by Rebecca Foust
After the Firestorm, poems by Susan Kolodny, Mayapple Press, Woodstock, New York, 2011, 57 pages, $13.95 paperback, mayapplepress.com.
As a child, I visited the silk mills in Pennsylvania, worked by women like my mother in unvented air so thick with thread that the large rooms were dim even at noon. Classmates and I returned with bobbins wound in hues otherwise seen only in foliage against a September sky. Fine as a spider's thrown line, the same silk wound round a finger could cut off circulation, could cut flesh to bone. The poems in Susan Kolodny's After the Firestorm are like this—delicate, but also tough, fierce, and even dangerous.
It was difficult to find the end or beginning on those bobbins. In Kolodny's book, time loops and circles back around the speaker's central core, like Eliot's "Time present and time past /…present in time future, / And time future contained in time past" ("Burnt Norton"). The continuity of time and our ability to access it through memory and creativity are Kolodny's central concerns. How do we unspool the narrative of our lives? And, "Do we risk more when we look / or when we look away?" ("Vigil")
Kolodny wrote previously about such issues in The Captive Muse: On Creativity and Its Inhibitions (PsychoSocial Press, 2000). In After the Firestorm, revelation comes from patience and attentiveness:
Among jewelfish that dart and glide—
opalescent silver, orange and melon green,
parabolas of color in space—among these shapes
A world of life exists above, below, and at the edge of awareness, and the speaker begins to sense "the savage things that…lurk." Beneath fish vivid as Matisse cutouts:
like a subplot or a motive, is a school
of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned,
…living in the shadow
(from "Koi Pond")
Penetration of the subconscious—here and elsewhere represented as water—recurs in these poems. "Go back, past the curtain of details, the wall / of chores," "Word Pond" enjoins, to "refind" the pond we've forgotten. In "Sirens," the speaker begins "waist deep / in" and ends on a cliff "two thousand feet above" the Pacific, so powerfully drawn that she must, like Odysseus's sailors, physically restrain herself from its lure. Creativity is an act of remembering in which we risk drowning, like the patient in "Improbable Angels," "a small boat…sinking / in the indifferent water."
Kolodny's signature technique is Imagist, and her language, spare yet saturate, glows with jewel-like lucidity. The first of the book's three sections recovers memories of a young girl who barely apprehends the hovering darkness:
at a party, kissing,
the silk rustling lushly,
whispering its warning,
incense around me.
Section two introduces an adult psychotherapist in poems that continue to hone the knife-edge of self-discovery. Her practice sometimes quickens the therapist's own memories. One patient sees in her face "a pond you have dropped a pebble in" ("Tsuneko"), and an incest victim "draws me a tight cell of panic," a line that would read very differently without the "me" ("Improbable Angels"). In a harrowing vignette from "Crisis Clinic," a woman cannot recall the last time she fed the baby she holds, and the doctor is told, "We're waiting / for you to tell us what to do." Detachment is eroding: "Careful, I think. / You could drown in there."
Tropical fish return in section three's "Black Carp," but what "lurked" before now swims into full view:
spilled ink in the water,
glimpsed, you swim
Glimpsed, you recur…
Memories are a source of creative potential as well as of menace, "a door held open." Still, we discard them like small change until loss teaches their value, and "rowing at lunchtime / in the rented boat, / would become like / the only coin issued / with an inverted 'd,'" ("Appreciating").
Where preceding poems exercised restraint, the last one unleashes a fury wild as the conflagration that destroys an entire neighborhood:
I stood on our roof, watching
the fire come, stood and screamed at the wind,
wind blowing towards us, orange and black mountain
of fire, stood and screamed at the wind, black smoke
and a vortex…
(from "Voices, After the Firestorm")
The house "burned in four minutes," erasing even the memory of memories.
It's not like you see the unfaded rectangle
on the wall where the picture was
and miss the picture. Because there is
no longer the wall. Or the room.…
After the Firestorm begins with water and ends with fire. In between stretches the thread of a life, picked up, dropped, picked up again. The speaker survives a traumatic past to discover a future "dormant, under the blackened earth" (page 55), perhaps the creativity that gave birth to these remarkable poems. This book set me in search of my own "word pond," recovering a memory of mills spinning silk more beautiful than anything I could imagine, in lint-filled factory air that perhaps caused my mother's death. I'd forgotten all about those bobbins. But I have mine back now, and I am unwinding it still.
Another version of this review first appeared in CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women.
Rebecca Foust is the author of All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, which won the 2008 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Prize. Her other books include God, Seed (Tebot Bach Press, 2012) environmental poetry with art by Lorna Stevens. She lives in Marin County, California.