A dialogue between a young woman and the father whom she lost as a young child.
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AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW, September/October, 2016, Vol. 37, issue 6
Dancing in Chains, reviewed by George Murphy
Finishing Line Press
I am periodically asked to read the poetry of others and there is never any guarantee that it will be a happy task. However, in the case of Carol Hebald’s poem cycle, Colloquy, I find myself very agreeably borne along by her remarkable craft.
There is no clearly visible string running through the twenty-six items that make up this bright line of verse but there is an offbeat integrity nonetheless--a narrative flavor throughout that holds all together in theme and tone. The coherence is offbeat because it is accomplished through a sort of dream logic that is at once meticulously lucid and tantalizingly mysterious. While I surely have my favorites, along with a few reservations regarding matters of detail here and there, I would say there is no weak link between the covers of this chapbook.
Hebald’s title is ingenious since this, her most recent collection, encompasses both definitions of “colloquy,” as a simple conversation and, more broadly, as a symposium on matters of theology. But there’s nothing impersonal or preachy about these verses--far from it. Each is an intimate examination of emotional damage in the light of mortality, faith, and forgiveness--ineffable stigmata are given voice in one authentic paradox after another, and there is a joy that rises over it all. Hebald is emotionally honest to a fault--she’s bold in the exploration of her fears and she’s not afraid to be angry, as in her biblical poem, “Catatonia in the Vestibule,” when she declares, “I hate a kindness / that condescends to feel,” and, again, in the robust closing lines, “And You just stand there / limp with mercy./ I wish You’d go away.”
If I must take serious issue with anything in Hebald’s work, then it would be with the minor matter of an occasional triteness in her language. It is as though her rather stunning originality forgets itself at times. This is a susceptibility Sarah Rose Exoo makes mention of in her review of Hebald’s 2005 verse collection, Spinster by the Sea, as a potential for “cliché,” though Exoo rightly notes that Hebald generally “achieves the difficult feat of infusing new life” into a potentially bland or repetitive usage. To my perhaps less tolerant ear, the most egregious example of the latter in Colloquy is the poet’s regrettable overuse of variants on the word “jewel.” “Jewel,” “Jewels,” and “Jeweled,” crop up like weeds in close to a quarter of the collection’s poems, most flagrantly in the consecutive pieces, “Nightmare,” “The Seal,” and “Catatonia in the Vestibule.” It seems a little tragic when a weakness of this sort could so easily be remedied by a poet of Hebald’s caliber. However, if Carol Hebald has a blind spot it is relegated to the shadows of an exquisite brilliance. The sheer force of her verse--its sincerity--and the freshness and audacity of her imagery, is more than enough reason to pardon her shortcomings.
On the back cover of Colloquy, poet Barry Wallenstein notes that Hebald’s collection is “A dialogue between a…woman and her father, who died when she was a young child.” That premise is surely at the emotional heart of Colloquy, but the cycle is interwoven with many other levels of conversations and address. The “he” spoken to in so many of the poems is sometimes an upper case “He” and, Donne-like, the poet steps lightly between the earthly and divine. Furthermore, within Hebald’s personal faith, it often feels as though the lost familial father is near identical with an aloof higher being--certainly, there seems to be a persistent yearning for both. In “The Isolation Room,” a poem rife, as many are, with the language of Christian mythology, Hebald establishes a spiritual narrative that provides glimpses on the hellishness of her struggle with mental illness, when “She chose madness as a way to sense.” In the penultimate stanza she quotes a prayer: “Let His absence be my gift,” and, for me, this credo is quintessential to Hebald. It is the determination to restore personal integrity--to take whatever can be had from adversity and use it to mend oneself by strength of character. In “The Actress,” she proclaims, “If in darkness I must want / then from darkness would I get.” That, in fact, is the passion and resurrection inherent in Hebald’s work--she confronts her demons head on and with an honesty that disarms them. Speaking in “Our Lady Duse,” in admiration of the great Italian actress, Eleonora Duse, Hebald tells us, “When the devil stormed in her, / they say she stepped on him.” The poet’s abiding experience of an ancient and often intangible bereavement is laced through this collection but so is the resolve to survive and make whole, and to take inspiration from pain. In one of many verses dealing with deep harm--in the doggedly enigmatic “Child of Mine I never Knew,”--Hebald gives her father voice and he asks her, “What can I say, what do, / but mend my roots with you, / give your feeling tongue.”
