Dawn Leas, PQ Contributing Editor
Eye to Eye
Perfect Binding, 115 pages
In March, I had the opportunity to briefly meet Sara Michas-Martin whose book I later reviewed for the spring issue of Poets’ Quarterly. This time around, I not only met Maria Terrone, but I also had the good fortune of seeing her read from Eye to Eye at Cornelia Street Café. Hearing her tell the stories behind the poems and give a voice to their words added another dimension that I normally don’t get to experience when writing reviews. It is also cool to note that she chose to read several poems that I had selected to discuss in my analysis of Eye to Eye. I must also point out that deciding which poems to comment on was difficult. I was re-reading the collection during a recent trip to the beach and was using strips of paper to mark the possibilities. My friend took one look and deadpanned, “It looks like you marked every poem.” I had a bouquet of bookmarks rising from the top of my copy and really had to work at paring it down to the few that follow.
Terrone is like a jeweler who welcomes window shoppers into her studio on Main Street to browse, to ask questions, to appreciate the beauty of life stories depicted in an heirloom locket, a perfectly set stone, a vintage pair of earrings, a modern twist of bracelet. Her careful attention to craft–to choosing just the right line break or image to show off a poem’s cut, clarity and carat weight ensures that the window shoppers will become repeat readers who return again and again to find out more about her gorgeous artisanship.
Terrone began her reading with “Spaccanapoli,” which is also the opening poem of the collection. The term refers to one of the oldest sections of Naples which is the hometown of her paternal grandparents. In the poem, she uses jewels of Italian language and imagery to move readers from wherever they are to Spaccanapoli:
but the bell resounds, insistent as old men roaring
by on vespas like God almighty, click of stiletto sandals
on Magna Graecia stones, Bulgari jewels that spin
prisms down shop-clotted alleys…
…when doors open
on pot-clatter, then shut, their nail-hung red-pepper rosaries
rise up to knock a blessing. Ciao! Bella! Over-ripe vowels
thicken the air…
There are layers and layers of life under an ocean’s surface, its wave undulating like a collection of bangles – silver, gold, fabric-wrapped, thick and thin – on a forearm. The same is true of Terrone’s poems. There are images that the reader can take at face value at first read. Then, other meanings rise to the surface when waves crest, the bangles gathering at the wrist.
At Terrone’s reading she said the sea always attracts her (I can relate to that sentiment). So, it’s quite fitting that there are several poems about water and that she chose to read “The Lure,” which she called a quiet poem about the sea:
I can’t see the water, but it’s near
enough to lift each hair
on my skin – as if , a half a mile away,
the sea might still touch me,…
In the collection, Terrone explores what is seen and unseen; what we open our eyes to and what we turn away from, either consciously or subconsciously, in history, family lore, pop culture, and in “the good, the bad and the ugly” of everyday life. For example, “42nd Street” paints a realistic portrait of the spectacle that 42nd Street is, and the poem ends with the simile “like a blind woman.” The phrase “eye to eye” plays a recurring role in poems like “Myopia” and in the title poem that Terrone wrote after visiting the Brandywine River Museum and which holds this epigraph: “Toward the end of the 18th century, portraits of the single eye of a loved one became fashionable.”
From “Eye to Eye:”
…they feel like the small, still centers
of a hundred hurricanes gathering force, glaring
from pins, pendants, lockets, rings, brooches,
framed in gold, encrusted in amethysts
and seed pearls, staring me down,
an eye for an eye.
Eye to Eye is packed with gravitas, poems that are tarnished by the harder aspects of life like the decline of a father in “Across the Gulf” and the death of a friend in “David’s Blade.” “E.R.” opens the eyes of the reader to the routine of just one night inside its rooms as the poet waits with her mom who was injured in a fall. “Horesehair” is a gorgeous poem that speaks about horsehair being used instead of silk for sutures and to aid healing as well as the narrator’s memories of National Velvet, painted stallions with real manes at Coney Island, and recovering from surgery. It begins with:
My husband applied it to my breast
post op, as the surgeon instructed.
I didn’t ask why, wondering later about
the healing power of tassels
on a Reiki drum or shaman’s wand.
And ends with:
I imagine music coursing through my single breast.
On the flip side, it’s also brimming with levity and quick wit, polished to a brilliant sheen, with stories of trips to Italy, birds and nature, manicures, social media and modern technology.
In “The Manicurist” the narrator wonders where the manicurists came from and how, and uses details that place you right in the shop:
A young woman at the back sips noodle soup,
its steam mixed with lacquer fumes.
“Cyborg Anthropologist” is a character sketch of a young student of the human condition:
…she looks almost too human, vulnerable,
with that prim peter-pan collar and nursery-school
bangs worn probably with irony, as if to say,
I am too young to remember the past…
While I categorized the above as either gravitas or levity, the truth is Terrone balances the two not only within the collection, but even within individual poems with the precise eye and editing hand of an experienced poet. The result is individual poems that sing of sorrow and laughter; light and dark, which then as a whole collection ebbs and flows like the passage of life so often does.
From her use of a W.S. Merwin quote to open the collection to her New York City poems; from her commentary on modern advertising to the recounting of her treks to Italy and her love of the sea, Terrone covers terrain and topics that are close to me. However, it isn’t just familiarity or common interests that draws me into her poems. It’s how she skillfully sets and polishes the large and small events of being human into vivid vignettes. All with language that is accessible. Sights that linger. Sounds, smells, and tastes that are palpable. Feelings that are imagined and real.
Terrone ended her reading with the last poem in the collection, “Now a Chill Replaces the Light,” which she said addresses why she writes:
…So I’m making
what I can against the hours:
this bed strewn with poems
ripped from magazines,
these blue tracks across white tundra
that my pen may follow,
this smoky wisp
rising from somewhere.