Dante Di Stefano
Beginning in Devotion: Four First Books
Mosaic of the Dark
Black Lawrence Press, 2018
Marvels of the Invisible
Tupelo Press, 2017
The Book of Awe
Susan O’Dell Underwood
Iris Press, 2018
53 Press, 2017
A debut full-length poetry collection tends toward the desultory, compressing years of effort into a single slim volume. Oftentimes, a first book’s charm rests in its uneven vibrancy, the promise of a radiance flickering from the sconces, the pirouettes sprung from its minor missteps. Sometimes, however, the poetry in a first book leaps fully formed like Athena from Hera’s (no, not Zeus’s) head. In any case, a first book, like any beginning, is something to celebrate. Debut collections by Bellevue Literary Review contributors Lisa Dordal, Jenny Molberg, Susan O’Dell Underwood, and Maura Way will leave their readers with much to praise; these four poets unravel the countless silken ties of grief and affection that bind self to world, while meditating on the interstices in our lives where awe meets experience and where one might eke a song from a prayer.
Lisa Dordal’s Mosaic of the Dark uses the appurtenances of Christianity as a backdrop against which she might examine her coming-of-age, her mother’s life, and the homophobia that circumscribed both. Dordal’s poetry reminds one of Adélia Prado’s in its earthy mysticism and in its wildly exuberant diction. Dordal is a poet who dreams “of atoms, / the gratuitous soul.” Mosaic in the Dark is at its best in the poems built from swift splintery couplets, such as the poem “Falling”:
Beyond the boundaries of wall and frame,
the rooms in which I live
pass holy into cell, sinew, and vein,
changing me with dark, abundant breath,
the way church bread changes some.
A rage at bombs and the odor of death,
Or snow geese, lovely, coming out
from every page.
Here, as everywhere else in Mosaic, Dordal’s finely calibrated rhythms skitter along the brink of an endless abyss while holding forth an undaunted belief in the transformative power of a singing self.
If Dordal’s poetry rises from the dark, Jenny Molberg’s derives its strength from an opposite imperative. Marvels of the Invisible favors descent, gains momentum from plumbing the depths. Tropes of the submerged and the unseen vertebrae this collection: the biblical Jonah in Leviathan’s stomach, Bathsheba pregnant and swallowed up with grief, a printout of a woman’s EEG shuttling through space in the Voyager probe, artifacts buried in the dirt, caterpillars in their chrysalises, the many shells of a matryoshka doll. Molberg employs an impressive array of formal choices, subjects, and personae throughout Marvels. As the speaker of “Chrysalis” notes: “I have been a child, a lake, a glacier, / glacial pool, woman, river of woman, / another woman, an older one.” Molberg’s ambitious thematic and aesthetic multiplicity surely presage an impressive body of work to come.
Susan O’Dell Underwood’s The Book of Awe thrives, in contrast to Molberg’s collection, on a reassuring aesthetic and thematic uniformity. Underwood tightly structures the book, dividing it into three sections (“Poiesis,” “Gnosis,” “Aphesis”) and an epilogue. All the poems have one-word titles, indicative of the spirituality underwriting the collection as a whole: “Sanctified,” “Revelation,” “Psalm,” “Transubstantiation,” “Hope,” “Apocalypse,” and so on. Sometimes the poem serves to define the title (as in “Transubstantiation”), at other times the connection is more oblique and fraught (as in “Confession”); most of the poems examine the sacred through the natural world. The first stanza of “Magnificat” exemplifies Underwood’s project throughout The Book of Awe:
How the forest magnifies your soul,
the way the forest is magnified by the creek,
and the creek magnified by ten thousand fevered salmon.
Mothers-to-be, each and every handmaiden
gives herself, willful
with the greater will that pushes forward
into the muscling water.
The artful spiraling dilation of ideas in this stanza is characteristic of the entire book. Underwood’s poems begin in quietude and end in a tongue of flame dancing overhead.
Maura Way’s Another Bungalow makes no pretense to quietude; Way’s collection greets the malocclusions of contemporary American life with a saucy irreverence. Another Bungalow darts between subjects drawn from her childhood in Washington DC and her life as a school teacher in the South. Way draws equal inspiration from Netflix documentaries and memories of her Catholic upbringing. The barbed voice that emerges throughout Another Bungalow chafes at the “subway schoolmarms” and the “wild-haired sad sacks” that populate the backwaters of empire, gleefully submitting to professional development and cluelessly walking their dogs; Way deepens her critique by positioning herself as both schoolmarm and sad sack, and in so doing, exposes the gentle absurdity of white privilege stitching cul-de-sac to side street all across this great land. Much of the poetry in Another Bungalow straddles the line between apathy and rage, or as Way puts it at the end of her prose poem “Effete”: “Just look at what’s happening now. Plus, everyone keeps passing me by. It’s nice to wave. There: I feel better. It’s a parade! As I get older, I’ll bring a lawn chair and a red-white-and-blue afghan.” Way’s poems risk something that much of contemporary American poetry neglects: humor. What better rejoinder to the smirking aspects of our current political moment than a liberal belly-laugh? Although Way doesn’t quite deliver that, Another Bungalow is refreshing, big-hearted, and full of joy.
Reading these four first books, and rereading them during the week Mary Oliver died, I found myself thinking of the famous lines from her poem, “When Death Comes”:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
Maura Way, Susan O’Dell Underwood, Jenny Molberg, and Lisa Dordal write the kind of poems that wed their readers to amazement. Reading these four poets reminded me that a poet’s job is to be more than a mere visitor on this earth; it is to say, over and over again, as Adélia Prado did: “I love you, I love you, I love you, / sad as you are, O world.”