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Cascadia Books, 2017
by James Crews
Anya Krugovoy Silver passed away at the age of 49 about a year after her fourth collection of poetry, Second Bloom, was published. She had been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer fourteen years ago, while pregnant with her son, Noah. In a 2010 interview with Macon Magazine, Silver said of that diagnosis, “My poetry got better. Nothing focuses your mind and helps you see clearly what’s important quite like cancer. It made me want to explore, even more, the beauty and divinity of the ordinary world.” Richard Sandomir echoes the poet in his New York Times obituary about her: “In often sensual poems, she wrote with unswerving candor about living under the threat of imminent death, her love for her son and husband, and the parallel world of advanced cancer, where ‘healthy people fear us.'” Second Bloom is thus about coming through cancer treatment while struggling to hold onto a sense of faith and presence in the face of impermanence. Yet the power of these poems stems from the choice to “fear not contortions of the body/nor the vibrations of failure,” as Silver commands in “How to Hula Hoop”—and to appreciate the given world even when one’s body is “failing.” Which is to say, this last collection by the widely published Silver, who was also a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow, is also an exploration of the ways we choose to react to the truth of our own approaching death. The fact that Silver herself reacted with a mix of levity, reverence, and devotion is a testament to her immense talent as a poet, her resilience as a human being.
In the first part of the book, which details her tenuous recovery from cancer, Silver acknowledges that she will always, to some degree, belong to “the world of the ill,” and will never be able to escape the widening perspective that a brush with death instills. Anyone who has faced what she has knows that a certain unawareness is no longer allowable. This new truth becomes most apparent in seemingly ordinary moments, as when the speaker is sitting with three women, and one cracks a joke: “You should go on the cancer diet. It’s the best way to lose weight.” Suddenly, Silver is transported from this everyday scene “like a wisp;” she tells us: “I rose from the gossip and took flight . . . ” She seemed to know she “would never return to that other, open life/of carefree women peeling tangerines.” Another poem, “Department Meeting,” shows us a similar moment of comprehension that things will never quite be the same for her—”Tragedy,” she says, “won’t stop the world’s drone.” Perhaps most affecting and telling in this poem is Silver’s exacting portrayal of the way most of us deal with the fact of mortality in our lives:
When I mention cancer, the eyes around me lower.
The woman to my right pushes up her glasses.
The woman to my left nods vaguely, pen hovering.
Then all attention turns to questions of the budget.
Silver masterfully tempers moments like these, however, with scenes of recovery, her own return to the familiar world. The most memorable is “Grape Popsicle,” which describes how she must do without food for three days. “Total bowel rest,” she confesses, her pancreas having “turned anarchist, an egg/and soup leaving me unable to walk.” She can’t help but crave what others eat, and plans her future meals while watching commercials, catching whiffs of the “the staff’s food from their station—fried, sauced, roasted, boiled.” Then come the lovely lines toward the end of the poem when we want to weep with relief right alongside this speaker:
The fourth day, the nurse pulls out the catheter.
I lift, from the tray before me, something I
would never buy—a grape popsicle,
the color of a crayon, in a soggy white wrapper.
I run my tongue along the ice-furred top.
Nothing has ever tasted so good!
The poems in Second Bloom are as tender and moving as we might expect, and several also take up the loss of the author’s father. “A Walk in November” gives us a memory in which her father asks her to come outside with him to see the foliage just before he dies, and Silver details her unwavering refusal:
I found excuses, wouldn’t be persuaded
by the sunset of maples up and down the street.
He pantomimed falling leaves with his hands.
I didn’t want to hear his reveries.
Then, later in the poem, we understand (without Silver needing to say it) that her father is gone. She simply states: “Too late now to put aside my book/and follow him outdoors that afternoon.” Some poets might be tempted to lapse into self-pity here, but one of the central strengths of Anya Silver’s body of work is her ability to render a poignant scene or image without adding an ounce of the sentimental. She trusts the strength of her language to speak for itself, and to live on in our minds. Such moments as the one she describes above are emotionally loaded, as she well knows, so her words appear as the lightest of brushstrokes that nonetheless give us exactly what we need to conjure the moment.
