The Quilliad Reviews: Louder Than Everything You Love by Nicole Rollender

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 cover
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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Quilliad Reviews: Oregon Pacific by Nancy Slavin

imageSlavin’s collection is a tribute to the coastits histories, day-to-day dramas, and the power of the ocean. Nature is powerful here because of its adaptability, despite our interventions (and even invasions). Waves overwhelm the hapless road in “After the Storm”, while in “Landowner”, mold and mildew bloom in the speaker’s office. Our domination of nature is questioned, both its wisdom and its truth, and the relationship between the natural world and civilization is investigated throughout the collection. This relationship shifts many times, but it remains the focus.

Ultimately, nature mostly knows best in Oregon Pacific. In “Cape Meares Lake”, human industry is valuable in relation to its harmony with nature“I know you are man made / but some good has come of that”, while “Blues for the Birds” compares the complexities (and, it seems, foolishness) of human society with the straightforward instincts of birds. In “Cape Lookout”, as in many other pieces throughout the collection, nature is the setting for a spiritual quest. The speaker is in an in-between space, “[her] soul / again at that time of dusk where shadow meets shape”, her internal spiritual world mingling with the physical world, just as the civil connects with the natural. The speaker “walks the whole trail” in more ways than one, her “trial by fire” an emotional and spiritual journey as well as a walk amongst the trees, until “an ember of sun burns the tops of the evergreens [ . . . ] for that one brief joyous moment.” As occurs elsewhere in Oregon Pacific, this joy belongs to her and the natural world around her. Nature’s many incarnations are characters in themselves, often imbued with some level of pathetic fallacy, engaging in varying ways with the speaker’s emotions. Nature is a constant referent for the speaker, even when she is at odds with the natural rhythms of the world: “I am at the end of a cycle, / though it is summer, a world within me / dies.”

The collection is unified by its subject matter, with both formal and freeverse poems sitting side-by-side. Slavin moves mostly effortlessly between forms, though some rhymes are slightly singsong. This intense focus on the coast and the humannature relationship can sometimes make the poems within the collection blur together. Yet this strict attention, when combined with Slavin’s eye for details and the precision of her language, also renders the flora, fauna, and landscape within her poems whole and real with fresh images and loving specificity. One of my favourite pieces in the collection, “Communiqué“, offers this depiction of crows taking flight: “The flap of wings taps in one dark / hearbeat against the pale white sky until / the birds splinter apart, like buckshot spent / in all directions.” “Urchins” provides a similar level of insight into the space between land and sea: “Urchins, anemone, starfish, and mussels / at low ebb wait, exposed. Scarlet tendrils, / mouths chartreuse, clustered in colonies / bound together.” Overall, the reader is left with a strong sense of place and the intensity of the impression that the North Oregon coast has left on the poet.

Sarah