Charlotte Pence, author of Weaves a Clear Night has created in The Branches, the Axe, the Missing a work of significant mythic force that explores intimate circumstances of a woman fraught with sorrow borne out of problematic relationships with an ex-husband and an abusive father. And though this character serves as the crux of the collection, the sections in this book transcend the immediately recognizable to investigate points of origin for all humanity, the foundation for memory and thinking itself—the first, primordial sparks that ignited sentience and language. Out of these dual themes come motifs of mortality, identity, and self-awareness. The result is a powerful, dynamic work, an ambitious vision fully realized, so forceful in its impact that the images reside in the mind long after the book is closed.
Part of Pence’s success is owed to her facility with sound; the poem’s sections are often musical, always best read aloud. At the collection’s opening, the poem’s central character, an unnamed female, pulls into her driveway at night to find a huge branch fallen in her yard. When she “grabs the branch by the base . . . her hands slide down wet-slime of turkey-tail mushrooms in bloom.” She purposefully chooses not to wipe her hands of the stain, and as the “moon seeps through to a shine,” the narrator asks, “How long has it been since she has done something as fundamental as this?” Thus the woman’s memory is catalyzed by the tree’s detritus, the moon, the cold and sodden winter; thus all collective human memory is sparked to fire, portrayed in the poem’s second section:
We were born from wood and fire.
Roasting small mammals as we sat
in circles. The sizzle-spit of fat striking
flame. And outside the circle: darkness.
Stalk of hyena. Crick-shift of his step.
Then man lifting a torch—jab-jab-jabbing
until the sounds flee back to the
quiet: sizzle-spits. Shifts of logs carboned
and bone-thin. Ashed by morning.
The language here is staccato and luminous, sonically and metaphorically reflecting the first intimations of community, of humanity encircling fire to feed and protect itself. Playful and rich, the language shifts again into the relatively prose-like, in which objective information is aestheticized, made poetry. Pence’s narrator says, for example, that “biological anthropologists are discovering that / ‘we were born from wood / and fire’ is not / figurative. // Taming fire // led to / cooking / which led to / / more calories / which led to bigger brains to / language speech communities.” The personal and intimate narrative of the woman coalesces with scenes of primordial humanity realizing its sentience, which then meld with hypotheses about the processes by which this realization came to be. In less gifted hands these vacillations between such distinct modes might have fallen to incoherence or atonality. However, these sections depend on and even demand each other, distinct as they are, because cumulatively the synthesis achieves a resonance almost pictogrammatic: images pop and information clicks immediately. For instance, one section poses answers to the query, “What was the mind like before language?” Pence handles the inevitable paradox through minimalism and repetition:
[Arc of bird’s chest as it rises from a bay bush.]
The section goes on to posit “Metaphor” and “Act” as the last of the mind’s pre-language sources.
Pence’s suppositions about man’s beginning are equally rich:
Maybe the first species to strike fire
did so by all lucky-dumb.
Some brute banging blind
pyrites against flint in hopes
of a hammer
But the heart of the poem pulses within the central female character, a person in a contemporary world with its myriad “small fires and many small roofs. / Fathers and daughters, lovers and exe-es, / connected / by a desire to forget our histories.” I will leave the more detailed textures about the central character unexplored in hope readers will pick up this collection. It is enough to say that the character cannot forget her history; she is branded by the elemental and dysfunctional forces that form her identity. As such, Pence does not allow us to forget our histories, either.
The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, brief as it is, genuinely feels epic, incantatory: the narrative radiates like embers stoked to flame. For all its sadness, for all its acknowledgment of both origin and end, fecundity and emptiness, love and the question of whether love can exist, this chapbook is a complete joy to read, a revivifying work that deserves a large audience.