Intense Subjects Are Studied Through Intelligent Poems
This review was originally published April, 2019 for Vocal.Media. It may have been subject to some editing changes.
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Christine Stoddard‘s poetry collection ‘Water for the Cactus Woman’, published through Spuyten Duyvil Publishing in 2018, weaves an almost anti-fairy tale onto the page. The speaker, a biracial character yearning for her mother’s love and reaching out for some kind of connection with her dead grandmother, reveals that a massive change in location cannot transform what is bitter, bittersweet—frustrated and frustrating—into anything other than what it is. It is as the speaker says, “A grave is a grave is a grave / unless that grave belongs / to someone you loved.”
As it is written in the preface, this is a book dedicated to those who do not have a picture perfect family, one that has lived a charmed life. This is not poetry which endeavors to soothe or placate the reader’s soul. That is not its intention whatsoever. The text awaits under its cover, eager for the reader to open it and therefore unleash its litany of curses upon the inequities it has suffered. The speaker of Stoddard’s work is as on edge as the “…tiny black búho…” which lives in the saguro and “…screeches like a nervous heart.” “Sometimes I listen to the / desert’s nocturnal hum / for a sign / for a clue / for a dewdrop of hope.” But Stoddard’s speaker cannot seem to find any glittering hope in a world plagued by body dysmorphia, rape, and racism.
The work is quite well crafted and easy to read, although the issues which are delved into are not so easy. Stoddard does excellent work at creating elaborate scenes with elegantly contained, but not thrift, language. Her poetry dismantles and inspects incredibly difficult subject matter with care; she doesn’t ignore the twisted mess of emotions which come with being alive. Stoddard does not try to make her speaker an untouchable hero, which makes the work all the more meaningful.
Even in the speaker’s admonishment of becoming a stick thin figure, she cannot help but describe it in such beautiful language. “She admired the thinness of ghosts, / their enviable two dimensions / and their ability to evaporate / like stars vanishing in the fog.” The aforementioned text is absolutely hypnotic. But the ugly facts of realty create a vivid contrast. “The best dinner is one you can down quickly / and propel quickly, even before company departs. / There is a bloody science to glamour, Mother. / Only Kohler can comprehend.” There is grueling work to be done to become a ghost.
Stoddard then studies the bizarre thought process of racists throughout several pieces, one of which includes a scene where the speaker is forced to ponder on the inner workings of her racist grandfather. “My grandfather called the man who made his coffee / at the bodega “swarthy…” and “I wonder what my grandfather / would call me if / I were a stranger.” The speaker continues on to unravel the lunacy of it all. “Once, Italians could not check the “White” box. / Greeks, too, were denied. / Even the Irish—including those with skin as white / as scallops and the full moon…” Even though her mother’s “… melanin / protected her from harsh solar rays. / It could not protect her from my grandfather’s / lecherous glare…” The speaker notes that bizarre notion that though it is her mother’s skin which allows her to walk freely under the sun, it is delicate white skin which burns that is thought to be somehow superior.
Stoddard’s poetry is not only easy to engage with, but works on a variety of levels. She creates intricate vistas and poignant vignettes which instill in her work the kind of magic, both blessings and curses, that can only be found in real life.
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