Poems speak to loss with grace, acceptance

BOOK REVIEW

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By LAUREL ANN BOGEN

Carine Topal’s collection of poems, In the Heaven of Never Before, is a heaven rich in imagery. From the opening poem, appropriately titled “From This,” where she writes

I come. From kraut, potato field, radish and iris bulbs,/burrowed from the tundra; from china cups and money/bags left at the pier when Hitler called.

the reader comes to understand through Topal’s evocative listing of things, her history, her family and, as Anne Sexton would identify in another context, those she would call Her Kind.

And, indeed, family pulls a strong thread throughout the collection: brothers, mother, father, son. It is through the relationships in her life that the poet defines herself. In one of the most memorable, “When Lucy Died,”  “a proclamation of redheads lit the room” the morning Lucille Ball died, including Topal’s mother, who is suddenly 30 again and as gorgeous as “the 3rd floor mannequin at Macy’s.” Yet, as with the comedienne herself, it appears that with the notable exception of her son, most of those of whom the poet writes have passed on. And the sorrow is palpable in this collection—palpable, but with an acceptance and a certain grace.

Topal has the ability to focus on small moments that constantly surprise the reader. And so does certain diction. Just when the reader starts to feel comfortable, complacent, as if she or he can take the poem for granted, Topal will come up with a stanza such as “An ambulance of mourners exits/ the adjacent room. Nothing is attached/ to their weeping but the low clouds/ above a tribe of black umbrellas” (from “In The End, Death Is An Endless Kitchen”).

“Mother’s Purse” is another example of unspoken kinship, bringing to mind those childhood afternoons where furtive excavations into maternal closets and haberdashery might yield some secret charm or insight that will give daughters the necessary passport to becoming women:

I reach inside the cool satin-lined clutch on the counter. It’s rectangular and turquoise, my mother’s small vault of business cards, tassels, swatches of chamois and wool. It’s not the paper money or the coins I’m after. It’s the embroidered hanky, the distant hint of morning’s Chanel. What I want is to unfold the quartered linen, then crease it back and forth until the flower, which was hidden, appears in the pleats, now a fan to cool mother down, make laughter where there is little.

The feminine psyche with all its kinks and glory is on display here. One would not confuse the poems in In the Heaven of Never Before with those of James Dickey or Richard Hugo. Topal celebrates those things that makes women, women on a very deep level and those roles women play in life: daughter, sister, wife, mother, lover. Because of this overall arc and point of view, the audience for the book may be a bit compromised. This reviewer found that instead of a universal or androgynous theme, the point of view is most decidedly feminine.

It should perhaps be noted that out of the 49 poems in this collection, 21 are prose poems. This is significant because of the subversive, powerful and often subliminal effect of the prose poem form. Much like the effect the reader will find in this collection of poems.

Laurel Ann Bogen is the author of 10 books of poetry and short fiction, the most recent of which is Washing a Language, published by Red Hen Press.


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1 comment

  1. What an insightful & evocative review! If I hadn’t already read & relished Carine’s wonderful new book, I would rush right out and buy it all over again. Gorgeous.

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