It says a great deal about her abilities too, that the images and the music Silver uses stay with us long after we’ve finished the book. I found myself repeatedly returning to Second Bloom, drawn back by the sounds of a poem I needed to hear again, seduced by Anya Silver’s astute and unsentimental voice, which comes to us like that of a truth-telling friend, pulling no punches as she tells us what she thinks. One unforgettable poem in this vein is “Kharkov, 1933,” which relates her father’s theft of a loaf of bread from an old woman “when he was almost starving” in his native Russia. Silver makes clear the kindness she tried to offer her father in his final hours with her characteristic tempering of tenderness and raw emotional honesty:
She had her revenge, though,
visiting him night after night
as he lay dying. She’s forgiven you,
I kept telling him, but he wasn’t sure.
There can be no easy answers, no false comforts for those in the grips of processing a lifetime’s worth of joy and pain, yet her poem argues that we do what we can for one another, taking pleasure in our ordinary moments together. Silver knows, again like that no-nonsense friend, the difficulty of surviving in this world, and “Kharkov, 1933” above all asks: why not forgive ourselves and others for the suffering they have caused us in their own attempts at survival?
In a book so unapologetically concerned with mortality and the transcendence of suffering, one might expect darkness or despair to hold sway. Yet Second Bloom dwells just as often in joy as it does in hardship, and one senses that this is the way Silver lived her life as well. “The Strawberry Moon” delights in the physical aspects of the world as she explains the origins of that name for the full moon that appears to us each June. The poem soon transmutes, however, into both love poem and blessing:
As sleep ripples down like a handful of roses,
may our dreams be as honey-gold and sweet
in our memory as the strawberries we picked
and ate impatiently in the fields . . .
In “Late Summer,” the poem that gives this collection its title, she writes:
. . . the roses in second
bloom know what’s coming.
But for now, bells, water, laughter,
my mother and I walking together
arm in arm, because happiness
is a decision each of us has made . . .
Out of this moment of deep attention and connection, the speaker (like those roses) also knows the fading and failure that are sure to come of this verdant scene. And she reminds us that happiness is indeed a “decision” each of us must make in our own ways—deciding to live and reveal ourselves completely in spite of all that we will someday lose.
Those few words from “Late Summer”—”but for now”—could easily sum up each of the poems in this collection. There is an edge of defiant rapture that runs through this collection and all of Silver’s previous books—From Nothing (2016), I Watched You Disappear (2014), and The Ninety-Third Name of God (2010) —which reminds me of the late Jack Gilbert’s oft-quoted lines from “A Brief for the Defense”: “We must have/the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/furnace of this world.” Silver does not merely “accept her gladness”; in so many of her poems, she has learned to embrace it. That anyone would dare to capture so many exquisite, ephemeral moments in order to render them eternal, she implies, is the height of hubris, given the fact of her illness and the brevity of a lifetime. Yet she does so anyway, often blending delight and mortality in a single breath.
The image of roses recurs throughout Second Bloom; in the shorter poem that ends the book, for instance, the speaker is visiting a castle and can’t help but notice, again in late summer, “the tower’s a ruin.” She knows better, however, than to focus merely on that. ” I keep my eye on the rose,” she writes, finishing the poem (and the collection) with these lines, whose truth cuts straight to the heart: “To bloom is so foolish/that it must be wisdom.” Because it comes from someone who endured the horrors of cancer, and had far more than a glimpse of “what approaches,” we trust her urge both to herself and her readers—to be as vulnerable and unabashed as that rose by the castle gate, to bloom over and over, in spite of “what’s coming.” Silver’s Second Bloom proves that one can keep a close eye on the rose and ruined tower at the same time, while relishing the particulars of this one life we’ve been granted for a limited time.
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