By Alexandria Ashford
Reviewed by Patricia Caspers
The Poetry Press, 2010
paper, 59 pp., $15
Alexandria Ashford’s book, Danke Schoen, her first, opens with two epigraphs presented as a call and response. First, W.S. Merwin: “I have only what I remember,” followed by Louise Glück’s response: “Hear me out: that which you call death/ I remember.” At face value, this introduction might lead the reader to suspect that the mostly narrative and autobiographical poems she is about to consume are weighted with the morose voice of a cynic whose tone serves to conflate these lines into the resulting: “I have only death.”
While the poems in the first section, as well as many throughout Danke Schoen, grapple with death, loss, and grief, it’s not with the voice of a resigned mourner, but rather of one who calls across the divide, as in the opening poem, “Elegy in Broken Stanzas”:
I’ll write as long as I can
of the broken slant in your nose; your love for sweet dirt,
as if to give you back to yourself . . . I
cannot cross with you. Help you dodge the snapperfish,
choose the shallowest pond. Instead, I choose a soft clean
voice in which to pray, listen to my love, thick with
fragrance cross the void.
In “Embryo,” Ashford writes, “The sky waxes green, pregnant with/ storm. Everything here is/subtext.” With “here,” Ashford geographically means Alabama, but also suggests the pages within Danke Schoen, where enjambment and well-considered line breaks allow for dual intention. For example, in the book’s title poem, “Danke Schoen,” the narrator speaks of her grandmother, who:
. . . told stories of Job and how
he lost it all but won because he put one foot in front
of the other and kept walking when he should have lost
his cotton-pickin’ mind.
And that subtext is where we find the alternate meaning of the opening epigraphs. When we dig deeper into “Wild Iris,” the poem from which Glück’s epigraphical line was borrowed, we find:
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice . . .
With a balance of honesty and beauty, Ashford gives a voice to those on either side of the void. The title poem itself is a kind of tight rope walk in which the speaker rails against the Wayne Newton song she used to sing with her grandmother:
We could not have known those foreign words meant . . .
Had I known, I would’ve told him: black girls aren’t
pretty, Wayne. But we sure know how to survive.
The speaker may be angry with Newton, but the author takes the song and turns it on its head, into the book’s title, and it’s fitting that a book with so much grief would be tempered by the title of a song with lyrics that say, Thanks for the memories. Goodbye.
Writing about loss is a balancing act for the most seasoned writers, and there are places where Ashford loses her footing, waxes sentimental, “What shall I say now that words do not suffice?” or relies on tired turns of phrase such as, “Cheshire smile” or “beaten path,” but those slips are inconsequential within the larger body of work, which also adeptly addresses racism: “At night you hang from the tree/outside my window, neck/snapped like a dandelion stem”; cultural appropriation, “When Etta sang the blues, white folks thought/We could finally do something right (though we still/ Belonged in the cotton fields)”; and gender politics, “Because the universe/ in all its green commodity and black/ ebony fire is still ours. Still breathes/ in our wombs, at our backs.”
Recently in literary circles there’s been a backlash against the old maxim that emerging writers should “write what they know.” Instead, writers are advised to write about obsessions, about what they want to know, which seems a polite way of admonishing writers to avoid the first person point of view. But for some writers, Ashford included, knowledge, memory (personal history), and obsession intersect, and the resulting art is evidence that the personal is still political, still necessary.
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Patricia Caspers is a genre-crossing writer whose poetry has appeared various journals, including The Comstock Review, The Broome Review, Slipstream, and The Adirondack Review. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Mills College and has worked as a reporter, columnist, and fiction editor. Find links to her work at Fish Head Soup.
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