No Eden, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mayapple Press, 2011
In No Eden, Sally Rosen Kindred’s first collection, the poems’ various speakers find themselves in “broken weather, broken story.” We find Eve in fallen exile, Noah in the hold of the ark—poems of midrash, in Alicia Ostriker’s sense of the word, as Kindred discovers for these old stories new imagistic and emotional content. Kindred weaves her midrash with poems spoken by a contemporary woman remembering her girlhood, where her alcoholic mother shapes weather and story, and with poems that take place in the adult life of that speaker. The midrash works both as correlative for the poems about the family and, importantly, as fully imagined poetry on its own. The relationship is metonymic rather than metaphoric; that is, within the whole of the collection the associations between and among the poems are rich and multiple rather than singular and algebraic.
“Noah Waiting, Not Praying,” for example, moves with a kind of psychological integrity through images and details also fully integral to the material itself. The poem begins, “What a darkness, to be favored/like this, to be/hurling birds up into/the botched sky,” and deepens from there, lingering with and turning over the images, revealing their wholeness and illustrating the character’s state of mind. Noah hasn’t asked for this “burden/starless and rough/as gopher wood,” but has loved God for creation and even “for the window/on the ark, where sky/could open us before we cast/our best music through.” This rewriting of “hurling birds” shows the power of the image as Kindred stays with it, allowing it to show more of itself and its evocations even as it develops the portrait of the speaker. “Noah’s Wife Remembers” imagines its character forty years after the flood, talking to a selectively interested granddaughter who is planting almond trees. The poem as it develops its speaker seems preoccupied with relationship and portraiture, but in the last five lines the imagery shifts, surprisingly, to the almond itself, an image referring to the larger story even as it takes on its own symbolism. This symbolism, in turn, constitutes the culmination of the poem:
What I love
are the brown bodies of almonds,
the sweet wrath of my thumb knowing what’s inside
and wanting the strength to split their knotted souls
and lift the safe meat out.
This is a fairly stunning move, where the image of the almond, germane but different, latent until this point, bears the entire emotional weight of the poem.
Other factors in the poem, too, add to the surprise of the poem’s shift to this image. In general, Kindred’s attention to the music and the density of language, always translucent, comprehensible, though sometimes chunky with modification, has the reader paying attention to each line, rather than speeding through language to follow narration, even in poems with strong narrative elements. In this poem the rising water “spun into bruised shades” and “unravel[ed] the gold skins of grain”; the speaker goes into her house and “return[s] with a secret fist” that the granddaughter uncurls. The reader is vulnerable to surprise because she is absorbed in this language, the richness of this telling. In an even more narrative poem such as “Vespiary”—where the contemporary speaker as a girl remembers her mother’s response to the stinging of a neighborhood dog by wasps—where the story moves swiftly, the language remains full and sonorous. The dog’s
limp fur heaves with spent deadly stars.
Wasps hum and fall from the black rabble
of his back: moon skin, crumbled legs. Some are dead
but thrumming, some roll and break
their wings in the acids of his withered belly.
In this passage, as throughout, the success of the language rests both on diction and music as well as the poems’ measured use of syntax, sometimes held together by anaphora, sometimes by a mix of long and short sentences.
On the level of line, too, the poems mix enjambment and end-stopping, making for a line I associate with Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, an influence I hear in this way and others in the present collection, but which originates in William Carlos Williams: the line ending posits a secondary reading that does not carry the correct denotative meaning but creates a tension effective within the poem. “Raisin” uses this device: “they were hard and warm. As your teeth break the skin/what weeps forth is fog and mud.” Certainly, in a poem about childhood and new realizations of suffering, the image of “teeth break[ing] the skin,” i.e., teething, makes emotional sense, but the literal meaning is about biting a raisin. I hear the influence of Glück in lines like this one and in lines bookended by the same word, as in this one, from “Second Mother”: “his pitch, his call is his/waking.” Kindred makes this bookending her own by using it sparingly and in concert with other local tropes. Line, then, is another way the poet is able to create or relax tension or establish pacing. In other poems, Kindred chooses short sentences and largely end-stopped lines to make for an emotional effect, and she uses point of view to establish pacing, as in “My Body at Thirty is a Dark House”:
Old house, crowded with drooping stars,
keening under rainwater, where is your hard chair?
Weren’t there once wings in the glass?
I don’t know this place. The stairs green into night.
