Beyond Baroque Books, 2019
106 pages, $18.00
Review by Alicia Elkort
There are poems that are meant to be read while enjoying a glass of chardonnay and there are poems that are meant to be read while breaking dishes. Then there are other poems that are meant to be climbed into, like boarded up windows into a deserted house with peeling paint and leading into an interior rife with ghosts. The poems in Carol Ellis’ book Lost and Local, published by the Pacific Coast Poetry Series, an imprint of Beyond Baroque, are poems to climb into. And the specters or shadows that are evoked in the reading of the poems represent a poetic voice that is sometimes Lost and sometimes Local, meaning what is evoked is a longing for something just out of reach, while also very clearly defining a sense of place that has been inhabited, whether it’s a closet with black clothes or an old house.
The poems in the collection are mostly non-narrative and some, like Russian dolls, are layered and complex. In order to enter the poem, I realized I had to take a different approach than I would when reading a narrative poem where the story carries the meaning. When I allowed the language to wash over me, allowed the meaning to arise from image and cadence, then the poems opened.
When I read the poem “Real Estate,” one particular passage reminded me of the mastery of Faulkner’s writing, especially the narrative voice in The Sound and the Fury. I read and re-read each line to peel back the layers and allow the language to direct me:
…she is who gets up in the midst and stands without decoration not even silver rings keep her fingers aloft and the grip of opposable things around the lid of a jar of cherry jam that will spread across toasted bread she knows that now as soon as the lid detaches and she sees the smooth ice rink top before spoon plunger and break surface upon this repetition of Eden all the way another house beginning in the middle of orchards.
This passage reads like a mystical experience rooted in detail. An ordinary woman “not even silver rings” opens a jar of jam and everything comes undone, detaches and yet, this is a wonderful experience that has as its center an orchard which is another whole world from the present moment. So, we have the woman opening a jar, the grace of her opposable thumbs allowing her to do so, but the poet doesn’t use the word opposable “thumbs,” she uses opposable “things,” from which we can infer thumbs, but for this woman even her body parts oppose each other. And that detachment is further elucidated in the lid that detaches, not the woman who detaches the lid. Then we are not the woman spreading the jam across the bread but rather the jam spreading itself across the toasted bread. Then we are back to the woman who identifies this moment as a moment that is repeated often, a moment that is a beginning, like Eden the genesis of which begins in an orchard filled with cherries. Except in this Eden lives a woman and a jar of jam, not a woman and man, not apples, but cherries. The phrase “another house beginning” for me conjures the visual of the house repeating itself as if viewed in a house of mirrors, making this moment, while extraordinary, at the same time routine, ad infinitum, leading the reader into a labyrinth of house and jam and orchards that cannot be escaped, trapped in Eden.
In this section, and indeed, in most of the poems, there is no continuity of voice, meaning the poetic voice does not confess or report in a linear fashion what is happening, and there is no continuity of body either, but rather what appears to be an ongoing stream of consciousness, image based, and a feeling tone falling in on itself. The stream of consciousness appears random, but I suggest that Ellis crafted each image meticulously until she had achieved the moment or the tone she was seeking to explore. If Ellis’ poems were paintings, they might be Cubist, parts of images overlayed over other parts of images, but still working together to evoke an overall vision or voice.
Many of the poems invoke an existential dread and see in the details of the outside world a reflection of an internal experience. In “Red Curtains,” the poet’s voice experiences a profound sadness but doesn’t report that sadness as a condition, rather appoints the sadness to the curtains falling from ceiling to floor, “heavier than blood,” and to the house, which is itself blue, double meaning intended I’m certain. And even more compelling is that we learn about this dread not by what it is, but by what it is not. It is not “blue sky and sun.” This is language mastery, the ability to use few words to land the reader right into the white-hot center of emotional drowning. I can see this moment as if it is a movie. I can feel this moment as if it is happening to me. And when I read the poem out loud, I can feel in the cadence and lineation the stinging suffering.
The red curtains fall from ceiling to floor.
They are heavier than blood.
Neither bright nor cheerful, they just are
as I am with my two dogs in this blue house
that is not blue sky and sun,
but could be water and drowning.
I am led into a depth of sadness for the trajectory of life in these poems, not because I judge what’s in a life, but because through reading the poems I come to understand that connection is something the voice of the poems is reaching for. Perhaps the collection represents only a part of the poet’s life, and we are looking into the room from only one angle, or one filter. Much like the photographs of Diane Arbus that show only one side of life, the Ellis “filter” presents this world and this idea of life. Ellis’ poems represent a world that no one else would see if she hadn’t transcribed her vision into these poems.
Because I was never in love enough
To pick ripe fruit off the branch
The mysterious way of being together
And not alone…
Heartbreaking and sad, but Ellis holds herself responsible, and at the same time characterizes love as a mystery. In the end, it seems she conveys this mystery as a matter-of-fact circumstance that is as close to reconciliation as possible.
