In her new collection of poems, White Sea, Cleopatra Mathis writes, "I have lost my killer instinct / for beauty, for embellishing and relishing / the art of it." She has come to this place — the one where she refuses the easy consolations of the beautiful — the hard way. Although several losses and illnesses are suggested in the poems, the death of one particular friend becomes the inconsolable dark heart of the book. In the long poem "Called Back," she describes that friend's illness and death. "When she understood she'd entered another country, / crossed the chasm between illness and health, / well-being now forever on the other side," she assumed that intense inward gaze so many of us have noticed while watching the slow deaths of those we love. "The fact of dying took up every space, all her weight / belonged to it, all her self in its service." In a later poem, the poet continues to refuse the usual sympathies:
| We'll call this dying: the soul
fumbles out of the dark room into
hallway, almost feeling its way as it
from the body's time and space.
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.
[Review published February 2006]