By Richard Nester
Charlotte Innes has dived into the wreck and returned to shore. I would say that she has brought back pearls but that suggests that there are pearls to be found. There aren’t always, a truth she is wise enough to know and delivers with an excellence that wins our attention. This is not to say that she has been unsuccessful, however. In one of the more remarkable poems of the book’s remarkable first section, “Seepage,” what she recovers is a “barnacle peace” a somewhat oxymoronic image that brilliantly sums up the central conundrum of survivorship, that healing requires revisiting. The poem deftly compares family events to natural ones and questions whether disasters in either realm can be overcome by the passage of time. The difficult answer to this question is no. An active agency is required in both cases and even then it may not succeed. In less skillful hands, the poem’s central conceit might have broken into pieces well ahead of this signal insight. But Innes does not fail us.
That she is conscious of these oppositions is clear. Witness the epigraph from Adrienne Rich attached to “My Silence” that holds that both words and silences are equally capable of lying. The poem recalls a sexual assault prevented only the intervention of a stranger, who is described as “tired,” a shadowy savior to say the least. But it does not begin with this recollection. The poem opens instead with a diary entry that startles Innes, not for what it says but for what it doesn’t say. Innes finds the entry, made when she was a young girl at summer camp, gratifying in that it confirms creative gifts that she is proud of. However, the entry, for all its lyrical notice of the natural world, is false because it is silent about the day’s most crucial event, the violation that threatened her and that she was lucky to escape from, at least physically. Whether we ever fully escape the past is the true subject of the poem.
That the self may never be the permanent or trustworthy mooring that we might wish for is the revelation of “My Silence,” and it is this revelation that guides the book as a whole. In fact, the self is as likely to hide in the familiar as it is to confront the painful. The book’s opening poem “The Moon in Theresienstadt” enacts this theme by means of a reversal characteristic of Innes, the ordinary becoming unfamiliar and even grotesque as the poet questions it. The poem tells us that “this week” the poet has produced seven poems in what she says is “a feverish rush” and asks, referring to the poems “where do they come from?” The answer that emerges from the juxtaposition of two moons, the one of “May 8” belonging to her ordinary life and the other of an earlier May in 1945 when her grandfather is liberated from the Nazi death camp at Theresienstadt, is that Innes’ poems arise from a compost of human suffering in which good and evil exist in terrible proximity.
She recounts in the opening stanza how the Nazis offer a masque of ordinary life—concerts and recipes and children’s paintings—to mask their crimes from civilized sight—theirs as well as ours. But the terrible always re-emerges. To read, as well as to create, is to participate, whether by choice or not. Her poems are a liberation, like the WWII “Liberation Day” experienced by her grandfather. They free us from what would be a more awful fate even than literal death, the cultural and communal death of not remembering. It is important to note how little Innes editorializes on why the Nazis permit the façade of ordinary life in the camps. My gloss editorializes far more than her poem. She reports instead, dwelling on how it was—not why it was—a stance that allows and encourages the reader’s psychic entry into her created space.
Assaultive change occurs again in “Death of a Carob,” a comic elegy for a beloved carob tree—beloved partly for its familiarity—cut down by the city because it is diseased. The tree is deeply missed but assumes a lyrical second life in the commemoration of its passing as its stump becomes a stage for the incongruous—a plaster bust of Beethoven and later an impromptu “arabesque” by a black-clad dancer. “Did someone pull a string,” she asks, and “flip joy my way,” proof for her that change can call forth joy as well as tragedy.
Innes’ individual lines are often small masterpieces. Consider the opening stanza of “Descanso Drive.” The rhythm of its stately opening sentence is like that of the neighborhood it introduces—easy iambs—that abruptly shift to a succession of trochees perfectly suited to their content “the speed limit’s shifted down from ten to five,” The deceleration is visceral. Moreover, the book’s title poem is elegant in its twists and turns. Like the street it honors, Descanso Drive, its surprises are doled out in carefully measured doses—the house that is often closer than one thinks, the woman and her dog, who seem like fixtures, until they’re suddenly gone. The tone, like the tone of “Kestral,” which immediately precedes it, is quiet, almost elegiac, and yet nothing is quite settled. Change, for better or worse, is always lurking.
Word play is a tool in this endeavor, and it is fully displayed in “Lashes,” another poem from the books consequential first third, where she calls attention to the similarity between “flesh” and “flush.” The poem’s poignant full title comes from another diary enter, this time the entry of a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. At times she comes dangerously close to mixing her metaphors in the first stanza of “Lashes” where the “mind” becomes “rain water,” the molecules of which turn into “guerillas.” However, these transformations are fine lines we walk with her, in a logic where permanence miraculously mixes with the provisional.
The Spanish poet Garcia Lorca spoke about the inadequacy of metaphor to touch the essence of experience, especially when the experience is laden with pathos. He says in one poem that “the blood ran into the street like . . . blood.” Innes employs Lorca’s understanding of metaphor and his caution many times in the course of Descanso Drive. In fact, one of her more persistent tropes is the undermining of her own tropes. However meticulously crafted her images, however expertly structured, her true subject is always the ineffable and the inarticulate, the tie between figurative and literal, joy and tragedy, the permanent and the provisional. Innes has an astonishing ability to arrest the mind, to not only capture our attention but also put it at rest, so that it willingly contemplates what it might otherwise find insignificant or unpleasant. Descanso Drive is well worth your attention.
Bio: Richard Nester has published two collections of poetry, Buffalo Laughter and Gunpowder Summers.