But Hebald’s scars are not only those resulting from the early loss of a parent. The salient mystery of that lack, expressed so simply and touchingly in the poem, “In Memoriam,” with the line, “Where you went I never knew,” is attended by a host of references to other childhood trauma--to abuse of one kind or another, whether emotional or physical--sexual or otherwise--and I think it fair to suggest that Hebald perceives her vulnerability
I would say there is not one weak link between the covers of this chapbook
to those further assaults as concomitant with the loss of the protective father, though even he at times appears shrouded in ambivalence. What is clear is the poet’s yearning for paternal sanctuary--a need given religious voice in “The Isolation Room,” where she speaks of being, “His little bird he takes into his nest.” As mentioned above, Hebald’s verse is generally made vividly articulate through the unarguable logic of dream--a logic that strikes an unimpeachable balance between clarity and ambiguity--and perhaps that semi-surreal luminosity affords the poet precisely what she needs to manage her history. If, indeed, this is a necessary remove for healing, it would seemed to be joined by
Hebald’s other skill as an actress--shape-shifting to survive. As she says quietly in the poem, “The Actress,” “To act. I had to act.”
But Hebald has never settled for being an “escape artist.” She seems, rather, to have rounded on her demons and “stepped on” them. They can never be altogether banished, but Hebald’s personal achievement must have taken an enormous courage and perseverance. It should not be forgotten that these dark forces, with their attendant grief and anger, once had the power to derange her.
In taking back her sanity and holding onto it through an artful exorcism, Hebald frequently presents us with haunting and unsettling images that seem to step out of the paintings of René Magritte or the collages of Max Ernst. One poem, “Portrait,” could be viewed as a transmutation of Magritte’s Jeune Fille Mangeant un Oiseau (1927) with its lines, “Her mouth full of birds / now she crunches in her teeth / blood, feather, and bone.”
As noted above, there is often a dream clarity and immediacy in what Hebald shows us. But, as in a dream, nothing is dwelled upon for long, and each graphic offering of emotion or spirituality has a way of transforming itself into something else in the moment that we grasp it. This constant transmogrification and meaningful sleight of hand has the effect of releasing the reader’s intuition while maintaining a vital freshness in the work itself.
Similarly, Hebald repeatedly delivers razor-sharp lines--metaphor and simile--that nip all possibility of sentimentality in the bud. The poet may occasionally trip us up with an actual footnote explaining a word in her poem or oddities such as closing lines like “Hnhn” or “Dododododododo” but, more often than not, she sweeps us off our feet and carries us across the floor with phrases such as, “Senses flicking like lizards,” “Black grass spanked by moonlight” or “Grinding to her birth.”
Hebald’s sparing use of rhyme is effective and her beat is most always strenuous and determined. There is lyricism in spades--though lyricism that “Blooms in shadows”--and there are frequent touches of eroticism that are close to subliminal, as in the neo-heraldic passage from “Child Magdalene’s Reverie”:
The hunter at my heels
thrusts me up astride
plants me in a garden
of bright, adulterate fruit
kneels and falls to dine.
There is, indeed, a feast for everyone in Colloquy. Sensuality abounds, philosophy is largely curbed. Furthermore, there s often a Joycean playfulness in Hebald’s language, to balance out her gravity, and there is always a twist and turn so we are never left for long in light or darkness. Carol Hebald may be “Dancing in Chains,” to borrow a phrase from her poem, “Portrait,” but she has broken free from what once caged her and has made music of her shackles.
George Murphy majored in philosophy at York University (UK) and has artwork in the
Smithsonian American Art Museum. His short stories and verse have been published in the Nantucket and Brazenhead Reviews, in Kosmosis, and in this year’s VT anthology PoemTown. He is currently working on a collection of interlocking short stories, 44 Tales, and a translation of Apollinaire’s Le Bestiaire.