Martha Silano’s gorgeous poems sheltered in Reckless Lovely remind me of a bellows, but not of bellowing. Belling, or bowing, perhaps, and even more, breathing—an in-and-out, the deep sort one might perform before that strike-out-on-stage, the way one takes in winter, in-then-out-then-in, and here it is, the night sky, the stars slowing coming to the surface, our eyes and our throats singed with song.
A perfect example of the motion I mean is in the poem “House of Mystery,” a piece nestled right at the center of her book. The lines begin:
Here, where a girdle clothes-pinned to a clothesline
disappeared. Here, where a mother kept asking,
have you seen it? Have you seen my girdle? I hung it
on the line. Here, where a father decided every blessed
forsythia must be hacked to nubbins.
One might perform a poetry of erasure and leave: “[…] my girdle […] must be hacked to nubbins.” We are in the domestic and also the violent, what comes from the earth being ratcheted out of sight. Silano then gives us the breath, the opening out: we are taken into an image of laboratory frogs, which once were “teeming” and now the last one has died, the children “took turns swinging its steel gray corpse at the pear tree.” We head out and out, into the anger of neighbors and faith (“did you know chrysalis // derives from the Hebrew zahav, meaning gold?”), but takes us right back to the beloved, the father-and-child: “Here, where a father feared what would happen to his mind // if one of his children died. Here, where a girdle,without / fanfare or explanation fluttered from a hapless sky.” The moves here are brilliant, the fanfare a fluttering open, the father self-concerned, and all opening out in the firmament.
Silano’s language pops and sizzles, as in, “Repetitive expert tasks rendered [Neanderthals] adept // at knapping and hafting, worthless at asking What do you call / a bee having a bad hair day?” In “The Untied States of America,” she lists—“America, where there’s a river / there’s a dam, and where there’s a dam there’s a peach grove, a flag / still there” and closes with “America, you’re a Sleep Country, a land of milk and money… America, you stupid / reckless lovely.” These list poems, particularly this and a bawdy “Summons and Petition for Name Change,” shower words, which tumble over one another as speed is built, who demand to be read aloud and shimmy while doing it. They are saying, Look at me, listen.
The poems in this book seem to be concerned, on many levels, with the gaze. There is an import placed on light: in her poem titled “Damage Status,” which examines the lives of the Curies, everything glows: “Marriages that strain breath, bur skin, glow with flowering failure.” These stars are pinpoints throughout her book, lives that take on experience and leave a fluorescence.
The first section is akin to night-sky gazing with powerful sense imagery as company. We enter the world containing “a sprinkling / of moonlets” and “my muzzle // a lost canoe in Orion.” There is a powerful need for imprint, a you-are-here kind of marking: “visitors touched / the pinprick so often the image needed constant replacing.” Silano seems to be asking: What lasts?
Her second section gazes into the realm of fine art; in her Mona Lisa poem, “La Gioconda,” she explains the canvas’s unlimited viewings, evoking a kind of magic eye, reminding us, the viewer and the reader: “My visage excites the random noise / in your visual system” and “You love me like you love your sphinx,”—these lines leading us to: “You’re here / because I render you agog, aha-less, uncomfortably mum.” The quiet of the gaze, the quiet of the sky.
Toward the end of Reckless Lovely, the poet captures the artist Leonardo at work:
the artist so wrapped up in equine-
osity, in fortlocks and withers,
in coronets and hocks, in learning,
from bell makers, how best
to render a boisterous animal
rearing up unsaddled, unfettered
unreined, though in the end the bronze
could not be melted into muzzle
This is her task, too: attend the poems that seem to at once come out in a gasp of gorgeous imagery and are perfectly rendered, making the experience of reading a kind of cleansing breath. There is good work here.