) and presents a litany of let me’s, these fierce assertions to live fully, live with pleasure, live to the end with mind still intact, a life where she’d “still like/ my red lipstick please” (65). 4 Rms w Vu is a book full of the rich spaces we share with those we love, even if only briefly. We scream at one another here. We make love here. We live and we die and how right to have Case, this wise purveyor of such space present the floor plan in compelling, complicated, smart poems.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins.
Two threads weave together Phylinda Moore’s first book of poetry, Herculaneum’s Fortune. The first mines the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, two ancient volcano-buried cities whose standard narrative joins instant death and destruction with perfect preservation, and thus, with immortality. Moore, though, sends her carefully researched poems in another direction. She approaches the large-scale devastation of her book’s topic with a shifting lens of small-scale human experiences, exploring the different ways we come into direct contact with such destruction. Thus, in “Eruption,” we see the rising clouds of Mt. Vesuvius through the account of Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption from a considerable distance. In “Interrupted,” Moore uses archeological evidence to bring her readers alongside a fresco painter in Herculaneum who “lost his balance / lime spilt his work / acid blotted shapes / before death stripped his bones.” And in “Theatrum Herculanense,” we mourn the unearthed, plundered theater alongside an early archeologist who encounters it centuries later: “of course you consider / plates and silverware, street stones and bowls // but who realizes the trappings of a stage.” The disaster that befell to the residents of Naples in AD 79 becomes a metaphorical framework for exploring not merely the larger themes of disaster and mortality, but also the human process of trying to understand it in art, in archeology, and over time.
The second thread emerges quietly in the voice of a modern-day “I.” In Part 1 of the book, this speaker functions as a universal stand-in for any of us when confronted with a power greater than ourselves, as when she react to a hurricane by “Clutching after broken boards, glass shards / catching splinters” and asking “what caused this devastation?” As we move through the book, however, the speaker gradually comes into sharper focus. In Part 2, she is haunted by the idea that a previous tenant was “left for dead / flashed sober in the tub” of the hotel room she stays in. But this universal dread is narrated through a specific voice: “Did I dream room seven-sixteen / covered in the Empire State Building’s shadow, / you noticed hours before your departure?” And, we eventually learn that this “you,” who does not appear again until midway through Part 3, “died again last night / a wound at your stomach / still in your car.” By the end of the book, the poems about Vesuvius have receded into the background, while the speaker emerges more fully to confront her own particular loss.
It’s as though the act of excavating, interpreting, and creating art out of the remains of ancient peoples becomes a tangible way to work through one’s own grief and sense of mortality. We often think of art in general, and poetry in particular, as a means of assuring the artist’s immortality. And though Moore certainly honors the people of Herculaneum and Pompeii by remembering them “in song,” she focuses more on how we hear and interpret that song as a way to bring meaning to our lives—while we are still alive. She creates poetry out of ancient graffiti, ancient garbage, and even museum exhibits that feature mummies from ancient Egypt. And yet, the most striking poem of the whole collection, “Heart Rat” is deeply personal, set in the here and now: “Someone is poking at the dead, brown rat / that used to be my heart organ.” Moore teaches us that poking at what is dead—whether in the past or within ourselves—helps us more fully understand our humanity.
Sarah Spath is a Career/Academic Coach who works with clients to develop better communication skills while in career transition or in college. She owns Field of Vision, LLC and holds an MFA in poetry from Antioch University-Los Angeles.