Fjords Reviews

HOME | BOOK REVIEWS | Strings Attached by Diane Decillis
Strings Attached by Diane Decillis



Fjords Review, Strings Attached

Strings Attached
By Diane Decillis

Wayne State University Press, 2014
94 pages
ISBN 978-0-8143-4013-4


by AK Afferez

About AK Afferez

AK Afferez is a writer, translator, and sporadic blogger with a fondness for aliases (real name: Hêloïse). She’s lived in the US and in France, and is working on her first collection.


“Strings attached” has us thinking about constraints and control. Something that implies conditions to be respected, perhaps even a latent threat. Images of puppetry and almost invisible influences. String Theory, if we’re physics-inclined. Diane DeCillis revisits these semantics, exploring the connections between all things and people, the relationships, tight and loose in turn, that shape each and every one of us. Our identity lies in those strings that we unravel, try to break or strengthen, which would explain why, for many of us, our selves are so complex, layers of thread woven into each other.

At the heart of everything is, of course, the familial thread, the one which provides insight into the poet’s psyche, and the one most subject to wear. There’s the absent father, evoked straight away in the second poem, “The Myth of the Father.” Astronomy serves there to emphasize both his distance and his proximity, as well as the poet’s ache to ask him “something ordinary,” like what he had for lunch. Such a mundane question, and yet, perhaps the most poignant one, concealing under the mask of triviality the wish for closeness. These recurring meditations on the father figure remind me of W. S. Merwin’s beautifully elegiac lines:

         “Your absence has gone through me
         like thread through a needle.
         Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

The absence itself has become a string that binds the poet to a phantom, a figure she keeps looking for in others – other lovers (older men mostly), doctors and professors, or the uncle who wished his niece had been a boy.

There’s also the grandmother, Sittu, an ambivalent figure who alternates between care for and resentment towards her granddaughter, who is gifted with the freedom the older woman has never experienced in her youth. Several poems are devoted to her, culminating in “Grape Leaves” where the grandmother teaches her young granddaughter how to pick and stuff grape leaves. In this seemingly mundane moment is the intersection of the most important focal points of the collection:

         “... Here we’d cross
         the divide between us, the clash of cultures

         and what it means to be a woman.”

The bonding moments the poet shares with her grandmother all revolve around food: the “carnal affection” of each meal is “an intimacy she could enjoy / without shame.” In a culture that limited women’s potential, cooking and the exchanges food provides are construed as ways to assert specific knowledge and authority.

Food appears as one of the main ways through which, poem after poem, we are brought to reconnect with our forgotten sense of sensuality. We learn to pay attention to the way our bodies as much as our minds interact with the world, as in “Phantom Limb,” where presence is never understood without absence, and vice-versa, or in “Music from Another Room,” a synesthetic experience of large dinners with family and friends, with “the music of the kitchen” – the clatter of knives and plates, the conversations, the songs and dances – serves as a powerful unifier.

The threads then also bridge the arts; colors and music come into the poems to resonate within the poet’s esthetic experience. Recurring moments of ekphrasis weave art forms and references into the writing: one poem narrates the story of a girl named “Cubist Still Life,” who goes through different art currents like so many phases in life. Cubist, the character, embodies the poetic spirit in this collection, one of transcending boundaries and “barriers / of time and space.” This complexity is not devoid of pitfalls: Cubist is “accustomed to hearing / everything simultaneously, / and in a single sentence,” a synesthetic perception of her world which marks her as clearly apart from others. Yet DeCillis shows us again and again how difference works as a gateway to creation: Cubist becomes “a crusader / for truth and inner beauty, praised for allowing / others to see the world more fully.” Composite identities are ones in constant oscillation, that refuse fixity, that elude any attempt at a definite interpretation, but also ones that have the most creative potential as they are most aware of the invisible threads, the possible and surprising metaphors and connections between beings.

Another poem ponders how a writer might learn to “see like Cézanne” – attention to colors and shapes enriching the writing practice, and more generally the perception of the world. Colors here are strong, bold even, and yet hold infinite nuances: yellow, blue, red, green, purple – all are imbued with some secret meaning, specific to the poet’s experience. Green is the color of the ink with which the absent father writes his letters to his daughter, color of both paternal bond and loss. Yellow, central to two poems, is startling, overwhelming, but still incredibly tender. The same thing goes for music, as when the poet revisits her life as a musical, or falls in love “at the speed of the William Tell ‘Overture.’” Any act of creation within one art form is nourished by all the others, a web of echoes, influences and reminiscences.

DeCillis also delves into the possibilities language has to offer on a formal level, with prose poems, pantoums, and even a recipe for a baklava inserted into a poem. These formal explorations remind the reader that we write (and read) mostly to find some order, or, rather, some sense in the chaos of our daily lives. In “Reconsidering Yellow,” the character “obsessed as if she were a pantoum, repeating the first / and third lines of her life” – the poetic form progressively becomes superimposed with life, hints at a potential pattern that, if decoded, could provide the key to the character’s obsession. The pantoum then fully appears in the last section of the collection, “Origami Pantoum,” which itself calls on several masters in poetry and literature, interweaving their own singular sensibilities: Whitman, Neruda, Basho, Li-Young, Chekhov... As for the poem-recipe, it contrasts the neutral, detached tone of the series of commands fragmented into the poem, with the lyrical reflection on how “baklava killed my father,” how the temptation of the sweet pastry is impossible to resist.

