At Night by Lisa Ciccarello

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I have this fantasy that Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale would just keep telling the story that happens in the first half of the book. Offred trapped. Offred at night. Offred, a woman, living the life of a kept woman, just being. A life does not possess hope, as far as Offred’s concerned. That is what being is. Hopeless. Life is just this continuing continuing on. And then Atwood gives Offred a path out. Good for Offred. Bad for me reading about Offred. I enjoy the heavy weight that Offred’s being is in my chest. It feels like mythology, one that occurs only at night, like Offred’s nights. A mythology that has personal feelings for endlessness. Maybe danger. But danger that operates more like a relief from the strange, unusual, undaunting presence that is what happens when a person is feeling at night.

Enter Lisa Ciccarello’s book, At Night. A book mythologically inclined toward a story about night. Specifically, a woman inhabiting a night, or feeling that strange weight where night seems to extrapolate on all the unresolved parts of her life. A man. Her age. A child with this man. That child dead. And this unusual marriage this is not only her with the man. Other wives are involved. Maybe you could call this a dark night of the soul. And that might get you closer to the mythology happening in Ciccarello’s book. Because all these facts don’t suddenly appear like an avalanche, present all at once, but they are all a part of this feeling in the book that is oppressive under the weight of so many facts. Is this mythology? Not in the sense of this woman embarking on some journey or quest that will deliver her through the night.

Maybe this is mythology in terms of whatever it is that compels mythology into existence. This woman feels. She looks at the moon, and the moon helps her to understand the source of this feeling. And why? It is unimportant to answer this kind of question. A true myth does not look back at itself and think, “Why am I a myth?” It just widens the present moment, pulling it open, so it resembles what might be called an eternal present. This is partially why the the setting of a myth feels timeless, or the characters’ suffering, or the characters’ relationships. Consider this section found toward the beginning of Ciccarello’s book, where the speaker is reaching for the figurative logic she thinks the moon might offer:

The moon is a light, but it makes no light. The moon is a mirror; it makes no light. The sky is light & light touches me. The moon is a flat mirror in which you see nothing, not even the dark. The moon is a plug. It is a black rock on the dark ground polished roundly as the glass over a light. Distance makes a thing smooth. You want to touch the trick.

The suffering of this speaker is absolutely palpable here, and yet it isn’t an actual object she is holding in her hand. It’s like the moon, and especially the moon on the more luminous side of its existence. The moon is strange, present, maybe oracular. But Ciccarello’s moon doesn’t even feel like the moon as an image, maybe more an anti-image. Like it’s moon as affect, where affect is used in that Affect Theory mood-ish feeling way, which doesn’t make it emotional, because “affect” isn’t really about personal feelings or moodiness, but this overall impression someone can feel in the air. The moon is “a black rock on the dark ground polished roundly as the glass over a light”! A space seemingly invisible as black on black. And yet, this speaker knows of this object, and senses this object as a presence. And what I am fascinated by is how Ciccarello’s constant negation of what would be real actually makes me feel nearer to what this speaker is experiencing. Why am I so susceptible to this speaker’s plight?

Maybe this isn’t how you’re supposed to review a book of poetry. And yet, I find it the central question needing to be addressed. It reminds me of Robert Fernandez’s book, Pink Reef, where all I can think is, “How is this speaker not embarrassed by all the earnestness he’s putting on the page?” You’re being embarrassing, Robert Fernandez! But Fernandez has closed himself into a poetic space that is only aware of his feelings and the language that might come closest to expressing how those feelings occur. Ciccarello has similarly closed off her world. When I read At Night, I don’t imagine a night sky over Portland, where Google tells me she’s from. This night exists in that Other Place. It is night as it occurs in the preterite fashion. Night that, for the sake of the mythic world, is always night.

Which is to say a world generated by mythos is an invulnerable world. A thick world. A brought world. A presence or an inside of presence or an enveloping, unrelenting, always presence that appears to be an inside, and invites people inside, because it knows the only thing that matters is already inside the story. Mythos knows that people only get slight clues about knowing. And sometimes the people embrace what they think they will eventually discover once they are inside the mythos’ thick presence. Which, I suppose, is actually different from mythology. Mythos, to my mind, being more the impulse that would lead someone to record a myth. So, for instance, in this book, all the circumstances exist for creating a myth. There is a husband, and he has other wives aside from the speaker, and the speaker and the husband have a child. The husband has killed the child. The circumstances are surely reminiscent of many tragic female figures like Medea or Procne and Philomela.

Except in Ciccarello’s book, the feeling of tragedy and the suffering that would attend that tragedy are put in the foreground. The book, to my reading, is more an exploration of suffering via mythological circumstances:

The bridge is a stone curve as dark as the night. You could fall a long time before you knew what you were falling into. I did not want you to know where I hid it. The child has the mouth of a cat & mewls in the dark. The child has the mouth of a cat & the eyes of a cat & he sees clear into the dark & makes the sound of an animal. Yes, the moon is fading. Yes, I hear him cry. The bridge was a steep price to pay, but I paid it.

Lisa CiccarelloThis section, found about 2/3 through the book, incorporates many of the speaker’s concerns. A child that was born only to be killed, presumably by her as she was hiding evidence of the child from the husband. Why did the child need to be killed? Again, myths don’t necessarily answer questions like these. The more appropriate question: is the poem convincing that this unusual act happened? Yes. Is the poem helpless and awfully beholden to the fact of tragedy? Yes. Well, what’s the matter with this poem, then? It is suffering. As in, this isn’t just a meditation on suffering, it is the act of suffering itself.

And that makes it different from a narrative used to discover suffering, where events are threaded to one another with this sense of inevitability leading to the big reveal: TRAGEDY! At Night opens with the speaker suffering, with subsequent sections revealing the circumstances of that suffering, like it was a piece of music that starts with a single instrument holding a sustained note, and then other instruments start to join in, building the musical texture, so by the end of the piece we understand that single note in a different way. Such is the dark music of Ciccarello’s At Night. One difficulty of suffering is the sufferer feels as though there will never be an ending to it. Life is. And it continues to is in that same state as is is. And while I appreciate the entire mythic apparatus at work in these poems, what I am most intrigued by is really the is. These poems are so being!

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →