A Cave of Catharsis: Code by Charlotte Pence

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Through some alchemy of the grief that possesses many of these poems, somewhere in the middle of Charlotte Pence’s new collection of poetry Code, in the middle of a poem—it may have been at the line, “Our bodies have become / a rented text weary with the underlines”—my mind wandered into a pre-lockdown memory from ten weeks before. My MFA friend Kyle and I had stopped at In-N-Out Burger. I’d never been there.

We were on our way home from our creative writing workshops at the University of San Francisco. It was after midnight, and the people-watching was stupendous while we waited for our orders. The burgers were tasty, as promised. The memory of this scene made me gasp at the loss of such simple freedoms as a meal with a friend. I pulled myself into a ball and wept like a child for the first time since the pandemic became real.

Grief sneaks up on you, and so does this book. Pence establishes a pattern where the poems go from dark to light and back. The collection has a flow. The first of its five sections starts with “Orderly,” in which a man walking a dog misses the call that his mother has died. Focusing on a button, he imagines the hospital orderly who buttons up his mother’s “bone house.” This poem is followed by “The Weight of the Sun” which is a light account of the neighborhood during a 4 a.m. feeding. “…I celebrate solving small mysteries / like learning a red fox is the one who / flattens the path through the lawn.” The sun rises.

In the third poem of the collection, things drop again; “Attractions,” is a meditation on the Empire State Building’s “Most Beautiful Suicide.” The fourth poem is a cheeky sonnet, “While Reading About Semiotics” where a dream of a viper lunging is answered with, “I smiled, not at the snake, but at how the day / had suddenly filled with certainty. No question / over signifier and signified. No debate of snake…” The oscillating arc of these poems would have been enough to build a very strong book while offering a mimesis of the ups and downs of grief, but the second section interrupts the flow of the composition with an announcement that comes like a dreaded phone call.

In “Codicil: An Essay,” Pence writes, “I was in the last week of editing this book of poems, so I was feeling something akin to a combination of relief and grief” and goes on to explain why she decides to include several poems by Shira Shaiman, a dear friend who has died. Shaiman’s poems, in turn, wrestle with the loss of a parent: “Many of the poems are about the grief of her mother’s passing.” There’s something strikingly original, honest, and guileless about the inclusion of Shaiman’s poems even as their tone and themes resonate perfectly with Pence’s own project.

We give what some may see as lip service to vulnerability today, but Pence really lays it all out there, establishing the inevitability of love and loss. “We grieve because we love and because we are loved.” The almost-documentary, matter-of-fact approach of sharing a friend’s poems began summoning my own grief, and elided into the realm of poetry that is interested in the universal and the transpersonal.

Pence meditates on art and the transpersonal in an essay responding to prehistoric cave paintings in the Cueva de las Monedas in Spain (a setting for several of the poems in the collection). The essay, “Stubby Horses and Why We Paint Them,” concludes,

[I] wondered about why there are rarely people in the cave art… I wonder if the reason is connected to the growth of art as individualistic expression versus communal recollection. Poetry has moved in that direction from the troubadour age to now. Where is the self in these very early examples of art? Why aren’t there self-portraits on the cave walls? All we have are red hands without arms reaching out in the dark.

I find it deeply refreshing to read a book of poems with these concerns at its core.

In the literal center of the book, “III. Code: A Sequence in Twenty-Three Parts,” Pence presents a series of personas, voices that tell the story of a mother, a father, a child, and DNA. All four are given voice as they construct a shared narrative informed by CRISPR and genetic disease. Pence never strays from her central theme of grief, even in this playful and inventive but still painful section. “She worried / nightfall would hurt” writes the father.

I celebrate Pence’s use of persona poems like these. As she says in the essay discussed earlier, “To distance oneself from one’s experiences is the first step to creating art.” In the context of the essay, of course, Pence also means literally going into a cave.

Code is a cave of catharsis in this time of grieving, as we reckon with both COVID-19 and with police brutality across America. Pence doesn’t offer easy answers (see the parents’ debate in “Mourning Chicago” where a child overhears a news report about the police killing of two Black kids), and acknowledges the failures of wisdom (“We cannot offer wisdom about Charon’s leaky / row boat…”), but her  poems recognize death as an often unjust, uncomfortable, unmediated fact (“…but we can offer that the wooden floor / is always wet.”) In a voice I can only describe as compassionate without being patronizing, these poems dive deeper than the surface and make me feel what has been stuck inside for a while.

Edward Derby, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has previously published reviews at The Rumpus and Kenyon Review Online. His poems have appeared in numerous journals. He hopes to receive his MFA in poetry from the University of San Francisco in December. More from this author →