Friday, August 8, 2008

The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart

Gabrielle Calvocoressi's first book is marvelous--I just want to get that out of the way right at the beginning. That she is a friend of mine has nothing to do with it. It would be a terrific book even if it were written by my arch-nemesis, whoever that happens to be.

From the very first poem, "Pastoral," Calvocoressi lets the reader know that she's going to blur the lines between storytelling and poetry, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the first word of the poem is "We." Calvocoressi not only invites her readers to join her in this world, she demands our attention, and envelops us in language. With the closing line of this prose poem, "We have never wanted anything but this," she tells us that even though the world she describes is filled with ugliness, it's still the world we want, that there is something worth having in it.

Much of her book is taken up by 4 long poems--the title poem, a sonnet sequence titled "Circus Fire, 1944," "From the Adult Drive-In," and "The Death of Towns." The first two deal with historical events--the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and the Hartford Circus Fire, one of the worst fire disasters of the 20th century, and they're structured in similar ways--each section is a narrative from a different individual's point of view, and the individuals have varying distances from the subject matter.

For instance, in "The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart," poems are written in the voices of "Clem Sanders, bystander" and "Diane McGinty, St. Mary's Home for Wayward Girls," as well as "David Putnam, stepson" and "George Putnam, husband." The result is a picture of not only Amelia Earhart the individual, but of the public figure. We see her through the eyes of the starstruck, in the hopes and dreams of young women who saw her achievements as a metaphor for their own situations, as well as those who saw her as a false hope. From "Joel Sullivan, miner."
Amelia Earhart is a dream

my daughter won't give up.
Sometimes I want to shake her,
tell her what small towns are,

how the coal dust coats your skin
till darkness never leaves you
Small town life is a large part of the metaphor of this book, but the poems rarely slip into the tradition hinted at by the first poem's title, "Pastoral." These towns are touched by tragedy, by powers beyond the control of everyday people, whether it's the circus fire or the disappearance of a celebrity or the birth defects caused by the pollution of a local factory in "The Death of Towns."
You never saw one alive.
They just littered the shore,
fist-sized, finless, no real shape.
You'd wonder how they lived so long,
got so big. Some didn't have eyes
and others wore their organs
on the outside, bee-sized heart
peeking through and once a tongue
like a lick of hair. They were still
there after they shut the bell-works down,
after the waters started to clear.
There's great pain in this book, wrapped in lovely formal verse, and the juxtaposition of the two is sometimes difficult to bear. But it's worth the effort.

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