Some reviews of the books that make up the Scattered Light Library
“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” *
But for mystics, the disabled and convalescent, those in enclosed orders, those dedicated to fulfilling their genius, those in jail and those who exist in a mental straitjacket, whatever the cause, there is always a conundrum:
Does the elusive Truth exist on the Inside or Outside?
Hostages like Brian Keenan, Anne Frank, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all attested a life of the spirit and the imagination that would not and could not be limited by physical and ideological constraints.
So does narrowed focus confer a sharper and profounder vision, offering its compensations? Or is Freedom only to be found upon the exterior, in the prolix toil and muddle of human activity where opportunities for discovery abound? Even where choice is possible, aren't these states mutually exclusive?
Cheryl Snell in a new chapbook, Prisoner's Dilemma, explores this theme in situations concerning many kinds of effacement. Each short poem is offered like a remnant of woven fabric placed under the microscope so that the colours, slubs and knots and arabesques, can be appreciated. The imagery is often stark and reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, the emotion bottled which, unstoppered, pervades an air of vaguely fragrant stoicism. Where the subtext is menacing, it frets away at a blithe surface like a sliver of glass stuck in the weave. But, often, it's uncompromising, violent, in-your-face, leaving the reader with no more than the merest scintilla of hope. The images juxtaposed in Snell's phrases cleverly release new flights of meaning as, for example in Dirty Laundry:
Tumbling from the fold
of a fitted sheet – balled-up
silk, some foreign lace. Things come
and go in this house. Last night, an earring
tangled in the wrong colour hair, everything
gone bloodshot and damp.
The man's non-sequiturs circled the drain
of his stranger's ear: Let lovers go fresh and sweet
to be undone. How else to go
with a come-on like that – innocent as soap,
pink bubbles bursting like an alibi
on the verge of coming clean.
The collection as a whole hangs together with the shape and atmosphere of René Magritte's surreal painting The Empty Mask and, in miniature, I don't doubt is as accomplished. Cheryl Snell ably demonstrates that Richard Lovelace was right!
Chapbook hauntingly illustrated by Janet Snell.
Despite the chattering masses insistence that we have left behind the shackles of monochromatic forms, most lovers of literature remain lodged within the confines of the printed word. No pictures, no mixed media, no audio, no textile experiences invade the high and lonely silence of the mind’s contemplation of the slashes and curves that from a certain distance resolve into letters, and then lines of words, marching across pages bound for they know not where: oblivion certainly, sooner or later.
How strange then that this absurd comedy continues when it is so easy for the imprisoned to step outside of these confines. No jailor prevents it, except, of course, for the jailor we call the mind. The doors are all open to the foreign world that lies beyond but inside we stay as if cowed by possibility itself.
It is against this backdrop that Janet and Cheryl Snell’s Prisoner’s Dilemma is best read.
“Beauty is as Beauty does, I suppose, and of course
all rivers are beautiful, not necessarily
with the untouched beauty
of a head cheerleader at her beginning of things”
(from “Fire of the Cuyahoga”)
The diction here, precise and yet off-hand, coupled with the unexpected coupling of ideas (beauty – rivers – the girl who knows all the boys desire her) places Snell on intimate relations with the main currents of twentieth century American poetry, a landscape marked by masters such as John Ashberry, Mark Strand, Louise Bogan and Louise Gluck, to name but a few poets associated with the style Alan Williamson (himself a fine poet) dubbed the new American surrealism. And yet Snell—or rather the Snells—for the ebook I am reviewing, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, is a collection that alternates between Cheryl’s short lyric poems and Janet’s pencil drawings -- stands apart.
The difference is hard to explain, so lets be blunt: in the best of Cheryl’s work, the style regains its vigor, enlivened by the poet’s deep sense of what it means to be caught up in life. A digression on Freud may help here because we are on the subject of digressions. Freud could never stop being fascinated by the notion that it is life that is the interruption. Not death. The immortal is the natural state. But somehow we find ourselves shunted and routed out of the immortal and into the detour of the mortal for a brief go round before flowing back into the immortal, back into death, and the beyond of death. Cheryl Snell’s poetry, and Janet’s art, together illuminate this insight: that the detour into life is a circular whirlpool. It has limitations that each experiences, and there is no fairness to those limitations, they just are, but every life will be lived within its formal constrictions. And then those constrictions end. But in between, how many of us take the time to convey a deep sense of the go-round? Not many, and certainly not with the depth and richness that you encounter when reading Cheryl Snell’s poetry and looking at Janet’s art.
"There is nothing
To be learned from this, no lesson,
Just as there is no reason
Why you should turn inside out
Over a pair of gloves at the bottom
Of a box earmarked for the trash."
Lots of MFA trained poets can crank out lines sort of like this stretch. The diction is precise and bracing, like cold ocean water. The repetition, first at the level of idea (no learning, no lesson) and then at the level of refrain (there is no, there is no . . . ) reflects exposure to the severe music of Wallace Stevens (even if the exposure is second hand, that is no matter). My mentor, the wonderful poet Tom Sleigh called these devices symbol clashes because those gloves explode in the attentive reader’s mind. Most of the time, in most poetry, the effect is cheap: it hasn’t been earned. The poet doesn’t know why reality should suddenly come undone there, in those lines. They just bang symbols together because that is what they have been taught good poetry does. But Cheryl, on the other hand, knows. Her insight is hard won; the conveyance of knowledge from her to me as I read her is one that fills me with both respect for and gratitude to this team of artists.
In “Indigo Hour” Cheryl writes,
"I run my palms
Along the edges of the headboard
As if a boundary can prove
That the past is not present here."
The metaphysical complexity of this image is to be taken seriously. The past is present—more than that, the future is present here too. Outside or within the eddy that is the mortal there is always the immortal. That conflation is Cheryl’s true subject. Her lyrics capture various aspects of it, of the real as “a zipper tired of meshing” (from “Tear”). The tonalities of her poems go far beyond the little snippets I have typed here. The reader will find laughter and love and everything else. Prisoner’s Dilemma is a book that repays repeated readings. Art is not a contest. But if asked to name my favorite poets working today, I would place Cheryl Snell very high up on my list.