This must be what love is:
a shining blade so exquisitely cut that after my throat is slit,
I still sing.
“On a Board Hewn for a Body”
Nicole Rollender‘s first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, published by ELJ Editions, is a beautiful and brutal book that explores love, sex, birth, death, and womanhood. A kind of tender violence pervades the text; filled with harsh truths, these intense and eloquent poems nevertheless serve to remind us not only of our mortality but of the precious nature of what little life we have:
You, the living
mother, shake salt from the table cloth, teach your
child to nest where it’s warm, tell your dead to head
toward whatever window is full of light.
“How to Talk to Your Dead Mother”
Women’s lives are often the focus in Louder Than Everything You Love. They experience the wonder of life growing within them, as the speaker details in “Psalm to Be Read While My Daughter Sleeps”: “how beautiful that she touched the inside of my uterus: / floated there, her jawbone, torso, skin, hand, hand forming”. They also know the many ways in which they will be used and expected to hold themselves back because of their sex: “women are told to diminish” (Fasting”). And yet, these women find release and voice and power: in good food, in poetry, in the connections between generations. And though they pass on, something continues; Rollender traces a matrilineal line through the speaker’s/speakers’ veins:
She’s learning what dead women / do: swim the blood of their daughters
[ . . . ]
She tiptoes up my spine in her / old slippers, knocking on every vertebra she sees.
“The Light Makes My Grandmother Cry”
Rollender’s collection explores death at length; the speaker and the reader feel it just under the surface of life. In “Prayer, as Ghost,” the speaker states, “Everything is the ghost of something else.” The past echoes; the present whispers of what came before and what will be (and what will cease to be). The speaker doesn’t only speak of the deaths of others; she is surrounded by her own memento mori: “my own ghost singing in my throat, turning its hourglass of snow.” (“Even the Living Can Haunt”) She acknowledges and confronts this reality throughout the text: “in cemeteries I ask how to die well: to part kindly with the women I’ll never become” (“Equinox”)
Despite speaking of hauntings, the speaker’s sense of death is made of flesh. This is no effervescent, ethereal retreat from the world. This is the haunting of veins, ghosts in the genes, a matrilineal legacy of peasant soup, not wispy spirit. The presence of the dead is embodied in those who share their blood. Despite speaking about a concept as abstract as death, the speaker provides concrete images: bones, birds, meals made by past women. Death’s physicality serves to remind us that it isn’t a bogeyman; it is a real loss we will all experience, again and again. Yet, far from being a hopeless tale, Louder Than Everything You Love gives us a speaker who feels life all the more keenly for thinking of its end. Many of her musings center not only around past generations but also her daughter, her line’s future.
The collection’s poems sometimes repeat themselves with similar ideas or images, but no poem truly stands out as redundant. The reader gets the sense that the speaker is rehashing ideas and dwelling on images to delve deeper and explore further rather than just repeat herself. And after all, don’t we all come back to thoughts of loss and meaning and connection, over and over, trying to eke out enough to sustain us?
Louder Than Everything You Love is unrelenting, both in its confrontation of our inevitable pain and death and its urging toward life. There is deep compassion within the raw lines of Rollender’s poems. Every poem seems to contain some line that resonates, with beauty and horror and honesty. This book tells us about our grief, not just the grief of the speaker, and it tells us about our love, too, which haunts and comforts us despite its inability to keep us safe.