Jessica Mayhew reviews
by Anne Szumigalski
Anne Szumigalski’s A Peeled Wand is a collection rooted in the landscape, and in human transformations mirrored by the natural world. It is divided into three parts, the first roughly concerned with childhood, the second with war and death, while the final section explores spirituality. However, the fluidity of the poems often transcends these boundaries, making the collection richer and more engaging.
For Szumigalski, her poetry of the landscape is also a way of reflecting on the body. ‘The Fall’ tells the story of a distant country where children are flowers and adults, trees. The daughter of the poem is consumed by the mystery of her always fully-clothed father. Following her father’s death, she unbuttons his shirt to find:
...the chest of an old
tired man, the tangles of coarse grey hair intricate as
twigs, the nipples hard and resinous as winter buds.
Despite the ordinariness of what she uncovers, the man’s transformation is complete; through death, his body becomes the tree. This same theme of death as transformation occurs in ‘Halinka.’ In the first stanza, she recounts the notion that stillborn children should be buried with a mirror so that, ‘...at the/ resurrection...she will see her face and recognise herself.’ Szumigalski uses this poem to explore the physicality of a stillborn baby, ‘There was a heart in your chest, red and/ whole as a candy.’ This visceral, yet child-like image acknowledges the body which she will return to the ground. The poem ends with a ‘white iris growing in the/place your understanding,’ hinting at both the child’s partially-formed eye and the importance of self-recognition, and the flower which marks her grave as well as the site of her transformation.
Szumigalski’s use of punctuation is deft. In ‘Halinka,’ the measured commas contain the poet’s grief, whilst the abandonment of punctuation in ‘Shrapnel,’ emphasises the dying soldier’s fleeting memories, giving the poem a sense of urgency. Death is again a key theme; he asks the earth, ‘is this my final place my own place,’ like the ground that contains the stillborn child. However, the reader is denied the moment of transformation, leaving the soldier, ‘...pushing him away from himself.’ Szumigalski’s visceral focus is again evident in the soldier’s epiphany-like realisation of why he loves women’s bodies more than the violence of men’s: ‘for pale skin covers/ a man all over and only a wound can show his lining.’
It is not only the body that is fragmented by war in Szumigalski’s poems. Time is also collapsed, as seen in her ‘Untitled’ poem, ‘I was my own mother and I nursed myself. I was my own child and I suckled myself.’ Here, the events of the Holocaust have shattered the natural order of the family and the cyclical repetition of futile actions emphasises the despair of the lone female character, until, ‘nothing remains of [her] but ashes in the wind.’ Elsewhere, Szumigalski presents a more dream-like view of the War dead. In ‘The Varying Hare,’ a young boy recounts how his father explains the missing soldiers:
...they were led away
not to be seen again probably
they are out there still stepping it
over hill and through marsh
their boots never leaving a print...
(‘The Varying Hare’)
Here, the gap between the father’s vague response and his son’s interpretation casts a mythic shadow over their deaths, ghosting the child’s dreams. In his sleep, the boy visits a hare, but knows, ‘nothing can keep her/ from the various predators/ whose prey she is.’ The father’s tale triggers a loss of innocence in the child, ‘tomorrow she may change as we all must/ to scrap fur in a tattered bundle.’ This realisation of death echoes the poem’s epigraph from 1 Corinthians 15:52, ‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.’
This collection also explores the importance of identity. In ‘On Being a Stranger,’ the woman answers the children who deliver her mail:
I am, I answer, the foreign woman
Though I haven’t moved from this place
For twice as long as you’ve lived
(‘On Being s Stranger’)
The speaker affirms the title bestowed upon her, and yet negates it by emphasising her permanence against the children’s lifespan. Similarly in ‘The Elect,’ it is a child who finally reminds the flowers of their names, ‘’Daffs,’ she says, and, taking each of us by the neck,/ yanks for the love of God.’ The act of naming is one of destruction.
I was the struck by the musicality in certain poems. In ‘Our First Gods Were Fishes,’ Szumigalski writes:
Each spring we watched the passion
of their spawning, saw how their fingerlings
swarmed in the light of the green shadows.
(‘Our First Gods Were Fishes’)
Here, the sibilance mirrors the sound of the waters in which the fish spawn, whilst the half rhyme of ‘spawning/swarmed,’ carries the reader into the ominous couplet of hooks and barbs.
A Peeled Wand is a collection haunted by landscapes, both inner and outer. What makes them so engaging are the transformations that Szumigalski reveals, transcending the human cycle of birth and death.
Jessica Mayhew is currently a student at Northampton University. She has a forthcoming poetry pamphlet titled Someone Else’s Photograph with Crystal Clear Creators. She blogs at driftrook.blogspot.com.