Book of Asters
Sally Rosen Kindred
Mayapple Press, 2014
Paperback, 62 pages
From asters to zinnias, Sally Rosen Kindred speaks a new language of the flowers with a vocabulary taken from the Asteracea, the aster family. Unlike the Victorian version of flower symbolism, which was sentimental and romantic, Kindred’s is a language of danger and loss. No lilies and roses in this lexicon, only ordinary sunflowers and cornflowers with a generous mix of rank weeds such as goldenrod, dandelion, ironweed, chicory. However plebian the bloom, Kindred’s language is lush, in some passages incantatory. Sometimes one can almost see Shakespeare’s three witches at their cauldron, as in this passage from “Common Daisy:”
your manic anthems shame
my sleep. Teach me
crack and flail, the bleached
dance of your crooked bones
Though the subject is the common daisy, such language carries us beyond common experience. Life in these poems is darkly mystical. Even the ordinary childhood punishment for stealing — having to return the object and apologize — takes on the trappings of sacrifice. The child in “On the Altar of my Fifth Year” is meant to “take back the fists of quartz you stole / from her side yard / and be sorry.” This two-page poem begins like a litany
Here is your dirty swan, your field of stones,
the yellow grass-edge. . .
Here are your jays, their ashy wings
rising crooked, rising
anyway from the sapphire nests you imagine,
their rage exhalations —
Here are the ghosts of Tallwood Drive,
branch-drenched in their smoke-blue skirts—
night-rags of mist . . .
And a doll on an alder stump:
this should be your body.
It ends almost like a dark mass. Or the confrontation with a wicked witch out of a fairy tale:
Now, we kneel. The Devil holds a bell.
Hear it ring . . .
And the harp-shriek as her storm door
I’m not sure what’s happening in this poem. It may simply reflect the heightened imagination of a sensitive child but is the danger real? Is this the beanstalk harp that played itself, shrieking to rouse the sleeping ogre? “Girl I was,” the poem ends, “don’t listen for that call. / Stay with me here, / doll of you / splayed across this day . . .” We are in a gothic world. This poem would be at home in Catherine Earnshaw’s childhood. Or in the childhood fantasy world of the Brontë children.
Or perhaps we’re in the flower lexicon of the mad Ophelia, in a world where “The Sirens Comfort Me:”
Here’s the harp for you. Hear
larkspur’s breath: it flints our kiss.
Don’t be disappointed:
we care. These violets
are our claws.
Such comforters are not the guardian angels from the Hallmark store. The “harp” here echoes back to the “harp shriek” of Mrs. Nelson’s storm door. “The dead men are incidental,” say the Sirens. “This song is for you, any woman / without wings.”
The life of girl-child become mother is charged with loss: for the child, a distant father, lost mother; for the mother, children feverish and hemorrhaging.
“El Dia de Los Muertos,” one of the most haunting poems in the haunted book, juxtaposes the eight-year-old girl-child and her young mother. The girl is costuming herself for Halloween; her mother is in Mexico City on The Day of the Dead, where someone has given her a sugar skull “candied with her name.” Her name is Clare but “they have been calling her Luz / for light.”
the first time I hear this story
I am eight, in the kitchen, fingering
my costume’s pearled mask
and not caring enough to wonder,
and thirty years later she’s half-lost to me
. . . but each time it is easy
to receive her, radiant, lit
from below by the sweetness
of death . . .She lifts it
and I take and eat that light
that was my mother, once, and only is
my dark, delicious guess at what remains.
Thus this poem, too, ends with a sacrament, an echoing of the Eucharist, which is a celebration of blood sacrifice, but the light eaten does not enlighten.
Halloween imagery echoes for the persona as mother in “Sabrina, Borne,” where “All the children I will never bear / are dressing for Halloween.” Of these many unborne children, only Sabrina (witch child? or perhaps Siren?) is named.
. . . I tighten her into a dress
of milkribbon and cinders. I wrap her
in familiar wings of dusk: she spins . . .
I will listen as her voice
rolls down the hill . . . mean and singing.
If fantasy motherhood is reminiscent of Rosetti’s “Goblin Market,” in “Eighth Nosebleed,” real motherhood is visceral:
Did his blood
re-name my wrists and thumbs?
Did I squeeze it warm between
my fingers, counting last week’s fevers
and feeling for the future
in the rage of dark cells rubbed
Rage recurs in Kindred’s nouveau fleurs du mal: rage, blood, fire, fever, and the word “mean.” Dandelion fur has a “mean burn,” sunflowers are Armageddon, ironweeds are battlements, zinnias cast the evil eye. Hearts and bodies splay. Echoes repeat and repeat. “Miscarriage” brings back the Sirens and the harp:
I didn’t ask to carry the ocean.
I didn’t ask Sirens to let gutter and spill
the candle under my lungs — don’t want
their harp, their good night’s sleep.
Men enter this book in the person of the father, who is “tall as a high shelf, which meant far” (“Britannica Man”), and the son, who is “tender hair, small sick / bones” (“Curious George Flees over the Prison Wall”). The lover, presumably male, is of the senses: “I call it thick music, I call it milk and bread / your skin under my tongue . . .” (“Your Arm”).
Other things happen in the collection, the father reveals his skill with the clarinet, the mother is initiated into some sort of society, a son asks interminable questions, the family pet is buried, and the girl finds a feather that “make[s] the bird more air than matter.” These poems act as grounding rods for Kindred’s dark lightning.
Using a line that varies from shortish to generous, for the most part Kindred holds to the left margin. Although her syntax is straight-forward, her tone and diction are formal. Nothing of the casual conversational style here, and little of Williams’s stark “no ideas but in things.” These poems let go their power slowly. They demand repeated readings; each reading revealing new depths of craft. The book’s epigraph explains that “in the typical composite flower (e.g., the sunflower), what appears to be a single flower is actually a head of many small flowers.” Let this serve as a warning for complexities to come.
Kindred relies on the incantatory power of the anaphora, the music of half-rhyme (harp, larkspur, rage, rag) and assonance (nosebleed, between, week, fever, feeling, Tallwood, doll, alder) to achieve a language of solemnity that echoes the King James Bible. Such language can carry her charged imagery without turning over-clever or melodramatic. It’s a fine line she walks, but she does not mis-step.
In his cover blurb for this book, James Applewhite speaks of the poet’s “wise innocence.” The voice here is innocent, the persona seems to have few protections in place against the pains of daily life. I detect no irony. The collection wants the reader’s emotion, not her intellect. To find the wisdom in the Book of Asters, one must let the analytical mind go and enter the world of dark dream.
Sherry Chandler is the author of two poetry collections, Weaving a New Eden and The Woodcarver’s Wife. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, her reviews have appeared in Raintaxi, Smartish Pace, the Verse Wisconsin, and Rattle.