Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Review of Dark Familiar from 29.1

Aleda Shirley. Dark Familiar. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande, 2006. $13.95 paper (ISBN 1-932511-36-9) 88 pages.

Reviewed by Hannah Faith Notess

Dark Familiar is Aleda Shirley’s third full-length collection of poems, following Chinese Architecture in 1986 and Long Distance in 1996. The world of Dark Familiar is haunted, and not just by the usual ghosts. Haunted by the living, the absent, and the dead, in a landscape washed in the saturated colors of Mark Rothko’s paintings, the speaker of these poems vacillates between addressing the haunting figures and a more general reader, exploring all the ways a voice and a landscape can be haunted.

Shirley takes her epigraph from Rothko: “Silence is too accurate.” Devoid of context, this statement could either mean “Silence is also accurate, along with speech” or “Silence is more accurate than speech.” Both meanings fit the poems here, which return repeatedly to silent moments—particularly unnatural silences: a busy casino floor seen through glass that mutes the sound, a mysteriously noiseless helicopter seen by an abducted child from her hotel window, or “silence, like a mirror / where the silver’s gone completely opaque.” Shirley’s poems speak into these silent moments to address the bigger silence of the dead, and the silence of God.

What I find particularly interesting about Dark Familiar is the way that Shirley’s layering of cosmic significance over earthly landscapes invests those landscapes with significance and trivializes them at the same time. In the book’s first poem, “The Star’s Etruscan Argument,” a casino floor becomes a microcosm of the universe, and the speaker of the poem, watching from above, becomes a God-like figure:

How quickly
smoke swirling from a hundred cigarettes dissolves

above their heads: invisible systems at work, & God
not looking out for any of us from the inverted
domes in the ceiling that watch & record everything.

A few poems later, in “Phantom Pain,” the casino is refigured metaphorically as a gathering place for the dead:

…my dead
must have their own dead to find & so must disperse,
unable to remain in an assembly of my devising.
I wonder if they gather, seasonally, in a vast hall,
the air filtered into fake euphoria, like a casino’s,
a serried music of wealth urging them to wager more,
& on the great window a pale outline of bones.

The speaker’s ability to shift in and out of the land of the dead recalls other famous underworld visitors—Orpheus, Odysseus, Dante—only Shirley’s underworld is not a place to which the poet travels and returns. Rather, this underworld exists in and around the daylight world, haunting the speaker in the most banal of settings.

In addition to the epigraph from Rothko, many of the poems in the book bear titles from Rothko paintings, such as “Brown, Black on Maroon,” “Blue Over Orange,” and “Purple, White and Red.” Although these poems could be read as ekphrastic responses to Rothko’s work, only one of them, “Four Darks in Red” overtly references a painting: “Along the top of the canvas a band of anthracene / that is God or the absence of God / or someone’s ingenuous belief in him.” Like Rothko’s paintings, Shirley’s poems work with color emotionally, sometimes assigning a narrative to the colors, other times setting a scene infused with an emotional approach to the color. The ekphrastic poems feel haunted, too, by beauty and by its absence. Shirley’s fresh approach to color as emotion unifies the book’s voice, making it a compelling address to the Dark Familiar, the haunting presence found in everyday life.

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