||Difficult as it is to convey in a brief review the intellectual candor and
spiritual lucidity of Kelly Cherrys poetry, its worth a try, as her most
recent collection serves up a harrowing series of emotional experiences transformed to
hymns of affirmation by a scrupulous and surprising lyrical imagination. The assignment
Ms. Cherry has given herself, or that she has been given to, in Death and
Transfiguration, is risky because it is not uncommonhow to survive loss, a
subject always appealing to armchair psychologists, self-help blockbusters, and desperate
But Cherry is appropriately provisioned for the journey through
personal tragedy. Her broad frame of reference (her mothers swans "do not stop
at Coole," anothers dead mother "is flying/ upward to light, like
Haydens lark"), her humor ("Except God, who is a fish with scales like
windchimes."), and her exquisite sense of timing prevent her from taking easy paths.
She is also willing to transgress the standard tests for adequate writing taught in
workshops. When she closes "My Mothers Stroke" with a skein of
adjectives "Your wondering, admiring, loving, listening daughter."
one can imagine more predictable poets raising their disparaging scorecards, all
citing a failure of economy, but the list fulfills the sense of difficult restraint
carried in the poems figures of speech; finally, the narrator is overwhelmed with
the need to say it all desperately. Another of my favorite transgressions of overcommon
sense appears as the brief final stanza of "Epithalamium," a poem honoring her
parents golden anniversary:
With his arthritic fingers
He threads the needle
She can no longer see
The eye of.
Zing! That awkward grammatical structureapproached warily, isolated,
suspendingachieves the difficulty and dearness of the act it describes. And I
cant help supplying the phrase we usually associate with those final three words.
"The storm." The quiet, mortal storm of getting ready for inevitable separation.
Musical and religious without identifying a particular faith, these poems are not
afraid to declare themselves concerned with prayer, "Miracle and Mystery,"
revelation. The book culminates in the extended "Requiem," the exciting
"logical conclusion" of such a meditative collection. In this poem, Cherry
conducts an investigation and presents an argumentto the self, primarily, the proper
domain of all crucial arguments, as Yeats suggestedconcerning the nature of God and
Gods relation to pain, memory, and survival.
Moving and impressive as the concluding poem is, some of the shorter lyrics remain my
favorites. Perhaps one of the most common emotional conundrums in contemporary life, yet
one scarcely addressed by poets, is the question of ones attitude toward an
ex-spouse for whom one does not entertain scorn. Cherry has opened this door with her
characteristic precision and compassion, remembering her ex: "The silence surrounding
you/ then was extraordinary. As if you were a star,/ owning the space around you, and
burning, and far." The timing here is exquisite, and that final comma suggests that
she understands exactly the way pace of delivery determines impact. In "From Venice:
Letter to an Ex-Husband," she displaces her unspoken and complex feelings toward the
man by describing an imagined journey on a bronze horse, which the narrator rides
"Through salt air and/ The sinister, traitorous streets, Sculptures
bride." I cant dismiss the associations with Brownings Duke and his
collection, "Neptune taming a seahorse,/ Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in
bronze for me," and if Cherrys poem is more withholding, its quieter
intricacies are undiminished by the comparison.
Through miscarriage, loss of family, divorce and discouragement, Cherry never casts
herself as victim or heroine. Instead, she looks inward, exploring her responses and the
ways that language can clarify (or occasionally obscure) the experiences, while resisting
nostalgia. Her most topical and pessimistic poem, "A Diminishing Chord Modulating
into Nihilism," finds "philharmonic sound" in catastrophe, and its final
note of despair is not quite convincing. More authentic, it seems, more embraced and
understood, are the personal losses and the questions of faith and revival that accompany
them. In yet another collection, sure and skillful, pertinent and sometimes terrified and
scalding, Kelly Cherry has also made language fly "Upward to light, like