Interestingly, while the collection opens on “Margin of Error,” which celebrates uncertainty, and the figure of the father, it closes on the poet’s mother, who, as a teenager, left New York for Lebanon and an arranged marriage to a Druze man, whom she then convinced to return to the United States and divorced at the age of 23. The mother then becomes the primary breadwinner of the family, imposing her presence as “a pint-size / gal in a man-size job,” a woman who knows how to navigate a man’s world, while still asserting herself and retaining her femininity. Her depiction in this last poem, which is also the title one, likens her to modernity and modern art, and steers towards a redefinition of what stability can mean for a multicultural, multilingual woman. The comparison to the women Edward Hopper painted is at once tender and deeply evocative: Hopper based all the women in his paintings on his wife, Jo, herself a painter; the women in particular who are framed in sunlight always appear to be expecting something that is known only to them, an almost biblical moment, reminiscent of the depictions of the Annunciation. The mother “believes in freedom,” and loves Tchaikovsky, poetry, and late-night games of poker; she is “never the apron, or even the strings.” These last words, which close the poem and the collection, conjure a powerful picture of a woman who embodied freedom, strength and independence, as well as hybridity, one who changed her name “from Fadwa to Freda” and whose heritage her daughter has unequivocally claimed.

In this exquisite collection, DeCillis delves into the nature of our attachments through poems that reach out in every direction, exploring everything from Chopin and modern art to sleazy hotels, absinthe, and the sudden yellow bloom of a maple tree. The lush and dense metaphors of life and love that food, color, and music offer, provide us with new ways to negotiate the strings that bind us, intertwining sensibility and sensuality, helping us reconnect with the esthetic potential of our lives, our relationships and the world around us.


And Then by Donald Breckenridge

Dear Everyone by Matt Shears

Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones

Intimacy by Stanley Crawford

Lunch Poems by Deborah Kuan

The Best American Poetry 2016

One with the Tiger by Steven Church

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

The King of White Collar Boxing by David Lawrence

They Were Coming for Him by Berta Vias-Mahou

Verse for the Averse: a Review of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry

That Other Me by Maha Gargash

Simone by Eduardo Lalo

Swimming by Karl Luntt

Ghost/ Landscape by Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher

Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus

Bad Light by Carlos Castán

Diaboliques by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly

Staying Alive by Laura Sims

Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo

Fireflies by John Leland

Maze of Blood by Marly Youmans

Tender the Maker by Christina Hutchkins

Little Anodynes by Jon Pineda

Conjuror by Holly Sullivan McClure

Someone's Trying To Find You by Marc Augé

The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza

Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On by Ashley-Elizabeth Best

The Knowledge by Robert Peake

The Darling by Lorraine M. López

How To Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes

Watershed Days: Adventures (A Little Thorny and Familiar) in the Home Range by Thorpe Moeckel

[INSERT] BOY by Danez Smith

Demigods on Speedway by Aurelie Sheehan

Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg

Singing Bones by Kate Schmitt

Knuckleball by Tom Pitts

Wandering Time by Luis Alberto Urrea

Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail by Ralph Hamilton

Domenica Martinello: The Abject in the Interzones

Control Bird Alt Delete by Alexandria Peary

Twelve Clocks by Julie Sophia Paegle

Love You To a Pulp by C.S. DeWildt

Even Though I Don’t Miss You by Chelsea Martin

Women by Chloe Caldwell

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

ESSAY 2:12 A.M. by Kat Meads

Revising The Storm by Geffrey Davis

Quality Snacks by Andy Mozina

Nature's Confession by J.L. Morin

Midnight in Siberia by David Greene

Strings Attached by Diane Decillis

Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging by Joshua Dolezal

The New Testament by Jericho Brown

You Don't Know Me by James Nolan

Phoning Home: Essays by Jacob M. Appel

Words We Might One Day Say by Holly Karapetkova

Murder by Danielle Collobert

Sorrow by Catherine Gammon

The Americans by David Roderick

Put Your Hands In by Chris Hosea

I Think I Am in Friends-Love With You by Yumi Sakugawa

Third Wife by Jiri Klobouk

box of blue horses by Lisa Graley

Review of Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through the Streets

The Sleep of Reason by Morri Creech

The Hush before the Animals Attack by Carol Matos

Regina Derieva, In Memoriam by Frederick Smock

Review of The House Began to Pitch by Kelly Whiddon

Hill William by Scott McClanahan

Seamus Heaney Aloft

The Bounteous World by Frederick Smock

Review of The Tide King by Jen Michalski

Going Down by Chris Campanioni

Review of Empire in the Shade of a Grass Blade by Rob Cook

Review of The Day Judge Spencer Learned the Power of Metaphor

Review of The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish

American Neolithic by Terence Hawkins

Review of Life Cycle Poems by Dena Rash Guzman

Review of Saint X by Kirk Nesset

Review of Jessica Treadway's Please Come Back to Me

Eve Asks by Christine Redman-Waldeyer