Monday, October 01, 2007

Inside Light by Deborah DeNicola

Eleanor Goodman is a new reviewer for the Ibbetson Update. She has an M.F.A. from Boston University. She is also a member of the "Bagel Bards," and teacher at Grub Street in Boston.

Inside Light
by Deborah DeNicola
Finishing Line Press

Art and religion are inextricably intertwined. Poets as diverse as Czeslaw Milosz, Wang Wei, and the Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi have attempted to express the inexpressible in their work. In her short collection of poems titled “Inside Light”, Deborah DeNicola makes a lively foray into this tradition.

The poems, twenty-seven in all, are unified by the common themes of Christianity, family, ekphrasis, and ecstatic experience. DeNicola retells some of the familiar biblical stories from new perspectives, and manages to enliven this well-trodden territory. In “John Baptizing Jesus”, the tone is of feverish discovery: “They say he lived on wild honey and the long torsos / of locusts, that he dressed in fetid camel pelts / and rags, and that he ranted / as if he had a finger in a messianic / socket”.

This intensity of language serves DeNicola well throughout the book, as does her ability to combine the ancient with the modern – bathtubs with higher beings, molecules with “notes of Gregorian chant”. This grounding in the everyday saves the poems from being overly esoteric, although fortunately DeNicola also allows herself moments of true revelation. In “Last Judgment”, she writes of “those reliquaries deep in the solar plexus, / dousing the fiery fields where fear is eaten whole by risk.” Religious experience speaks to fear, and to fire, and to the sense that the physical body is both intrinsic and vulnerable to the heat. It is an impressive feat that this sense of peril is captured in nearly every poem in the collection.
Vivid detail and creative juxtaposition are also among many DeNicola’s strengths. In “Magdalen”, she writes of “The Sorceress of Magdala, I knew / the patterns of imbalance / which horn beam cured. / Tranquility induced by larch and beech. / Stirring palliatives of aspen and clematis / in a slow boil of weeds, I mixed elixirs for dropsy / and warts.” The consonances running through these lines demonstrate a fine ear for the music of language.

Some of the most touching poems deal with family. In “Mother Incarnate”, DeNicola explores the issues involved in coping with an aging parent with unusual sensitivity and depth. “Proud mother who says outloud nonetheless, / she’s aware of her mind’s decay.” It takes a poet – such a painful profession! – to see in one’s mother “the visible skull behind her smile”.

The lesson to take out of this collection, aside from simply admiring the talent and effort of honesty it took to write it, is expressed in the very first poem, “The Bath Tub Is Optional”. DeNicola writes: “The busyness of quietude, / the eventually banished will, / waftage of oxygen / pouring through pores, new atoms magnetized / till your chanting stills, though the spooks / warbling through your throat rewire you / completely, so you’ll cry at nothing at all / because everything matters.”

Eleanor Goodman

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