Review of In the Cosmic Fugue by Jocelyn Heath

Cover of In the Cosmic Fugue: background is dark blue with blurry stars in a circular pattern; title is in an arc and the author's name appears below in a half circle.

In the Cosmic Fugue by Jocelyn Heath

Kelsay Books, 2022

88 pages, $20.00

Review by Alison Stone

The Hubble and James Webb telescope have brought the heavens close, granting us close-up images of galaxies and swirling light. In the aptly-titled In the Cosmic Fugue, Jocelyn Heath does this with words. Space is both the backdrop and a character in these poems, offering its imagery and wider horizons to speakers hemmed in by suburban hierarchies and rules. It is these speakers, dealing with misogyny, body-shaming, sexuality, and, finally, self-acceptance, that are the true subjects of Heath’s work.

“Meteors are sugar,” the book begins (“Out of Chaos”), and images of sweetness and eating recur throughout, the draw of what tastes good contrasted with the shame placed upon female bodies larger than the beauty standard. “Inner Ring” will resonate for anyone who’s struggled with yearning for, and exclusion from, the middle school or high school popular crowd. Trying to woo the clique’s leader, the speaker sends her “apple cake spangled/with sugar.” The girl accepts the gift but gives nothing back. “The plate returns/not even crumbs.” In a later poem,  “That Other Girl,” the speaker admires “That Other Girl” from afar, who “has hips the width of a story book” and “sits in my orbit if I take a wide loop/ doesn’t know I am her satellite.”

“Outer Edges” depicts childhood games already tinged with predation and danger, the danger of either being desired or being ignored. The poem’s last section begins:

Girl in the field.
Girl at the borders
of the game:

boys chasing girls,
catching braids, shirts
whole bodies

in their swinging arms,
lips pressed quick
to whatever they can reach.

and ends “She is rarely chased./She knows what that means.”

Suburban culture, at least during the speaker’s childhood, is stifling and rule-bound. “Cul-de-Sac Rules” begins, “Being a girl means dolls in the home/made under the picnic table” yet what begins as a story of a girl doing what’s expected changes by later stanzas to a girl sneaking out with a friend and discovering, though at that point trying to deny, her sexual orientation. There’s no room in suburbia for this emerging self.

The imagery of space allows Heath’s speaker(s) to struggle with and assert an idea of a self that she herself defines. In “Self-Portrait as a Gas Giant” she confronts cultural fat phobia, “big is bad,” while in “Veiled Planet” lets the reader know that she has more to offer than what can be seen, aligning herself with the planet Venus, who hides “its red rock heart” and concluding, “We only think we know it.” Later in the collection, “Self-Portrait as a Black Hole” continues with this theme, the speaker declaring that she won’t be “magnified/ x-rayed, mapped, known by” the reader or anyone else.

While space offers inspiration for self-definition, it is the natural world of Earth that provides the speaker support for her journey into sexual self-acceptance. “Letter Home” is an epistle to her mother explaining her process of self-awareness:

It came to me on the branch of that tree:

first verse of a song I had no theory to write,
no chords to rise and resolve from the lyrics
I fought against singing.

Queer hushed the trees.
Queer hummed the wind.

In later poems, the speaker has embraced her sexuality. In the beautifully-sensual “The Girl with Violets in Her Lap,” she asserts, “I knew the basket of her fingers/ the violet glow” and later stands up to Sappho herself:  “I knew her, Sappho,/before I found your fragments –“. This poem, one of the strongest in the collection, ends with the speaker both breaking grammar rules and keeping private details to herself.  While the missing lines in Sappho are the result of loss, Heath chooses to emulate this as a poetic device, ending, “until flowers fluttered off the page,/ and then you—“

In the Cosmic Fugue takes on both heaven and earth, with Jocelyn Heath pulling the language and imagery she needs from each to discover and voice to a self who claims her sexuality and her power. “In “Self-Portrait as Supernova,” the speaker realizes, “Maybe rubble isn’t so bad, as/ long as all my pieces/keep shining…” while in “Gaia,” she explores the beauty of her own body: “I bend and reach into my own Earth/ … pull my hand up shining.” Seen and depicted through Heath’s lens, both realms are suffused with light that illuminates and celebrates an awakening self.

Alison Stone in her office. There is a bookcase to the left side of her and a white wall to the right. Alison has one hand under her chin and is smiling. Her face is turned slightly to the side. She has pale skin, reddish-brown hair, and light  blue eyes. She is wearing a dark blue shirt. The photograph cuts off just below her shoulders.

Alison Stone has published eight full-length collections and three chapbooks, most recently To See What Rises (CW Books, 2023)). She was awarded Poetry’s Frederick Bock Prize and New York Quarterly’s Madeline Sadin award. A licensed psychotherapist, she is also a visual artist and the creator of The Stone Tarot.

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