Review by George Yatchisin
Ventura, California-based poet Marsha de la O knows of fire, force of destruction and engine of rebirth. Consider the poem “The Afterlife of Flames,” from her intensely engaging (or perhaps that should be engagingly intense) new volume Creature, in which she writes: “there’s / no need to abide any longer, / no need for the abode, the / hut, the hull, the home, only / translation is required.” This is serious music, words tumbling like dice hoping to land lucky or right. Or perhaps it’s the very song of their fall to the troubled table of our world that matters. Fortunately for us, de la O is the keenest of translators, her book a bridge bringing us the world’s wordless but no less felt pain and beauty full force.
Even the note for “The Afterlife of Flames” at the back of the book is a prose poem; de la O, a lecturer in English at Cal State Channel Islands and indomitable arts advocate, writes that the poem “refers to the California fire poppy, which grows after a major burn. Its seeds can lie dormant for decades. They bloom for only one day.”
Creature praises what blooms, sometimes for a mere moment. Many of its poems are ekphrastics, odes to art and therefore artists, to—as one poems title puts it—“The Seer and the Seen.” Indeed, the book’s epigraph is from Lorca, visionary and victim: “Todo la luz del mundo cabe dentro de un ojo” (“All the light in the world fits inside one eye”). There’s a glory and a danger in that, of course (ask Lorca), but a call de la O summons rather than shirks from. In the book’s opening poem “To Be Unprotected” she asserts “there’s a thirst inside syntax / for what can’t be told,” only to spend the rest of the book forging that very language, shaking us awake to the magic of the world. Not that the magic can’t be mindlessly malevolent, for in that poem she also writes, “When I say I thought I might die / of beauty, I mean it broke me apart.” What a line break that is, leaving us hanging, and then barely consoled.
Late in the book, de la O addresses pears, “lit like small lanterns, hand-size Neolithic goddesses, / sun-warm, ticking, headless, footless, primordial: / Where will you be when you’re gone?” The implied second question, of course, is, “Where are you when you’re here?” That’s what de la O hopes to map for us in her lovely lyrics, the brittle, bright, and bitter intersection of fate and family, myth and memory. While creature is a word we often think of as relating to animals, the word’s root connects to create, of course—the most human thing we do. Poems for her dying father illuminate his care as a glazier, piecing stained glass together like a puzzle; a memory poem about her daughter when she was young concludes with her climbing so high into a tree the poem nods to Ovid’s Metamorphosis at its close (a reference made several times through the book). Transformation is all we have. Or as de la O puts it, “This tenderness we do not remember—it must have once fallen on us.”
Far from just lofty talk, de la O roots her metaphysical musings in the tangible. Nature gives nurture and inspires insight, with precise descriptions like this one of a lizard: “One teaspoon of alligator, a spoonful / of philosopher, a mouthful of daggers.” (That might be a sneaky self-description of the poet, too.) Or think back to the pears described above, observed as patiently as they have ever been since Cezanne’s. Her ease incorporating the natural world allows her to break open the typical traps of the political poem, even. “Indelible,” keyed by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, ranges from sympathy for the countless abused women to rage at the abusers, but ends with an Ovidian moment:
Because I would not accept his advances, I was sealed in a tree. At first, between my body and the bark, a narrow space, like I’d once imagined the gap between desire and fate.
Of course in Ovid it’s capricious, priapic gods doing the raping; today it’s beer-swilling mediocrities rewarded for their mendacity. The gap between desire and fate can yawn mightily. Not that de la O doesn’t know that, as she attests:
Now that god could not hurt me, the world was out there, like a book, something I could learn to read.
Or, in the poet’s case, learn to write. As one poem has it, “You are the scar / the plum sews onto its own skin / when sugar splits it open. / You’re brimming over.” That plentitude is de la O’s Creature, sweet with the world’s pain and sewn into beauty with inimitable skill.