Sandra Ridley does the elegy as dark construction

Sandra Ridley. Silvija. (BookThug 2016).

About midway through this volume of shorter serial poems making up a single longer one, we read: ‘Decide what to keep.’ In many ways this is the mandate of the whole book, a book the back cover announces is ‘a sequence of feverish elegies, . . . a linguistic embodiment of the traumas of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness.’ Elegy has been an important form recently (see Sina Queyras’s MXT, for example), & yet the title slyly alludes to another tradition of memory (of) loss, referenced in the first epigraph, a definition of ‘Silva,’ both a ‘wood, forest, woodland’ & ‘in poetry, a piece composed, as it were, at a start, in a kind of Rapture.’ Which leads to the 2nd epigraph: ‘That they with Joy their own Requiem might sing, / And close their eyes’ – a note of that Rapture, yet with a sense of ghostly return, that here only the dead might sing their elegies, themselves.

There are a lot of such selves in these poems, many in pain. Five sections, all but one a separate piece yet linked by that trauma of loss & of deciding what to keep of & in such loss. Linking them, in pieces between each section, the carefully titled ‘In Praise of the Healer.’ Thus the book itself begins, ‘Swallow the word. // Swallow the tongue.’ Yet ‘Farther/Father,’ the first section refuses to swallow any of the punishment that figure forces on everyone about him; rather it deliberately & resolutely parses it, while insisting elegy is the way to do so:

Our dead call out our dead / …

From the old butcher / your leather strap / unbelted

Crescent buckle for a skinning / hiding / each of us/

Slickened with blood / held down in your hinterland

Each barren mile unabating / say mercy

The shifts of focus, the puns so painful, each line a stanza to slow the reading of the pain down, as it came upon the ‘we,’ the ‘I’ remembering after the father’s death & always the one who’s ‘been meaning to say,’ among other things that, ghostly,

we find you not as we want

You / still where you are / dead on the floor / facing down

The long shadow / incalculable

The prose of the following ‘Clasp’ evokes a bitter & brutal relationship, also dead, yet even so mourned, somewhat. In between each section a page of ‘In Praise of the Healer’ offers something of succor: ‘Breathe you in.’ ‘After the long sought // reckon — // surrender.’ ‘Vigil/Vestige’ then seems to enter & entertain personal loss, illnesses that strike both speaker & the natural world. There are ‘The scripture of leaves’ & the ‘shy sweats / and the cold we’re night-blind by’; & then, ‘Our after-dream terrors / of a slaughterhouse — / or a labyrinth / akin / to a slaughterhouse.’ These poems move with great force to cement love & suffering: ‘We ghost-slip out from the drowning.’ Yet in the end, ‘Press deep and rest in me — / there is space enough for us both to die.’

And in that break before the last longer piece, ‘Courage — / stay in my arms / until / you can’t.’ ‘Dirge’ does what it says, echoing much of what has come before, sifting & shifting through the themes: ‘The undaunted / spectral’; ‘fear departing as soon as it’s spoken’; & ‘the essential / sylph / shadow / detached from // A great shade / shale eyes /released to darkening // Night // only you are present when the heart stops.’

And then the final statement of ‘In Praise of the Healer’: ‘What I mean is this is where I choose to die.’ As a reader I cannot know how much of Silvija really relates to its author’s life (the ‘Notes’ tell us that various sections were written in response to requests or to gallery installations), but I do see how carefully the ‘I’s of these poems have been constructed, partly to deal with/ speak to their ‘you’s. Beautifully designed, Silvija is a structural whole, a beautiful web of language, doing elegy as a constrained & compelling dance of words.

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