01 January 2010

Pictures in the Firestorm by Lauren Rusk

Pictures in the Firestorm
Plain View Press
Paperback, 84 pages
ISBN: 9781891386664

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Jill Crammond Wickham
             …Just feel
but through the senses     there’s the rub
     from Adrift at Notre Dame
Photographers and poets alike have long been considered dedicated recorders of private life. Opening the first page of Lauren Rusk’s debut poetry collection, Pictures in the Firestorm, is much like turning back the cover of a stranger’s photo album. A dedicated recorder of life herself, Rusk’s poetry captures images of the real world in the same way a photographer or painter might--for the dual purposes of contemplation and comparison, creating for the reader a heady sense of connection to the depicted figures and scenes that is both immediate and long-lasting.
For me, the spirit stirs
   in the trees,
in a painting,
  in a face—
an old Quaker woman’s
   furrowed peace.
from Adrift at Notre Dame
There is little doubt that Rusk writes from her spirit. At times, in fact, it is as if the spirits of her characters have laid claim to her muse and are demanding their voices be heard. In the poem “Art Happens,” Rusk draws a spectacular portrait of “sticky Louisa,” a preschool artist with a unique medium.  Working like a collage artist, Rusk builds the poem using “The wall: smeared/ with swirls of shit…” as its foundation. Memories of days spent with Louisa create a multi-layered (multi-stanza-ed) work of art with “Itchy, scratchy Louisa” herself, emerging as the focal point. 
 
“How gropingly now/  I work you back/ through the pages, / sticky Louisa.” Life becomes art becomes life. The poem becomes collage, the child becomes art:  
Louisa builds collage after collage
that tells no story
but its own making, the meditation
of her gluey fingers.
At the conclusion of the poem, as in many of the poems in this collection, there is a moment of sadness, softened by a moment of attentive reflection. Though we learn that Louisa’s collages are destroyed, and, once this occurs, “No holding her/ can restore that pulpy splendor,” we—the readers—have, through Rusk’s command of her medium, been given a portrait of Louisa that will never tear. 
 
Whether she is writing about a precocious preschool artist, a single swan, or the Happy Donut coffee shop, Rusk insists on an identification with her subjects that is as universal as it is personal. Often, there is humor in her work. In “Adrift at Notre Dame,” a poem in five sections, Rusk once again invokes the sensual as a guide to experience. Considering the “folderol” of religion, she asserts, “But I didn’t come to cavil/ at les masculins feminins,/ rather to feel/ what I can.” 
 
True to her word, the poet eschews the finger jabbing priest to identify with an ancient donkey poking his “nose out from a frieze called Le mystere/ de l’humanite du Christ.” “I love/ his obscurity,” she enthuses, “the way he loiters/ in the now,/ his sensitive muzzle/ inviting—though it’s not permitted--/ touch.” Lucky readers, we are allowed not only to experience the poet’s explorations, but to see them in a sort of three-dimensional form—as close to touching as a reader can hope to come. 
 
But this place isn’t about myself,” Rusk writes in the moving poem “At the Holocaust Museum.” And it is true.  Her poems are their own entities, little worlds:
…delicate and blunt 
insisters upon perpetual questions—
makers, thinkers—
designers of this unwindowed space,
this journey to encounter
(thankful for my body’s aching)
multitudes, belongings…
We, too, grow thankful for the poet’s aching, for it is this ache that drives the work—ache and a magnificent skill in manipulating pain into a creation at once gorgeous and introspective. Every encounter, every poem, becomes as the statue in “Unentitled,” “more-than-muse…a presence/ whose effects I can’t foresee,/ no matter how much I want to.”  Likewise, there is no predicting the effect Rusk’s words will have.
 
While the first section of Pictures in the Firestorm reads like a glossy travelogue, painting word-pictures of locales as far flung as New Mexico, Paris, San Francisco, and Stanford, section two takes a wild leap into wordplay and synesthesia—tools that, in Rusk’s hands, make for what William Olsen has called “an immensely readable poetry.” 
Here at the top of the house,
this room’s always waiting
for us to rise to the occasion.
So begins “The Upstairs Room,” section two’s first poem. In just three succinct lines we feel a perceptible shift—not only in our surroundings, but in our trusted guide. Though her trademark luminous details remain, there is an added dimension to the narrator’s voice—less a poetry of remembrance than a playful celebration of daily life, where even the poems’ lines join in the fun. As the poem “Building Down” concludes: 
                             It’s
not the where
                      (up and down the block)
but the going—
         rush
                 of motion and rust,
chattering over the cracks.
In “After the Ice Storm” Rusk writes, “Now you can smell the ice;/ the curious cool takes you out/ into the bulk of air,/ fluid against your flung-open eyes.” This is how we proceed through section two, putting our senses to work in new and refreshing ways.
The poem like the boy
does not want
to make polite suggestions.
It wants to blurt that
NO ON LOVE
comes from the garrison
where we live.
These lines from “Pictures in the Firestorm,” the ten-section title poem, carry the weight of Rusk’s response to the events of September 11, 2001. A poem written over the course of four years, “Pictures in the Firestorm” is a meditation on the firestorm of our lives post -9/11. 
 
Illustrating the odd trajectory tragedy can have on our thought process, the poem moves seamlessly between events past and present, from a preschooler’s dinosaur drawing, to the ancient Japanese legend of a fisherman who saves a turtle, to the all-too-real question, “Why be human,” from an expectant mother, snorkeling among sea turtles one moment, surfacing and learning that “men have rammed and flamed/ planes against buildings” the next. Life changes in an instant. Without being sentimental or political, Rusk makes a powerful statement on “…the garrison/ where we live.”
 
Long after putting the book down, readers will be left with a montage of images from Pictures in the Firestorm: the rabbi in a Warsaw photo, face with “hollows/ dark as charcoal,” the donkey at Notre Dame, “his head/ the highest relief,” “Itchy, scratchy Louisa,/ skulking round the cubbies” her artistic “swirls of shit” on the preschool wall, and the statue at Stanford, “window-angle of  her leg” framing “pure blue,/ the headlamp of an airplane/ disappearing into her knee…”  
 
Remember the Viewfinder, the children’s toy that offers you a new, three-dimensional snapshot each time you pull the lever? This is what the experience of reading Pictures in the Firestorm is like. As the poem “Unentitled” concludes, “…now whatever you, my friend, can find.”

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