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Review: To Waken Is To Begin

To Waken is to Begin
by Melanie Faith
Aldrich Press

The first poem in this debut collection opens with a bridesmaid’s dress, and in the next we imagine the size and promise of a fetus at eleven weeks. Melanie Faith’s book considers many rites of passage: weddings, pregnancy, a grandmother’s death, cancer. Faith also considers the natural world—wild carrot flowers, the image of a father chopping wood—but don’t let the quotidian subjects fool you; Faith is always aware of the darkness, especially the bittersweet peril in the lives of women. The color of that bridesmaids dress? Bone, which leads Faith to “lungs, liver, heart.” And that fetus? “A frothy egg and cell concoction / begotten.” In Faith’s world, nature is fickle and selfish, as in Meditation on the Upper Hand where an entire neighborhood watches their bird feeders “to break up the monotony”:

Nature will put up with
a bevy of crazy
for a little pretty.

For the most part Faith employs plain and unadorned language effectively, (although a couple of times I felt her dramatic word choice could be better served by a return to her more simple, and clear, poetic voice) as in Apology To My Mother’s Body: “fists forging collapsed arcs / bent on taking down before taking / out.” This same simple scrutiny makes At the Reception more than a poem about the wedding of a childhood friend, and transforms Missing from a slender poem about loss into a recognition of how our relationships, even those long over, make us strong:

The same
as if a bone breaks
in accident—a split
and mend, seemingly
not only tender
but stronger, we say,
for the fissure.

Faith’s lens works best when focused on the natural world, whether turned inside the female body, or through the window of memory, but the last four poems cement her larger point, in case we have missed it because we are too busy imagining the burning flames of a grandmother’s piano, or a second chance desert road trip where “Raymond and Ruthie are cupping the open desert /. . . each Spanish mission converting the fissure / between them to a smooth seam.” Faith turns outwards in the stunning Ten Ways of Considering Wallace Stevens’ Secretary, a look at the woman Stevens dictated his poems to at his job at the Hartford Insurance Company:

Did she realize as she pushed
e, p, q, r later on the manual
Underwood typewriter, that she was a conduit
to literary greatness or was he just
a slightly musty scent of cigarette
and unwashed aftershave, a banker’s style suit
who reminded her “plenty of girls
would be glad to take your job”
when she asked off early
for a class in beginner’s photography?

In the following nine sections, Faith considers the “woman behind the man” as a woman lost to history, but not lost to poetry, because she is “the channel of his every better thought.” And in the following three poems, Faith’s shifts to a mother that “knits and purls. . .secondary / skin to carry you home to waken.” On Composition refers to the banalities of the everyday made irrelevant by “holding your niece of three weeks– / this teeming thicket of life. . . .” Then flash cut to the final poem, Visitor, which is a love poem cloaked in nature metaphors full of ice-flow, seedlings, and sprouts, and ends with an address:

Awakener, at your own pacing, you call
the bird-speak, the cloud-fair, my own dear heart.

I had a teacher that once said no matter how cliché, it is the responsibility of every poet to write love poems. The title, along with the well-placed Neruda epigraph, prevents Visitor from being merely a love poem. And its placement as the final poem of the manuscript throws us outward. Nature isn’t the subject here, but the messenger. Living is the way we can make sense of the pain and loss and risk and fear, the way that beauty is right in front of us, even if we are too busy to notice, even if we are constantly torn into being, awake.