A Tightrope Act: Frozen Charlotte by Susan de Sola

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What compels us to poetry?

It often happens that long immersion in literature is the impulse that turns life experience into verse. Susan de Sola certainly has that long immersion, as her biography and bibliography demonstrate: she holds a doctorate in English from Johns Hopkins University and has published a long list of scholarly essays and reviews. Her first book of poetry, though, is entirely free of scholarly remoteness. There is nothing of the ivory tower about Frozen Charlotte. It converses with memory and family, with daily life and the material world, and with the pop culture of film and newsreels.

Well, make that almost nothing of the ivory tower. A bit of the dark heart of literary life is smuggled in through the back door in “The Wives of the Poets.” Its title is a sidewise dig at any number of fat literary biographies entitled “Lives of the Poets.” Its epigraph, from Delmore Schwartz, reads: “All poets’ wives have rotten lives / Their husbands look at them like knives.” Schwartz’s name and his lines recall, for those who know, the many sorrows of all the poets in the circle of his early career, sorrows that are detailed in the book Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir by Eileen Simpson, who was John Berryman’s first wife.

Yet the poem’s bouncy triple meter—amphibrachs, with a catalectic foot in lines two and four—is a clever method of salving the sadness that informs the poem. Here’s a sampling from its first stanza:

The wives of the poets,
they never complain.
They know they are married
to drama and pain.

This is not the only poem in which de Sola dresses a dark subject in a meter that seems to clash with the larger theme. Yet de Sola turns the apparent clash into a sort of highlighting effect. In “Little Naomi,” she interleaves memories and photographs of the speaker’s elderly mother with descriptions of shots from Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby. She does it in heptameter couplets, the jingly meter and rhyme pattern of Ernest Thayer’s vaudeville poem “Casey at the Bat”:

He’s colorized and caught New York. It’s 1922,
when Mommy, my Naomi, was a little toddler-Jew.

I’ve seen old family photos of her playing in the Park.
The sepia imbues her eyes with dusky, driven dark.

(These are somehow the perfect sonics for evoking old New York; they make me think of “Sidewalks of New York” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”)

The date in the poem is years before the century’s horrors, but the reader’s own knowledge has already lurched forward to war and genocide. That effect—the mixing of what we read with what we already know as we read—mirrors the effect of the movie on the narrator’s memory, and vice versa. The poem becomes a commentary on the way individual consciousness cuts across the grain of a work of art.

The poet’s Jewish family history is one of several recurring ideas in the book, though the poems about it—“Little Naomi,” “Wertheim Park,” “Miara,” “Hollandsche Schouwburg”—are scattered across the book’s five sections. The same scattered approach applies to poems about other subjects: about womanly aging and women’s clothes; about art or film or animals or objects; about place: Brighton Beach, the poet’s present home city of Amsterdam and the cities near it, exotic Mediterranean locales.

Like many debut collections, although each section has an organizing principle, the book is more a miscellany than a strictly cohesive project. This approach has its own pleasures. Chief among them is variety: a range that includes the classic and the experimental; many different meters and rhyme schemes, along with free verse; viewpoints booth personal and detached; varied subjects. And yet, here it’s a unified variety.

For example, the opening poem, “Bowl of Sea Glass,” is about an item of household decoration, yet it is unpeopled, detached, alien—a little creepy, even, as shown here in its first lines:

Bottles tossed in drunkenness from land
wash to shore as fragments, beveled chips.
The sea batters them, as if a rough sculptor,
and not the conductor of impeccable measures
calcified in urchins’ jaws, the crystal
rods of sponges, byssal threads of mussels.

In very little space the point of view in the poems seems to flip to the personal with “Cut Out,” a poem about a photo album with pictures of the speaker’s father with an old flame from his war days—except that the woman’s face has been snipped out, by the hand of the speaker’s mother. Then comes “Buddy,” a blank-verse narrative about a youthful admirer whose real first name the narrator never learned. What the poems have in common—what begins to come through as the section’s theme—is a kind of alienation, or separation, or failure to know something or someone fully. So when “The Light Gray Suit: North by Northwest” follows, with its breezy rhyming couplets and arch attitude, we understand that for all its slyness, it too is about alienation, about the sense that much in life is in some way illusory:

Grant’s father labored as a trouser presser:
the son in time became a snappy dresser.

Oh star of lacquered hair and knife-edged pants,
you too had wished a life like Cary Grant’s.

I confess I was unprepared for the cumulative sadness beneath this variety—silly of me, given the book’s title. A “Frozen Charlotte,” as a note on the title poem explains, was “a widely popular nineteenth-century doll depicting a frozen, naked corpse. The Frozen Charlottes recalled several ballads, known throughout America and Canada, about a young woman who froze to death on the way to a country ball.” She froze, say the ballads, because she would not do as her parents told her and ride bundled up in a blanket over her fine clothes.

The poem packs her story into tight tetrameter, mostly end-stopped lines, perfect rhymes, and ballad-like refrains:

I am a doll of ivory bisque.
I was a girl, but was too bold.
To preen in silks, I dared to risk
the open sleigh. I don’t grow old.
A girl of flesh who died of cold.

I froze while riding to the ball,
to end in ice and snowy pearls.
I thawed in kilns, a molded doll,
a pocket vanitas for girls.
My cheeks are flushed. I died of cold.

Even without reading the note, we get it, the eerie undertone in the poem’s rigid control. This is the control that’s always imposed on women and girls, and the doll is the perpetual emblem of the threat of death that hovers over their infractions.

Equally chilling is the jaundiced eye de Sola turns, in skillful description, on women’s aging in poems like “An Agony of Silk”:

Her voice, it seemed, had licked a thousand ashtrays,
spat out a thousand butts. She was big-busted
and tall, with bleach-dead hair—no longer young.
This was her lair, a small, select boutique
of silken panties, bras with bows and lace.
It was as if she lived inside a closet,
owned by some confined, imagined being
whose life was lived entirely on a bed,
supine, in wait, yet neither dressed nor naked.

The chill and tension are relentless enough to need the relief of poems about bourgeois daily life. That relief often takes shape in the appreciation of art and in relaxed free verse. There’s good art, as in “Jug of Milk,” a poem about Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid”:

The earthy Dutch, they caught that light,

pounded it in pigments (earth again),
but still it seeps out:
a wondrous milky haze

here in the museum
enfolds my shoulders,
lets me forget those cows,

lets me think everything is light.

And there’s bad art, amateur and derivative, sold in an open-air stall, which still manages to relieve the chill of a Dutch June:

We know the artist is a French doctor, prolific
in le week-end, and the dealers flush from a thriving business
in bedpans, crab-footed canes, and walkers.

It was art for art’s own sake, and yes, Coquelicots
would match the couch, and so the cash was laid down
for the sun, and for the shadows.

Consider how genuine this variety is, this seesaw from tension to relaxation and back, for so many of us. From the endless undercurrent of biases against women and against the aged, we escape to a sunlit surface where we can. It’s a tightrope act, this balancing, even in a middle-class life, between the sunny surface and the intruding pain. It’s de Sola’s genuineness in portraying this tightrope act that is Frozen Charlotte’s chief virtue.

Maryann Corbett is the author of four books of poetry. Her work has won the Richard Wilbur Book Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and has been published in venues like Southwest Review, Barrow Street, Literary Imagination, The Dark Horse, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, American Life in Poetry, and The Poetry Foundation, and in an assortment of anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2018. More from this author →