Phebe Davidson, Review of Lynn Ciesielski’s “I Speak in Tongues”

by Phebe Davidson

I Speak in Tongues
Lynn Ciesielski
Foot Hills Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-93153-99-3

Lynn Ciesielski’s chapbook offers poems that give readers a fine sense of the poet’s experience and observation of life, and through that a keen sense of the poet’s sensibility. To be sure, prose can do much the same thing, but its operation is generally different. Where prose tends to complete sentences arranged in paragraphs according to a particular narrative strategy, poetry tends to rely (today at least) on shorter forms, on language that is heightened (by use of metaphor, word choice, and syntactic liberty, to name a few of its techniques), and on line-length and stanza breaks. What makes all this possible is poetic sensibility, which might be defined by the poet’s sensitivity to the world as a trigger to poems rendered with such precision that they seem to lift directly into the reader’s emotional experience.

Not every poem will reach every reader with the same intensity. And while this is partly a matter of taste (or reader sensibility, if you will), it also marks Ciesielski’s continuing effort to find the poetic techniques which best serve her. Thus, we find the opening poem titled “Binge,” in which the longest line contains four words, serving as a balance for the closing poem, “The Muse at Midnight.” In effect, the poet extends her range from the stark, imagistic effect of

The room where
the poet
sits all night
is strewn
empty bottles
colored pens, . . .

to an arrangement that is both more lyrical and more formal:

The muse calls nightly and bids me to write.
I train my pen while tea and images steep.
Secrets hide like butterflies in moonlight.

The “midnight candy” outside is a sight.
It fills me with such joy I want to weep.
The muse calls nightly. She bids me to write.

Certainly, the decision to frame the collection with these two poems, both of which center on the work of poetry, is neither accidental nor unimportant, and makes it clear that the poet’s engagement with her task is central both to what she does and to how she sees herself.

Equally central, in this collection, is the poet’s love of people who are, by most measures, ordinary. Consider “Gatekeeper Mel,” who

. . .watches when you turn your lights out,
knows how many boys courted your teenage girl,
and which explored her geography in front of your house
from their cars.

When Mel’s belly swells with beer, he opens up wider,
floods you with stories that drown even him,
female neighbors he would like to cheat with,
odd things he’s eaten, gator in his bayou days.
Here in the city, he just chews the fat.

Then consider Joan, who tries her best to manage for and with her wheel-chair bound husband. . .

. . . brings her husband Neil coffee with cream
in this modern church where they offer
refreshments with salvation.
She finds his place in the Bible
for the pastor’s passages.
She positions him oh so perfectly for the Word.

This portrait of the dutiful wife undoes itself when the poem’s speaker and her husband arrive late, and Neil shifts his wheelchair to make more room at the table:

Joan tenses her jaw and yanks him back.
He slaps her hand hard, as if
she was a feeding mosquito.

Joan’s lip quivers like a ripple in a pond.
Tears swarm in her eyes as she listens
to the minister finish his bid
for prayers to help victims
of violence.
(“The Buzz at Church”)

The multiple ironies, so adroitly contained by the poem’s matter-of-fact tone, bear strong witness to the strength of this developing poet, as does the adroit use of line to create a visual diminuendo at the poem’s close.

Ciesielski, at her best, I think, in the longer-lined poems, uses the shorter-lined work to good effect, underscoring her stance with intelligently chosen formal variation. The result is a book that coheres, that engages with a variety of subjects and concerns. Lynn Ciesielski is a poet of genuine promise, to read with attention and to watch for in the future.

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