I first got to know Darla Himeles through a mutual acquaintance in the literary world when she offered me an advanced reader’s copy of Himeles’s first full-length poetry collection Cleave, which sings with the precision of a writer who understands the intricateness of her life and craft. On the cover is a pair of hands holding a nest, showing just how many elements—some strong, some sharp, some brittle—can be assembled to form something uniquely whole. Himeles touches on topics such as early domestic abuse, queer relationships, and reproductive struggles. Each poem gleams with its own sharpness as Himeles traces the emotional fault lines along which to carve out and bring her stories to light.
Forty-seven pieces tether to or circle around the titled theme of Cleave. Throughout the collection, Himeles explores different definitions and fleshes out facets of meaning that belong to this single-syllable word. Himeles draws a parallel: just as one definition doesn’t fully define a word, a single experience doesn’t fully define a life.
The imagery in this collection is beautiful, grounded in the familiar. This is something that is clear from the start. The collection opens with a poem entitled “The Self in Transit.” Immediately, there is motion and a delightful image:
I turn, pretzeled with pillow,
The line that follows then lulls the reader back into reality with a constant and familiar travel sound:
tray table rattling,
The poem continues as a gentle introduction and perhaps even an orientation for the reader as to what might follow:
& the sun-bled orange behind drawn eyelids;
transparent, childhood’s home thickens,
solidifies, & my skirted self enters,
These words and phrases situate the reader into the rhythm of a speaker in transit, perhaps resting their eyes mid-journey. This poem also works to transition the reader back to a beginning, and guides them to the next poem entitled “Home”:
Home, I have always wanted you
to bear tomatoes
clambering cages, ballooning life
into open air—
tomatoes juicy and oblong, or round,
heirlooms all sizes,
This poem creates a wistful juxtaposition to the realities of actual childhood home life in the subsequent pieces. Himeles alludes to that home’s troubles when she recalls the domestic violence her mother endured, for example, in the poem “Goldfinch”:
A woman once
clobbered and cut in the kitchen of a house with not enough
locks and too many windows—I still hear the shriek of glass
and speak its broken language
Here, the first definition of “cleave” is examined as various events revolve around the ways family can be severed, broken, separated, or fractured. For example, here Himeles explores her complicated relationship with her father culminating in a brutal and violent act, an episode that ripples throughout the entire collection. In a later poem, Himeles returns to these events in “Among the Things I Haven’t Asked My Father Because I Love Him” and provides an emphasis for how tightly events of the past thread through events in the future.
Another definition of “cleave” that Himeles explores is to hold or stay very close to someone or something. Scattered throughout this collection are tender poems about the deep bond Himeles shares with her wife. Some poems are loud and joyful; others hold a quiet, contemplative beauty. There’s an intimacy in these poems that feels as easy to savor as a gentle conversation between lovers. At the same time, there’s also a sense that the reader is only given a glimpse, leaving deeper meaning and context to live in the pauses and spaces of these poems. Himeles writes, for example, in “Still Your Hand”:
Zebras in dry grass
become hair across your face
Somewhere a hand whispers
to my leg to stay still
This love is paired with a sense of uneasiness in several poems throughout the collection, not within the relationship itself but within a society and a political system that are slow to change. In “Dawn After Maine Votes Yes on Question 1, Repealing Same-Sex Marriage,” the poem hovers in the quiet moments of dawn and moonset. This quiet invokes both calm and uncertainty. A new day begins, but there is an ominous and unsettled feeling. Something larger is in motion, going inevitably forward and bringing with it, an uncertainty of the change that will come with the new day approaching:
Moon keeps on shifting
each day on the line,
staring differently into the light.
These quieter poems hold a slower pace that allows for a saturation of moment, giving time for small but profound realizations to rise to the surface.
A different series of poems leans on a more biological definition of “cleave” which is to divide a cell along a natural line or a cell division. Himeles examines her and her partner’s journey of conceiving a child via artificial insemination and the silent tragedies of miscarriage. While there are wistful moments, and even a lighthearted poem to the FedEx Guy, Himeles does not shy away from the physical and emotional aches encountered, the longing and the clinical things that are done to a body. Two poems in particular, “Insemination 12” and “Pricked / A Day in the Life of TTC,” show the weariness that begins to color the tones of yearning and expectant hope. In the latter poem, Himeles writes,
pinched belly fat, hovered syringe above flesh, pierced,
breathed, and plunged clear liquid in—
Another faint bruise blushed under skin
Again, here is another example where Himeles works in brief but telling images, using these to hint at the emotional undercurrents that are kept quiet behind closed lips and closed doors. Himeles has the ability to draw a reader very close to an experience, but at the same time makes it clear that this experience is her own and grants the reader space to grow and ruminate. The poem “Loss” is another quiet poem where the weight falls in the space between words:
All matter crumbles,
returns. Even the unborn
particles of dreams.
There is a feeling of careful deliberateness throughout Cleave, from poem selection and order to word choice and line breaks, that makes each poem feel separate, but fully part of a greater whole. Poems echo, rebound, and speak to one another. Himeles has said that it took her seventeen years to create this book, and these years feel necessary. Journeys take time. To rush from one destination to another is to skip the layers that lie between, and for Cleave, the beauty lies in these layers. There is a landscape of life that’s been traveled in those years, from which Himeles could find and gather moments to keep close through poetry.
Even the form of this collection enacts one of the themes of “cleave.” The first section contains the most poems, and then the number of poems grows smaller in each subsequent section, as if the collection itself is being whittled down, until the reader arrives at the core, the heart. The final section, titled with a simple “&,” contains a single “Poem for Evelyn.” Though it is the last section, “&” suggests this is not an ending. Instead, perhaps, it is a pause—one that hints of new beginnings to come, that there are still many miles to go, and many more words to write.