Ellis’ mastery of word choice and juxtaposition of words is something to aspire to as a poet, as a writer, but what I especially like about Ellis’ poems is that they are exquisitely unsentimental. The poems do not wish life to be another way, only the way it is and what it is can be kind or harsh. Again, this is a process of reconciling, doing the work of looking at the hard truths of life. When what is, is harsh, the absence of sentiment leads to a brutal straightforwardness, as in the poem “The Red Suitcase:”
The body in the red suitcase only wanted to travel…
…instead she met a man who killed her
and left her by the side of the road
in a red suitcase a color learned from blood
drained from her folded body
her face where she packed sweaters
to be warm in winter had they never met.
In seven lines, I feel as if I have just watched a film noir movie, “Stranger on the Train” or “Psycho.” With the line “the body in the suitcase only wanted to travel,” an entire arc of story forms in my mind, a whole beginning to a movie. The fact that she is referred to as a body and not a person or a woman conveys how the murderer saw her. If I were an art director, these seven lines would inform how this movie would look. I need nothing more to showcase a life cut short, longing denied by a force not intended nor ever, ever imagined. The sheer terror of these seven lines has me both shuddering and applauding the exquisite use of image and lineation.
Most poems use structure to land an ending, to make a point. Ellis’ poems often defy that custom, and the ending instead opens the poem into another room, a room we didn’t realize we had been standing in. In the poem “Screaming Frogs,” as we begin to read the poem, the subject appears to be about visiting a childhood home. But the final stanza leaves the reader standing in what might even be a different house altogether, even though we’d been warned by the title.
Sissy MacLemore lives in the house
next door and took tadpoles home
by now they would be frogs
dead frogs just when I think
I can’t be surprised
one leaps in my head and screams.
A poem that at first appears as a walk down memory lane is really about how our childhoods haunt us, both literally and metaphorically. The narrator lives amongst ghosts. Again, the unsentimental portrait, the spare language, the removal of punctuation as if the past is a constant thread without interruption, not even the pause of a comma or a moment to rest in a period. Ellis switching verb tenses in these lines— first it is present tense, then past, then conditional, then back to present tense, further escalates the feeling of disorientation and terror.
Ellis’ poems run the gamut of the particular to the abstract, and yet in a collection of mostly hard-earned truths, there are also many moments of humor. This humor however, sometimes cloaks a deeper feeling of loss and poignancy, as in the poem “Current Condition:”
I watch a movie old enough to be my mother…
…Sometimes I take a pair of white gloves out
of a drawer and wear them around a few rooms—then take them
off—slide them back in the drawer—stare at them and the life
Are they her gloves? Her mother’s gloves? Her life, or her mother’s life that was promised? Ellis forces us to stay on this side of the reality, we do not move into fantasy or imagination of what that life is – she keeps us distinctly in the “real,” the “present,” and gives us the “facts” without sentiment. There is a fierce conviction to look closely and keep looking and to not look away.
Towards the end of the book, the poems reflect on what it means to age, the unreality of reality, meaning the impermanence of a life rich with so much detail that anchors and defines a person. The final poem in the collection perhaps intentionally ironic is called “First Line” and begins:
I forgot the first line—
I have three closets and one is filled with black clothes—the crying closet—
The poem ends with:
I miss her miss her and feel again that I lean against loneliness and wear an empty shirt—as someone readies to leave and I open the closet door to see the clothes and nothing else—nothing—the everything of nothing come again for birds and their inevitable flight.
“I lean against loneliness and wear an empty shirt…” Is the poet saying that she wears a shirt that belongs to someone else and is therefore empty or that even when she wears this shirt, she is empty? The line can be read either way, and is as stunning as it is heartbreaking. Ellis uses the word “nothing” three times in one sentence, concluding with “the everything of nothing.” Does she refer to a life that is so full and ultimately ends in an empty shirt? Is the poet asking us to face the void and come to grips with mortality? We do not know who the “her” is, but we don’t need to know. What we do know is that overwhelming feeling of loss that leads us to look in the closet where the clothes still hang or the clothes once hung, to try to resurrect a life, but there is nothing to do, the birds will take flight.
Ellis’ collection of poems is a book to hold close, a book to cherish in the extraordinary accomplishment of image and scene and form, while also celebrating the poems’ revelations and search for something to bring us home. I’ll end with the final lines of the poem “Thunder:”
…the reality of beauty is too quick to mention—easy to love—love uneasy around that older look I see in the mirror before I walk outside—search for gods.
Alicia Elkort’s first book of poetry, A Map of Every Undoing, was published in 2022 by Stillhouse Press with George Mason University. Her poetry has been nominated several times for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, and the Orison Anthology, and her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies. Alicia works as a Life Coach and resides in Santa Fe, NM where praise and clouds are part of her everyday experience.