Susan Kolodny’s “After the Firestorm” reviewed by Rebeca Foust in Calyx

This review, by Rebeca Foust, was originally published in CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women – Summer 2012, Vol. 27:2

AFTER THE FIRESTORM , Susan Kolodny, Mayapple Press , 362 Chestnut Hill Road, Woodstock, New York, 12498,, 2011, 57 pages, $13.95 paper.

As a child, I visited the silk mills in Pennsylvania, worked by women like my mother in unvented air so thick with thread that the large rooms were dim even at noon. Classmates and I returned with bobbins wound  in hues otherwise seen only in foliage against a September sky. Fine as a spider’s thrown line, the same silk wound round a finger could cut off circulation, could cut flesh to bone. The poems in Susan Kolodny’s After the Firestorm are like this—delicate,  but also tough, fierce, and even dangerous.

It was difficult to find the end or beginning on those bobbins. In Kolodny’s book, time  loops and circles back around the speaker’s central core, like Eliot’s “Time present and time past / .   .   .present in time future, / And future time contained in time past” (“Burnt Norton”). The continuity of time and our ability to access it through memory and creativity are Kolodny’s central concerns. How do we unspool the narrative of our lives? And, Do we risk more when we look / or when we look away? (“Vigil”)

Kolodny wrote previously about such issues in The Captive Muse: On Creativity and Its Inhibitions (PsychoSocial Press, 2000).  In After the Firestorm, revelation comes from patience and attentiveness:

I Float.

                                                                  Among jewelfish that dart and glide—

                                                                opalescent silver, orange and melon green,

                                                                parabolas of color in space—among these shapes

                                                                I drift.  (“Lagoon”)

A world of life exists above, below, and  at the edge of awareness, and the speaker begins to sense the savage things that lurk. Beneath fish vivid as Matisse cutouts

                                                              like a subplot or motive, is a school

                                                             of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned,

                                                             .   .   .   living in the shadow (“Koi Pond”).

Penetration of the subconscious—here and elsewhere represented as water—recurs in these poems. Go back, past the curtain of details, the wall / of chores “Word Pond” enjoins, to “refind” the pond we’ve forgotten. In “Sirens,” the speaker begins waist deep / in and ends on a cliff two thousand feet above the Pacific, so powerfully drawn that she must, like Odysseus’s sailors, physically restrain herself from its lure. Creativity is an act of remembering in which we risk drowning, like the patient in “Improbable Angels, ”a small boat   .    .    .   sinking / in the indifferent water.

Kolodny’s signature technique is Imagist, and her language, spare yet saturate, glows with jewel-like lucidity. The first of the book’s three sections recover memories of a young girl who barely apprehends the hovering darkness:

                                                         At a party, kissing,

                                                        The silk rustling lushly

                                                       Whispering its warning

                                                      Lightly billowing

                                                      Incense around me.  (“Silk”)

Section two introduces an adult psychotherapist in poems that continue to hone the knife edge of self-discovery. Her practice sometimes  quickens the therapist’s own memories. One patient sees in her face a pond you have dropped a pebble in (“Tsuneko”), and an incest victim draws me a tight cell of panic,” a line that would read very differently without the “me” (“Improbable Angels”). In a harrowing vignette from “Crisis Clinic,” a woman cannot recall the last time she fed the baby she holds, and the doctor is told, We’re waiting / for you to tell us what to do. Detachment is eroding:  Careful, I think. / You could drown in there.

Tropical fish return in section three’s “Black Carp,” but what “lurked” before now swims into full view:

                                                   .   .   .    torn silk,

                                                   spilled ink upon the water,

                                                 glimpsed, you swim  

                                                 into memory.   .  .    


                                               Glimpsed, you recur.

Memories are a source of creative potential as well as of menace, a door held open. Still, we discard them like small change until loss teaches their value, and rowing at lunchtime / in the rented boat becomes like / the only coin issued with an inverted “d” (“Appreciating”). In “Sweet Grapes, Cut,” a perfunctory visit is recalled as the last outing, the last car trip as well as last opportunity to “out”—and perhaps forgive—a father’s transgressions.

Where preceding poems exercised restraint, the last one unleashes a fury wild as the conflagration that destroys an entire neighborhood:

                                              I stood on our roof, watching

                                              the fire come, stood and screamed at the wind,

                                              wind blowing towards us, orange and black mountain

                                             of fire, stood and screamed at the wind, black smoke

                                             and a vortex,  (“After the Firestorm”)

The house burned in four minutes, erasing even the memory of memories.

                                            It’s not like you see the unfaded rectangle

                                           on the wall where the picture was

                                           and miss the picture. Because there is

                                          no longer a wall. Or the room.

Barn’s burnt down — / now / I can see the moon, Masahide once said, and such fire also clears the way for Kolodny’s retrieval of repressed memory:

                                             .   .   .     as if anyone

                                            could have saved us   as if she could have saved me

                                            as if the flames   his hands    mouth   the rest

                                            that scorched    me   could

                                            have been prevented   .   .   .

These lines represent the book’s first departure from regular syntax and punctuation; extra spaces generate terrible ruptured energy as something long tamped-down erupts into furious flame. What happened  in the past matters less than that the speaker here finally perceives fully the darkness relegated to the edge of awareness in previous poems.

After the Firestorm  begins with water and ends with fire. In between stretches the thread of a life, picked up, dropped, picked up again. The speaker survives a traumatic past to discover a future “dormant under the blackened earth” (55), perhaps the creativity that gave birth to these remarkable poems. This book set me in search of my own “word pond,” recovering a memory of mills spinning silk more beautiful than anything I could imagine, in lint-filled factory air that perhaps caused my mother’s death. I’d forgotten all about those bobbins. But I have mine back now, and I am unwinding it still.

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