I’m staggering at the foot, waiting for my hands
to find pine knots coding for the door.
The speaker, here more Plathian than Glückian, uses short sentences to convey emptiness, flatness, while maintaining this poet’s characteristic odd, strong diction: “green into night,” “pine knots coding for the door,” where “knots” almost puns. The move from the external description to the speaker’s comment and then to the narration of her relationship with the internal landscape—“I don’t know this place”—shows the careful and effective pacing of the piece.
Compounding the effect of Kindred’s powerful image-sense is the accretive meaning of images as they occur in different contexts throughout the collection. Some images stay in the family poems—the blue china hen, the hose, the coffee cup, the porch—while others cross over between the midrash poems and the family poems—the apple, the garnets, the ark animals. All of these, of course, carry their other connotations with them when they travel. In the family poems the china hen appears first in “Vespiary,” where it symbolizes the suppressed anger of suburban mothers; then in the “Mary, Full of Grace” section of “Seven Sorrows,” where it becomes a vessel for a maternal suicide note; and finally in “Yearn,” where the speaker addresses it:
Blue china chicken
at the center, where is your shine?
Take this grief and feed it back to me,
dark burgundy taste of my mother’s soil and sleep.
The image of the garnets, important to the Noah story as the sole givers of (dim, barely adequate) light on the ark, appears again in “Our Liliths” in the “six years/of garnet defeat/in our mother’s womb.” From other poems and from inherent similarity, we associate the ark with the womb, and the correspondence compounds. The image appears in the collection’s final poem, “Mercy on Pecos Road”: “Here my garnet mother lightens and dries…” and we understand how this mother has been a sort of garnet, as we understand the image from the other poems, lighting the way just enough for the daughter to survive.
Kindred’s play with the Noah story gives her images and characters grounding, on one hand, and particularity—or multiple particularities—on the other. The resonances work multiply, and this multiplicity is powerful: Noah as survivor, Noah as drinker, “Noah” as the name of the contemporary speaker’s adopted son. The story is grueling, as a mistaken God destroys creation and then offers “gifts made out of sky.” The story is also one of which our culture can make a cute motif for crib linens, as the speaker’s baby receives. Through the poems we look hard at the “Animal Dark” of the Noah story, and by the end of the collection we are easily linking elements of the biblical story to elements of the family story. Indeed, the long poem “Seven Sorrows” overtly invites us to do so, weaving together as it does, section by section, the stories of biblical figures with the contemporary speaker’s story, all through the contemporary speaker’s voice. In late poems where the connections are less overt and the reader makes the associations, as in the “Noah’s Wife” poem, compounding images sing. It is here I marvel at Kindred’s technique, the skill with which she treats her vision in its wholeness and complexity.
Near the end of the collection, poems such as “Our Liliths” and “Seven Sorrows” begin to tell more directly the speaker’s emotions about her experience, to a degree that the speaker’s response, her inferences, become a feature of the end of the collection. For example, the speaker tells us in “Our Liliths” that the mother’s miscarriages are the “better-off daughters,” and while acknowledging that she “can’t climb all the way to seven” in “Seven Sorrows,” she tells us that “sorrow has mothered me from this day.” Some readers may recoil from the speaker’s direct expressions of anger and sadness, yet coming at the end of the collection, they both match the emotions of the midrash characters and read as fully human, as the consciousness of pain
comprises part of the human condition, and, indeed, makes pain meaningful. From the beginning, the speaker has lived the same difficult story, as we know from “In My Seventh Year, I Entered the Cathedral of the Blackbird’s Wing”:
. . . No mother
but I’d found her sleep:
of mercy and devastation. And I lay
down. I lay down.
This is, like many first books, a book of the wound; later, Kindred may write another book, but in this one, the wound is fresh, the poems’ emotions raw and keenly felt—though the craft, as I have described it, and the vision, which feels complete, make for an artistic rendering.
No Eden, while it ends on a note of mercy, is not a book about mercy. It is about a particular discovery—a set of particular discoveries, which both are and are not the same discovery—of the profound brokenness of the worlds the characters, and the reader, inhabit. It is a richly imagined and carefully woven assemblage of voices that grow more powerful through their associations with each other. Both individual poems and the overall structural composition allow for the vividness of the particular even as they allow the primary speaker’s story to open out into emotionally potent archetype.
Cherie Walsh has a MA in English from the University of Maryland and, having taught outside the university for 13 years, has returned to complete an MFA in poetry writing.