Review of Still-Life With God by Cynthia Atkins

Cover of "Still Life With God" by Cynthia Atkins
Still-Life With God by Cynthia Atkins
Saint Julian Press, 2020
112 pages, $16.00, paperback
ISBN: 978-173023306


A review of Cynthia Atkins’ Still-Life With God

      “Only God,” a Revelatory Christian friend once assured me, “can fill the void.” We’d met in first grade, and while I’d always liked her, she was never a close friend, and we’ve not seen each other since graduating from high school, in the late ’70s, when neither she nor I would have touted an initial-capped god, about anything. Still, I remembered her fondly, and when we started messaging each other on Facebook, I grew very nostalgic, even sentimental, and liked what she said about the “void” well enough to compose a three-sonnet sequence from her idea. I like sonnets. I admire how they fit themselves into their form, resolve themselves in increments meted out in bits, and within those bits, measuring the amount of impression each line shall impart. It’s a challenge, writing sonnets. I often enjoy facing it.

      Cynthia Atkins’ new poetry collection, Still-Life With God, opens with a sonnet, “God Is a Wishing Well.” I recognized it as a sonnet just from looking, so before I began reading, I went about counting each of its fourteen lines’ syllables, while reading the last word of each, to hear if there was a rhyme, or even the slightest slant-rhyme, scheme. There wasn’t, no, but I found that all but the third, fifth, and ninth lines included ten syllables, pentameter, even given the tenth line, which reads

          I was I was I was I was I won’t

four repeated, first-person passive, past-tense iambs, with a somewhat more assertive future fifth, a negation. From this line, the sonnet looks as if up at a “pogrom comet,” which becomes a “burl” on the “night” and a “time bomb by a bed of frill roses,” the ‘em’ consonance triggering the ‘be,’ before gentling on the ‘are’ and ‘ell,’ sound piquing the poem into its sonnet turn. Except then, with the next line, where the sonnet ends,

          The shadow of my echo was a kite.

Ends, but aloft, soaring anew, and into the form’s resolution, no longer “lit-up,” like at the poem’s opening, and now taking to the sky, in sound seen, as a “shadow” of the self.

      Atkins’ language, its details, their imagery, read “lit-up” as “shadow” throughout this collection; here, at this opening, its verse as if silhouettes from the “parking lot of [its] heart,” the first line. The next four lines seem catalogue the title’s “well,” with “shiny pennies,” “bullets,” “false starts” from the “petals” which wherein “bones dwell” as if shaping wishes, so that by when its speaker “looked for answers in limp brochures,” the poem’s ninth line, I may, as its reader, believe that “life in a gun shell” is “trauma,” awaiting the something “foul” which will somehow trigger its bulleting. The “answers,” and how we might fly like our “kite” and so see them, can only be found from within: from what we desire and so seek; from what’s ‘parked in’ the “heart.” The sonnet doesn’t leave me believing God will make my wishes come true, but that I may shape faith from a trust in my heart, and so uplift with hope for what I desire, as good.

      Ten of this book’s poems are titled with “God Is,” followed by an object something, wherein there is “still-life,” and from wherein one may find some semblance of faith. Atkins’ each poem, its body, becomes its own vessel, as the sonnet will, the book seeming seek to answer our faith in the poetry, so as “still” have “life” in our hope. Our ‘hope,’ as faith, helps ‘life still’ keep going, that we are ‘still living’ our faith in that hope.

      Still-Life With God’s most striking element is surely the ten “God Is” poems, but its poems contain, as well, a great sense of absence, or maybe more a presence in the absence, like my friend’s “void.” It’s the sense, I think, of what we hope for, in living our ‘life still,’ the absence becomes the something into which we live our faith. This absence feels inherent throughout this collection, a presence in itself, with the “God Is” poems seemingly literally show how to fill that “void” with presence, a ‘life still.’

      This absent presence seems first noticeable in the book’s second poem, “Hello Stranger,” with its “voice inside a tin box” and in its speaker’s “lost mitten adrift,” and from then in the third poem, “Tree of Life,” in the “self” who is “lost along the way” of “unplanned townships”: it’s not that Atkins ‘finds God’ in these things, but rather comes to feel faith in them. Her poetry is way to see and so get by, the presence remaining, as if seen, throughout the first section, such as in the initial-capped ‘God’s Operator’ in the fifth poem, “Phone Booth,” who is shown as “eavesdropping on/the tarmac of speech”; or in how, in taking off in the opening section’s penultimate poem, “Imaginary Friends,” addressed to “you,” Atkins notes “the pain” that “remains after//the ache of rain,” an internal rhyming which lilts as it lolls off ‘your’ lips, one’s faith by now softening “the pain.”

      The second section opens into “God Is a Treasure Hunt,” which seems seek to find the absence shaped tangible, and so uncovers its second poem, “My Persona,” which begins

            I carried my persona

            in a brown paper bag. It held

            shreds of hat and one hair

            that the comb forgot.

The speaker’s self, the poem then says, “rhymes,” but does not show what with the self “rhymes.” It’s a presence that is so absent, the poem’s persona become what is “filled with/yearning.” Its each line sings a simple, declarative descriptor, as metaphor: shown as one thing instead of it “self,” like how on a “cold and starry night,” the persona gets “stoked sleek,” and right away “thrives on buyer’s/remorse and loss,” more internal rhyme, this time at a slant. The persona stands “naked,” always, yet “behind/the curtains where loneliness/dwells.” “My Persona” remains always like something like itself, until, “breathing,” the persona, or like the persona, “goes still.”

