96 pages, $18.00
Review by Anne Champion
The most difficult thing about reviewing Cynthia Atkins’s second book of poetry is choosing what to write about: this collection covers a broad and scenic terrain of topics including childhood, motherhood, family dysfunction, and life in the millennial age of the internet. Atkins crafts her poems with equal parts wit, wisdom, clarity, and tenderness, showcasing her range as a writer, both in form and in tone. Most poems follow a narrative structure; however, the collection reveals some lovely lyric moments alongside some musical litanies. According to Seb Doubinsky’s blurb on the back cover, these poems “glow in the dark a long time after you have finished reading them, illuminating your heart and guts from the inside.” I have to agree—these poems resonate deeply with their punch-packing lines.
The collection is divided into five sections, and each section contains a poem from a sequence titled “Family Therapy.” These poems serve as an anchor for the book, grounding it in realistically haunting family dramas. All five sections bravely tackle subjects such as grief and abuse with razor sharp clarity through original and surprising images. Consider these two passages, taken from “Family Therapy (I)” and “Family Therapy (IV)”:
“I am my sister. I am my brother.
I am my brother’s sister,
I am my mother’s keeper.
I hold the secrets. I am the writer.
I am the sister of a schizo-
phrenic. My elder split—
My sister taught me how
To shave my legs, little slits of blood
left like a lunchbox in the mud.”
“Hush, we’ll never tell,
yet deep down we know, the mind’s pain
is the last inconsolable and extra gene.
Rabid dog in the school yard—
Mean and mad and frothing.”
In these passages, Atkins alludes to secrets so dark that they cannot be written and a loyalty towards family that overrides the loyalty to the page. These chillingly cryptic passages reveal their secrets through image association: the puddle of blood, the extra gene of pain, the rabid dog. Each of these images speaks to a sort of violence, anger, and disfiguration coming from abnormalcy and disappointment: the sequence speaks to the aches of family in the most visceral way.
In addition to imagery, Atkins showcases a deft talent for extended metaphor. In “Holes,” the speaker ponders the empty space left by a moth that flew out of her notebook. As the poem progresses, the meditation turns to her interaction with insects as a child, which then prompts thoughts of her dead father;
“But he never said or told me:
Every how many miles do I rotate
The coat I wore to the hole
in the ground has gone to the moths.
So be it.
My insides lined with terrorists, this womb
A terrible coffin—Unborn. Undone.
an armchair or an arm…The hole that the moth left
was an omission, rather than admission—”
Each unexpected turn in the poem reveals the fluidity of the meanings implicit in the speaker’s conception of the moth, texturing the image with layered and complex meaning. The moths in this poem echo Sylvia Plath’s use of bees in her Ariel poems. What starts as an observation of an insect blooms into so much more than that; the insects turn insidious, stinging us with deep, profound truths.
However, Atkins’s poems aren’t so dark that they lack lightness and humor. Several poems in the collection impart messages through a use of sophisticated wit and irony. Some of my favorites are “Google Me” and “Face Book.” While these poems amuse, they also serve as sharp critiques of our millennial times, questioning a landscape tied to technology. In “Google Me,” the speaker lists all the outcomes of a Google name search, which include absurd contradictions such as an “atheist pastor” or a “bald hairdresser.” However, the ending of the poem turns, pointing towards nostalgia and reverie with the lines, “Once upon a time, you were just a girl/running through a backyard sprinkler.”
Similarly, “Face Book” sarcastically exclaims, “This is our body! This is our office!” Then, the poem outlines the hollowness of such carefully constructed personas:
“Salacious minds need routine, packaged
as shiny shrink-wrapped trinkets.
Screens screaming for sex kittens
and war porn—take the place
of breakfast and love.”
By the end of this poem, Atkins has balanced humor and seriousness so well that the result is a triumphant poem of satire, critiquing our cultural habits in a thoughtful, albeit amusing way: the poem turns from laughter to cautionary tale.
Atkins covers much ground in this collection: so many themes emerge as the book unfolds. She looks at loss of innocence, jadedness, motherhood, war, the process of writing, love, and loneliness. Ultimately, this rich collection reveals the myriad of emotions that bind us together into a colorful and chaotic tapestry of community and family.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems appear in Verse Daily, The Pinch, Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She received an Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a Barbara Deming grant, and Pushcart Prize nominations. She holds an MFA from Emerson College.