(Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2019)
Kelly Cherry writes with a cosmic consciousness in her newest poetry collection, Observing the Invisible (Louisiana State University Press, 2019). Divided into four sections, these poems explore space, nature, science, philosophy, music, and memory. Poetic form is tightly-controlled, but ventures back and forth between narrative and lyrical sensibilities. In this collection, images hold weight, as well as meditative moments that allow room for introspection and emotion to take root simultaneously. A former Poet Laureate of Virginia, Cherry’s poetry constructs a reality that is both rational and surreal as it explores spirituality and the natural world, giving voice to a variety of intellectual figures and concepts, but also includes the personal. In this cosmic landscape, “The universe is in no hurry; it has / all the time in the world,” and “stars of every magnitude…bloom / hot red or fervent orange.” Greek mythology and religion both play central roles within the poems, as well as the imagination. Here, the Horsehead Nebula “rears up / from the black cloud” and “carries the universe on her back.” The speaker is also present as she recounts memories of childhood and family members, and intimately confesses: “When I remember you, the earth turns over.”
One of the masterful poems of the collection, “Everything Lifted Off from the Earth,” is surrealistic and rich with imagery. Here are the first two stanzas:
Everything lifted off from the earth.
Trees rose into the clouds, their roots trailing like bridal trains.
Buildings drifted starward.
A stampede of palominos flashed across the sky.
Then the people let go of whatever had held them back
and rose up, some slowly, some faster,
so that it was not unusual to pass or be passed by a friend or enemy,
but conversation confined itself to pleasantries.
What works so well in these first two stanzas is the harmonic tension between nature and the cosmos. In the first stanza, “earth,” “trees,” “clouds,” “roots,” “palominos” and “sky” are specific nature images. Additionally, “buildings” and “bridal trains” are manmade, but operate on the same plane as the nature images. All these images are paired with cosmic actions. “Lifted,” “Rose,” “trailing,” “drifted,” “starward,” and “flashed” set these nature/manmade objects into motion, causing them to become supernatural. In the second stanza, people are the main subject as they “let go of whatever had held them back” and only make light conversation. In a sense, being lifted from the earth becomes a liberating experience. “Friend” and “enemy” are given the same sense of weightlessness; there is no rush; there is no panic. Like the nature objects, people are being absorbed into a greater cosmic experience. In the last two stanzas, the scene enlarges:
The planet itself moved off its orbit, and many were afraid
that it might roll after them and knock them down like
but it dropped away in the opposite direction, becoming even smaller,
a tumbleweed, a softball,
and the people kept leapfrogging into space
as if they were headed for heaven.
The earth becomes a “planet” and “people” are now “many” as they experience fear that the planet “might roll after them and knock them down like / bowling pins.” The central image of this stanza is the planet as a bowling ball and the “many” take on the form of bowling pins. And yet, the planet does not knock them over; it moves away from them and is represented by new images that are less intimidating: “a tumbleweed,” “a softball.” Once the threat of the planet has disappeared, “many” become “the people” again, and their humanity is restored. One solitary action, “leapfrogging into space” occupies the ending couplet as well as the word “heaven.” This poem is exceptional for the way it moves from one surrealistic moment to the next, for its shifting images, and how people encounter the cosmic as spiritual freedom.
Memory is a major theme of the collection, and serves as a vehicle for the personal as it is threaded throughout the poems. “Memories” is worth discussing for the way it personifies the subject. It is a short, lyrical poem, and here it is in its entirety:
They come, they go,
leaving behind a trail
of blue smoke, blue
because they are often sad,
smoke, because that’s what
they do, lounging against store fronts,
waiting for you to remember
to pick them up.
And when you do
they hop into the back seat,
saying Drive faster, or
Let’s stop by Miranda’s house,
do you remember her?
Aside from the plainspoken, lyrical strengths of the poem, there is the sharp image of memories “leaving behind a trail / of blue smoke” which is specific and alluring. Although the speaker never gives the memories physical attributes, they are associated with actions: “lounging against store fronts,” “waiting for you to remember,” “hop into the back seat.” However, the most important action the memories take on involve verbal communication. This short poem packs an emotional punch at the end when the memories tell the speaker to “Driver faster” and “Let’s stop by Miranda’s house, / do you remember her?” The last two lines are especially poignant, as they refer to a specific person. For readers, Miranda becomes a metaphor for any long-forgotten person, and in this poem, one fused with deep emotion. The question: “do you remember her?” holds immense weight as it reflects back on the reader, resulting in the summoning up of buried memories and the emotions that go along with them. “Memories” is a wonderful example of how compression, image, and emotion can function in powerful ways through a simple lyrical moment, creating a space for readers to contemplate their own personal memories.
“Regarding Clouds” is another short poem that uses compression and image to wonderful effect. The poem only includes a few images but pairs them with cyclical/spiritual thinking in ways that are quite moving. Here is the poem:
Bacteria and fungi fly
upward, seeding clouds.
Not all clouds, but some.
And then the clouds precipitate,
bacteria and fungi falling
down to earth.
A simple explanation for
the birth and death of clouds,
the rise and fall of clouds,
the being and nonbeing of clouds,
those irrepressible bacteria,
those wily fungi.
The beauty of this poem lies in the magic of its minimalist qualities. The focus of the poem involves three images: bacteria, fungi, and clouds. However, in the second stanza, deeper thought is introduced: “the birth and death of clouds, / the rise and fall of clouds / the being and nonbeing of clouds.” Here, “birth and death,” “rise and fall” and “being and nonbeing” are three different ways of describing the life cycle of clouds. These lines represent all-inclusive spiritual thinking that allows for multiple existences to take place simultaneously. Additionally, “bacteria” and “fungi” are credited as being an active force within nature, assisting in the creation/decomposition/reincarnation of clouds. The speaker gives these minute beings a central space in the poem and regards them as “irrepressible” and “wily;” they are valuable and important agents in the realms of nature and spirituality. “Regarding Clouds” is a strong poem because of the humble, inclusive sensibilities it inhabits among the more complex poems; it gives balance to the book as a whole.
Kelly Cherry’s Observing the Invisible is a great collection for readers who are interested in the vast range of possibilities that present themselves within a cosmic understanding of the world. The poems are short, but often include scientific/philosophical ideas that add density to the work. These ideas also exist along with spiritual themes to create a more complete picture of what it means to live in a universe where multiple concepts coexist harmonically. And yet, the book encapsulates a singular, personal tone. The speaker is the true central force, making note of the various threads that weave together to create the larger cosmic tapestry of space, nature, time, and personal experience, proclaiming: “The words are here, too, / but less apparent. / I must look for them / by daylight or lamplight, / stay put, observe.”
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Andrea Syzdek received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Houston in 2017 and she currently lives in Hockley, Texas. Twitter: @andrea_syzdek Website: andreasyzdek.com.