Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review of Felicia Mitchell's "The Cleft of the Rock"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
The Cleft of the Rock, Poems by Felicia Mitchell
Finishing Line Press, 2009, 24 pages
ISBN: 9781599244310

I love the first poem of Felicia Mitchell’s new chapbook of poems The Cleft of the Rock. “Alley” is an existential manifesto that essentially states, “I go; therefore I am.” It is a poem about temptation and embracing experience related from a childlike perspective that cannot help but remind the reader of Eve:

. . . the branch of a fig
grew through a fence,
its fruit gnarled like a gnomish thumb beckoning me:
. . . .
So I went.
. . . . . . . . . .
I went closer to the tree,
close enough to touch its leaves, its fruit,
. . . . . . . . . .
I played until my hands were filthy.

This is not just Eve in the garden, but the Eve inside us all, an Eve needing no serpent but only the fruit, only the tree, whether the tree is knowledge, experience, or life, an Eve who, far from regretting her submission to temptation, relishes it.

This same defiant embrace of life is repeated in other poems and becomes the emotional and intellectual center of the entire collection. We see it again, and once more expressed through a sort of mythic revision, in the title poem, a dramatic monologue in which the Greek goddess Persephone proclaims

When the earth opens her thighs
and guides me like a newborn
through the folds of her great lips,
I almost forget the one who drags me back
three months of every year
to the bowels of the earth.

The sensual imagery of these lines is also characteristic of the entire collection and is part of the experience the poems’ various speakers celebrate, cling to, and find rebirth in, as in the poem “Secret Garden:”

Barefoot, listening to the cat,
worrying about the chipmunk
and the lackluster lack of rain,
I am nothing like a mother or a wife.

I am a girl in a make-believe puddle,
coloring in the shapes of her life
while a cat meows in the background
and the yellow sun grows hotter.

Through these poems, Mitchell reminds us that all life and all experience is valuable and worth saving. Even grief has its place given appropriate time. The poem “How to Dry a Rose” tells us,

Before the life blooms out of it,
hang it upside down. In a dry place,
away from direct sunlight.
. . . .
And forget about it, forget about the rose
among the rafters . . . .
. . . .
When the red has faded
to a more acceptable pallor and the leaves
are brittle to the touch. By then, you will
be ready to remember how your friend looked
when she lay in the casket, the rough on her face
not much paler than the roses at the altar.

And even though one may suffer, as the speaker of “Fall” whose “thin blood” means she is “destined to feel the cold / that is arriving daily” or the speaker of “Dirge” with a tumor in her breast, Mitchell would have us “feel them all,” “the cherry tree in the backyard, / the tulip magnolia that would never bloom, the crabgrass, / the violets in the grass . . . / the impractical, the unnecessary, the excised.”

The more intimate connection with the details of our lives encouraged by The Cleft of the Rock makes us all, like the spirit of “A Hard Rain,” “a virtuous pagan, unwelcome in heaven, not suited for hell,” a line which cannot help but remind us of Wordsworth’s “pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” who through his appreciation of nature is able to “have glimpses” that make him “less forlorn.” These mythic and Romantic reinventions are indeed timely in a world where we too often ignore or are totally unaware of the vital connections that could and should sustain us.

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