Review of Celisa Steele’s “How Language Is Lost”

by Scott Owens

Celisa Steele
Emrys Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780977351640

Sometimes funny, sometimes profound, the poems in Celisa Steele’s debut collection, How Language Is Lost, are always full of surprises. Who, after all, would expect a villanelle on the words we use for men and women (“Consider the Chickens and Other Lessons on Sex and Sin”), or a prose poem on the creation of a national grammar police (“Sin Tax on Syntax Passes House by Narrow Margin”), or a metaphysical conceit that ends in either post-dinner or post-coital satiety (“She Loves the Sushi Chef Whose Name She Does Not Know”), or an ode comparing ping¬-pong to poetry: “most like a poem / this onomatopoetic game / with its spondaic name”?

Just as these poems demonstrate that Steele is comfortable and effective in both formal and free verse, they also demonstrate that she is equally comfortable with either humor or seriousness. In fact, she masterfully exhibits an insightful understanding of the coexistence of humor and gravity in many of the same situations, making it clear that vital truth often exists in the most mundane of human experiences, even those we primarily think of as funny. Such is the case in one of my favorite of these poems, “Al Considers the Fucking Holy Spirit,” where the surprising (given the topic of consideration) profanity of the speaker belies the profundity of his thinking:

You got to go at it slant . . .
. . . It’s like cursive, or some shit –
no block letters, can’t be too plain or obvious,
got to trust your instincts,
your sub-fucking-conscious.

While this poem apparently deals with the quest for religious faith, the same lines could be written about poetry or love or luck. Anything worthwhile will always be somewhat ineffable.

Equally ineffable, or perhaps irreducible to any sort of simple statement, is the sense throughout these poems of the presence of loss and the importance of language in our daily lives. The brilliant title poem, for example, tells us of the indigenous Argentinean Abipon people who, succumbing to European/Christian influences and diseases “gave way to farming, kneeling in naves” and discovered “their own shamans couldn’t shape shift anymore.” And when the last speaker of the Abipon language lies dying, no one understands “her articulation of the world to come, / the world lost.” Thus, Steele demonstrates that the tragedy of the death of a language, of lost words, is the loss of a perspective, the loss of an expression of an understanding of the world, which is finally what any language consists of.

The lost language this speaker mourns, however, is not just language of the cultural or anthropological sort. It is also the language that is lost when one loses a loved one, and the wasted or terminated opportunities for further meaningful emotional exchange that accompany such loss. This sort of lost language is addressed in “Emily Confesses, to the Pedicurist,” in which the speaker, asked to cut her mother’s nails, “quit”, “failed. At the end, / just knelt beside her chair, too tired to pretend.” And the sense of loss is further addressed in “Elegy for a Scarf Borrowed from a Mother Now Dead and Left on a Trolley Car in Budapest at Christmastime” and in “I Bought a New Car the Year My Mother Died.”

Celisa Steele has indeed made a wonderful debut. These poems possess all of the qualities a reader could hope for in a book of poems: lyricism, humor, compression, depth of feeling and meaning, memorable imagery, precise language, and perhaps most importantly, one surprise after another. A very enjoyable read that leaves the reader wanting more.

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