This might all sound grim to most readers, and I can't explain that tone away. It would be a violation of these brave poems to even attempt that. Cleopatra Mathis has always had a clear vision, even if at earlier times she was more tempted by the beautiful. She grew up in rural Louisiana in her mother's Greek immigrant family. Much of that lush landscape and textured personal history made it into her first five books. But in White Sea, writing, almost in spite of herself, out of a kind of despair, Mathis has written a book beyond categories, one that achieves a kind of consolation because of its very hardness. Near the end, she watches the various carrion-eating birds:
| . . . all of them |
repel me with their unflinching need.
The body dies, they eat it,
rot and all, a progression
not so different from the ordinarily beautiful
flower giving itself up to fruit, then the fruit
withering for the sake of seed.
And so on, without sentiment.
And yet there are the hints of other things. Whatever the soul is and for this poet it is certainly a different, darker, more indifferent thing than any popular understanding would allow the soul remains, a fact and a presence. When we "imagine joy . . . the soul gives it all / a brief nod and flies on past." When she addresses the spirit, she knows that "you don't care / about my American happiness." This combination of impulses the refusal both of consolation and of nihilism defines the bravery of this undertaking and gives White Sea a deep seriousness that truly does make it an epistle of consolation for all our losses.
Cleopatra Mathis reads from her book at Shaman Drum on Friday, February 3.