By Diane Decillis
Wayne State University Press, 2014
by AK Afferez
“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.