Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Read Write Poem Virtual Book Tour: "At Night, The Dead" by Lisa Ciccarello

“At night, the dead,” is a chapbook which concerns itself with the dead, which is literally everywhere, "in our throats when we sing" as well as within the pages of the book itself. But don't mistake what may initially sound like George A. Romero's book of poetry for anything like the gory, shambling dead we have come to expect from our dark media. And thank goodness for that. I have never understood the obsession with zombies and zombie killing. Spilled viscera isn’t scary. It’s disgusting.

Instead, the dead in Lisa Ciccarello's chapbook are more akin to those remembered in the practices of Mexico's Day of the Dead, or in the stories I have heard from Puerto Rican culture. They are everywhere, a part of our every day lives.

"the dead are sitting up in their narrow huts. At night they moan & try to uncross their legs. In the day they pretend they chose this position."

At night, the dead is not so much a story as it is a long running chant or benediction with many repetitions of imagery in its terse lines. Different forms of water, diamonds, salt, things burned, and especially the dead repeat themselves throughout the book.

Fourteen of the sixteen poems share the same title: "At night, the dead:" which serves the dual purpose of giving the poems a connectedness that hints at a single running poem, but separates them from one another, an essential thing for a series with no underlying literal narrative.

These are poems with pressing images, and short lines that give a sense of urgency to getting to the next line. As I've said, it reads to me very much like a sort of protection spell. Ever see the Charmed sisters frantically read a spell as something malevolent comes their way? It's something like that. Except not corny. Perhaps an entirely different example is in order…

In any case, the images themselves, and the mood that such short poems portray—blanketed as they are on the page with whiteness—are what this book seems to be all about. Not with understanding the who/what/when/where/why, but with sharing in a feeling:

"A moon is a plug. Someone stoppers the dark & I was waiting for it.

The moon is a coin on the dead eye of the dead. The dead are dead. Rearrange the letters."

There are many references to primal symbols and words that surely affect us all in similar ways. The word dead immediately sets a mood, and its repetition disallows our escaping that mood. The moon too, and even coins, associated with Chiron on the river Styx, all drive home an idea not of an abject terror, but of a dull one, a constant struggle between acceptance and fear of the dead.

It is not the complete peace of Native-American spirituality. One where ancestors, are welcomed to guide and protect us. Instead, it is a kind encroaching and pervasive dead. A perversion of that innate human feeling that the dead are with us coupled with a modern fear of death, and refusal of acceptance.

I would at first be inclined to say that I don't share these feelings about the dead, but then I realize that perhaps how I deal with the dead is to push them fully out of my mind, to 'move on,' as we might put it, and never spend any time to think of those who have passed, if it can be avoided. Enjoy the memory of them, but never think about them being dead. And this is precisely what the struggle this book seems about.

There are some things that I don’t understand, even coming to terms with the fact that this work is not necessarily a literal narrative. Sometimes Ciccarello writes out the word ‘your,’ and other times abbreviates it as ‘yr.’ There doesn’t seem to be any consistency in that, though, and sometimes both appear in the same poem. The word ‘and,’ on the other hand, is always abbreviated as an ampersand (&), and so it seems as if there is some sort of purposeful choice between ‘your’ and ‘yr.’ One which I was never able to discern. There are also inconsistencies with the capitalization of sentences.

And since the form of this chapbook seems to be used at times to its fullest effect (the decision to run on sentences instead of breaking lines, or to print a single line on an otherwise blank page) it made me wonder if the fact that only the first half of my book’s pages had frayed edges was a conscious decision, a technical necessity, or a mistake. And if it was a conscious decision, if it had anything at all to do with the poetry itself.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys in their poetry mood and imagery above all else, or who likes their dark forays into art properly dark, instead of what passes for dark these days: the gruesome, the startling, and the demented.

Oh. This is one stop of many on the Read Write Poem Virtual Book Tour. Check out some of the others, if you get a chance.


  1. Very interesting and multifaceted review, Keith. Thank you for reading and writing about this book.

    About the frayed edges, I must have made a mistake in paper selection or insertion. All of the pages should have been deckle-edged. Oops.

  2. IT IS SOLD OUT. How tantalizing . . .

  3. Great review. Glad to see the author post here as well. The unity of title interests me.

  4. CandyDishDoom, it's alright. I really enjoyed the book, even without the deckle-edging (which, by the way, I was not aware was a term. Thanks for that mini-education). haha.

    Marita, I think the way that etsy works is that you have to post each individual book as it's own item, as opposed to the way Amazon might do it which is list a title as one page. What this means is that to sell 10 books, you need to post 10 separate entries of the same book, and when someone buys one of those books, it is sold out, with 9 other books left to buy. Or at least, that's the way Blood Pudding Press seems to have done it.

    Thanks, Vizionheiry, for the comment! I have never actually seen this unity of title as you put it, done before. It's a very interesting effect.

  5. Nice review, Keith! I liked how you compared "the dead" in this chapbook to the Day of the Dead, Native American spirituality, and contemporary fear of death. They fall somewhere in between all of those places, but all are useful jumping off points in conceptualizing the dead.