The Branches, the Axe, the Missing
Black Lawrence Press, 2013
Perfect bound, 28 pgs
Reviewed by Victoria Osborne
The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, Charlotte Pence’s notable single-poem chapbook, remains thematically cohesive through its focus on the idea of the missing—the sense of loss that, on the poem’s opening page, she calls “the got-away.” Her collection follows two distinct narratives: in one, a female protagonist explores feelings of loss born out of failed relationships with “two men, her father, now homeless, and her ex-husband”; the other explores various speculations about humanity’s development since the discovery and control of fire.
After the opening section muses on our primitive selves, the second surges to a 21st century scene of the protagonist’s newly transformed life as she faces the dissolution of her marriage. She moves a fallen tree branch, one of Pence’s favorite images, as the narrator wonders, “How long has it been since she has done something/as fundamental as this?” Elsewhere, Pence powerfully and succinctly states the chapbook’s defining viewpoint: “but w/ everything gained, there is loss”—theoretical advancement is balanced by tangible pessimism. Having abandoned her once abusive, now vagrant father, the protagonist still feels “there is a loss in this/success that she does not understand.” Humans tamed fire, which “kicked us/out of arrested development,” but simultaneously forced each person to become more “self-aware,” labeled by his function within a community “arranged/into cooks and hunters,/[…] Fathers and daughters, lovers and ex-es.” Pence longs to understand what was sacrificed at the expense of supposed progress, to regain “the knowledge lost/before the mind/conceived of language.” For Pence, the world does not move forward; instead, the archetypal narrative describes “how the small world falls.” According to the narrator, humanity is descending, not progressing; the movement away from our natural, less ordered state is fraught with negative consequences too easily dismissed.
The juxtaposition of such questioning with scenes from the narrator’s life could become distracting, but Pence’s approach prevents confusion. Passages vary from loose, irregular stanzas to more tightly structured lines. Taken as a whole, Pence’s chapbook is notable for its musicality; her language unfolds naturally, providing text with a rhythm which makes her work as aurally pleasing as it is fascinating in content. When Pence chronicles the protagonist’s road trip with her husband, for example, clear sensory details support strategic exposition: “This was last year./The beginning of the divorce.” Just as Pence is direct with her readers, the female character is direct with the two lost men: “She reminded her ex that she had never/been in love. She told her father/he would drag her down with him.” The severe honesty of this soon-to-be-single woman captures the necessary detachment with which she chooses to deal with loss. Rationality rules; too much sorrow would only hinder the process of moving past the past.
Pence’s final section presents a shift away from the chapbook’s dominant tone: a refusal to sentimentalize experience that some might view as pessimism. Cyclically, The Branches, the Axe, the Missing begins and ends with the same scene: the first human gathering around a fire. Pence presents her readers with her ultimate conjecture about the events surrounding that inaugural social interaction. The final line of her chapbook presents a more affirmative view of initial communication: a gesture suggests that “the darkness quiets if we watch it together.” The darkness, so resonant of loss throughout the sequence, may be tempered through community, the very social institutions that raised the poet’s suspicion at the outset. This turn towards confidence illustrates a hope for the future of humanity and for all of those who face the ravages of personal loss. Although every gain brings loss as well, perhaps Pence, through her well-crafted, powerful poetry and the larger reflections it generates, finds the very consolation in art that The Branches, The Axe, The Missing brings to her readers.
Victoria Osborne’s writing has previously appeared in jmww.