      Whenever “God Is” not the poem title’s vehicle, Atkins alludes back to the collection’s title, that there is ‘life still’ in the “still-life” each poem describes. Faith is behind everything, she seems to always want to allude, even when “God Is” not. It’s where we get to, at heart. At heart, it’s where we go. It’s like our desire, a need for finding hope, so as ‘live still,’ always.

In “Pillbox,” the third section’s second poem, this absence comes out of its own fragments. The piece opens

            O sister on the other side

            of the mirror, all sass and vinegar.

            Galaxy of lace and petticoats

            and pretty things swept under

The poem is not all fragments, but each image is predicated on the poem’s ending, in the “grittiest/neighborhoods,” and with “lonely hoodlums” who “count the jewels into your sorrow.” We absence into our “sorrow,” Atkins seems to say, filling my friend’s “void” with ‘life still,’ and the stuff into which we fill our ‘pillboxes.’

      The book’s absences also come of the sensory, as in “Olfactory Ballad,” wherein memory is sung from scent, how the speaker declares

            My favorite sound is silence.

            My favorite smell is sex after hugging

            legs tight around the hips of a man

                  that knows my flaws

            and loves me anyway.

Absence comes into even such “favorite” things, in how there is ‘life still,’ even if in what we only sense. Our heart desires those “favorite” things, allowing us hope, its absence about which ‘life still’ remains, as faith.

      A “God Is” poem opens each of the book’s first three sections, while its fourth begins with “Proba Vitae,” an examination of one’s life. This last section instead ends with “God Is,” this time as “the Myth,” meaning what we are left with, in our end, an apt metaphor for how all the collection has brought together a “still-life” with what’s not there, such as in the book’s last line,

                                          A thunderclap

                        to light the wholly and fearless Interior.

We are this poem’s “civil anguish,” its initial-capped “Interior” in the end “sheepish,” saddened by “one more hangnail of grief.” We ‘stand sedate’ and “donning a terrible scent,” while the “gods” sit on high, “lactating in stone.” We each become our own “myth,” a tale into which we have grown, in our faith, the hope we choose to heed through to our end, and in its, our telling.

      A “God Is” poem is also the book’s penultimate piece, this time the god being a “butter dish.” The “Goddess in Purple Rain” precedes that, with “Before the Lies” ahead of her. “When God Is a Bullet” goes before this, its titular preposition changing its intent, when ‘life’ is ‘still’ contingent upon an opening’s “middle finger” wave, back at the “blood” and “scar of the battle” that “life” still remains, even amid the “shame” and “self-loathing” accrued of the “saddest crime,” committed “Before the Lies,” the next poem. “He Said, She Said, They Said” is the sixth from last piece, “still-life,” but now “with” hearsay and, from before that, when “God Is a Shock Jock,” which begins the book’s ‘falling action’ toward its end. A ‘tracing back’ is seen, reflected of a kind of awareness, a truth that is, in the end, that myth we have lived, in getting here. We look back in these final-section poems. We come to our own truths, by what our looking back perceives. And as we see with the “Goddess” poem, that truth changes with our life’s changing, and so becomes displacement, our absence as loss.

      The “Goddess in Purple Rain” primps herself, at a laundromat, into Prince’s “Purple Rain,” years after she and so many women lived the Reagan generation’s iconic album and hallmark song. The poem’s details image its perspective as wishes, a kind of hope foregone, and in which one must “listen to the sky imploring,” for how a body can both ‘love’ in “remorse” when that other, the absence, transcends to a “rock star we can never own,” but who incites a “humming inside her,” her body’s “abyss/of [its] alone.”

      Yet the poem does “still” take place in a laundromat, its persona swaying while she folds her clothes. This woman, now a mother, reflects upon when she felt herself to be a “Goddess,” ‘sweaty’ with a boy, dancing at a Prince concert. Women as if deify in our culture, not for domestic deeds, or for maternity, or into their maturity, nor even especially for the wit needed to compose such a poem as this, let alone a collection of poems. Women, rather, and sadly, achieve “Goddess” for their beauty. For the sexiness which comes out from her beauty, as only in such a song may a woman feel so beautiful.

      Except then the song passes into memory, nostalgia, as does her beauty fade, and so absences. Its memory, in its mere notice, seems now resurrected in adulation, as if leaving her singing “lullabies to the young,” whose “Goddess” beauty shall pass too. Prince helped her feel her own Goddesshood, even if only ‘owned’ for its ‘life still’ of the song, and so now only in memory, as faith.

      Atkins inverts, through her book’s pacing and throughout this closing section, how life progresses: whereas we all need faith to start each new beginning, we need it even more as ‘life’ fades toward its end, into that “void” my friend promised that “only God” fills. It’s a great promise, this book’s poems make. It’s a lot to hope for, our reaching to wherever we’ve come, “still” alive; “still” saying what we need to whom, still believing in what we need to believe, in order to keep going.

      Into that light, both that which “God Is,” and that which is felt as if in absence.

      And maybe “God Is” present too, “still” alive too, in absence; “still” a “life” we hope for and hold on to, with faith.

      In Still-Life With God, we may fill that faith with a poetry that helps keep us present.

Finding faith and solace amid the pandemic in poetry and Celtic music, Ray Marsocci reflects daily upon his own work, of which he has published his poetry and prose in a variety of literary venues, such as Green Mountains Review, La Fusta, Descant, and the very last issue of River City before it became The Pinch.