Confluence by Sandra Marchetti

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I first encountered Sandra Marchetti’s poetry in the slush pile, as I was reading for a journal. I was wading through mountains of poems, all with their quirks, with their parts to admire. But Marchetti’s poem, “Orange Bouquet,” which appears in her debut collection, Confluence (due out on March 15, 2015 from Sundress Publications) immediately demanded notice because of its brilliant, unique, and deceptively simple description of cauliflower. How could she make a poem about such a mundane vegetable so exciting? So violent? I always believed a poem should never be published unless it made a reader jump out of his or her skin with excitement. Hers did.

When I began reading Confluence, I was excited, but also nervous, because I was scared what had drawn me to that first poem—the deft skill, the compression of language—would be in all of the poems. I was worried what had made that poem unique, when repeated in many poems, would grow stale and expected.

But I need not have worried.  Marchetti’s debut collection, Confluence, delivers taut, emotionally charged poems that never cease to surprise. These poems are unified and purposeful, but are also dynamic and nuanced. Marchetti knows just when to shift gears, to spring a surprise on her readers, so that reading Confluence becomes an enthralling, epic journey, while also musing about the merging between large and small, real and imaginary, nature and urban, lover and beloved. In this collection, Marchetti’s poems transcend mere nature writing and become urgent, emotional explorations in what it means to be human, to exist in this landscape.

This collection is divided into three sections, and each offers a slightly new perspective about border lands, these places of confluence. As the poems confront these boundaries, they craft a subtle narrative, a shift from celebration to something darker. It is this subtle shift that continues to add depth and surprise to this collection.

The first section embraces the plurality of the “I” to comment on the connection of humans to the natural world. The opening poem, “Never-Ending Birds” shows readers exactly what Marchetti is capable of, and immediately introduces this collection’s dominant theme of convergence. On the surface, this is a poem about swallows, a description of birds. Then this description swoops broader, shifts into more mysterious territory as it talks of the sky, the sun and planets, sweeps right up into space. At its end it lands on the narrator, this “I” who carries the reader through the whole collection. This poem moves from large to small, small to large, as Marchetti flexes her muscles here and shows her readers exactly what she does well. This poem ends with a bang, subtle and sneaky, the sort of surprise I have come to expect from a Marchetti poem:

I swallow, lift at my chest where the freckles
crack, where the wet wings gleam. Swallows
sweep out to swing my heart up with the hawk
who circles the skirmish, weeps, and screams.

And so the reader is already left with an idea of this expansion of human into nature, of what this confluence looks and feels like.

The poems continue to explore this blurred boundary, while still maintaining such a beautiful and lyric economy of language. In “The Return” she writes,

Beyond the body itself
is the thin blue line,
the sky folding back on its spine.

This so clearly suggests the humanness of the sky and the closeness “the body” has to it. It evokes and questions, while leaving the reader with a breathless sense of beauty, a sense of awe at the craft and skill here.

A later poem in this section “Blue-Black” questions even the idea of identity:

We become studies
in identity,
lasting until you
sleep to sense

Here the ambiguous nature of the narrator is heightened, so that this “I” or “we” has the ability to inhabit humans, animals, and inanimate nature. As the “I” expands and shrinks, takes on different forms, each poem develops its own sense of self, which lends to the continued freshness of voice in this collection.

In the second section the poems shift more to comment on the boundary between urban and nature. This section opens with the poem, “Language of Ice,” which as its title suggests, is a deep exploration of ice’s “racket of sounds that smack.” More nature-centric poems like this one appear alongside ones that strongly embrace the urban environment. Poems like “The East Highlands,” and “Town” continue to comment on the overlap between humans and nature, while also exploring more fully the narrative of the intersection of urban and nature. For instance, in “The East Highlands” she writes:

You took me to my old neighborhood
and I recognized the trees I’d left behind merged
to one last. The birch gone. Yes, the one that looked
as if it was dying—well—not looking.

Here the tone shifts from celebratory to more nostalgic. As this shift occurs, the poems settle more firmly in urban life and the routine. For instance, in “Migration Theory” the narrator is “given to pregnancy dreams again” and is “told the child is ghost.” This ghost child enters the narrative, and adds mystery that carries the reader to the third section.

This final section contains poems full with melancholy, drama, and subtle violence, which feel even more satisfying after reading the previous two sections. The idea of this “ghost child” seems to skirt through many of these poems, which brings added depth and intrigue to them. In the first poem, “The Waters of Separation,” she writes,

I motion out to you now;
the sun raises the ghosts
of particles in tiny half-life.

This seems to so cleverly evoke the sad idea of a ghost child. Though there is sadness here, there is also violence as later in the poem “my darling” is “stung by the softness.” This violence continues in poems like the aforementioned, “Orange Bouquet,” which ends its dynamic description of cauliflower with: “a snap of the head.” In “Fissures” the narrator’s “body disconnects, falls” and “lies on the bed in bones.” This shift into darker territory speaks of Marchetti’s capacity to deal with layers of emotion and a wide variety of subjects, and also shows her skill at ordering her poems in this collection to craft a dynamic narrative.

Indeed the last poem, “One Secret,” delivers an exquisite blow as it hints at this child once again, and delivers final commentary on the nature of confluence:

Dusk flares the bones’ groan, so I rub your stomach
until you sleep. I meet my breath to yours,
as if you were a child; the confluence
of rhythms begins. It is only sound
and meaning. Sound and meaning.

In this collection, Marchetti takes her readers on a journey of celebration and mourning. It comments critically on identity, and the boundaries between humans and nature, natural and urban. And through this, is a skilled attention to language that never waivers. This is a collection you will not want to miss. A poet, you should continue to look for.

Michelle Donahue is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State where she was the managing editor of Flyway. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Bayou Magazine, and Poecology. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Cutbank, Baltimore Review, and Whiskey Island. More from this author →