Sunday, July 3, 2011

Review: Yaakov on Darcy Cummings' "The Artist As Alice: From a Photographer's Life"

“The Artist As Alice: From A Photographer’s Life” by Darcy Cummings
Reviewed by Yaakov

In "The Artist As Alice: From A Photographer’s Life" (Bright Hill Press, 2006), a biography of an imaginary Alice, Alice of Lewis Carroll’s famous tale, Darcy Cummings tells of the girl grown into wife, womanhood and motherhood, of her evolution into a professional life of her own as a photographer, of the dead and then resiliently of light and the living. Wonderfully, the book is rich and insightful as it works like a river of life through all of these transformations.

I love the way Carroll’s rabbit trespasses into patches of poems. As in the volume’s introductory poem, “Years Later, Alice Dreams of Rabbits,” where “…the infant at her breast/is whiskered and furred. Face quivering, it nibbles her berry stained fingers.” And where later in the poem she hears a snared rabbit squeal as it’s skinned. Intimations of the deaths of children and symbolically of the spiritual flaying of marriage. The implication is metaphorically profound: entering a new life stage is akin to descending the rabbit hole.

This is also a book featuring great diversity in its language and attitude toward form. Cummings provides sonnets and otherwise, poems buckled into punctuation and poems released therefrom, this perhaps a grammatical metaphor for Alice’s marriage. Compare the astringent sparseness of “The Séance”—“Husband, speak to me. Once you spoke/ice into my limbs, froze my steps,/stiffened my tongue. My dreams fled.”--and the remarkable aftermath poem, “How The Dreams Returned To Her Body,” to such engagements with natures as this selection from “Primipara”: “In May everything was green:/even the paths between fields were half/hidden in green: Creeping Thyme, Ajuga,/and all the miniature forests escaped/from kitchen gardens . . .”
The issue of Death of course figures largely, as it does in any life history, and here it finds voices ranging from consolatory to commercial. In this regard I especially enjoyed the anti-poetic “Photographing The Dead Infant: Instructions For The New Employee,” which is everything the title implies and serves as a welcome and indeed brilliant counterpoint to the poems facing grief head on, including the one immediately preceding it, “Making Arrangements,” in which Alice laments the lack of a photograph of her own lost first born.

The volume’s final sections convey a sense of Alice’s maturity, of having found peace and purpose in her chosen profession. There’s a sense of quiet triumph over things lived through. And of the deep self-esteem and willingness to endure that with luck arrive after pain and hard work. “Hand Portrait #5,” a poem about, among other things, the faithful reciprocity between the left and right hands, offers a poignant coda : “. . .Hand in late afternoon light somehow like/a crouching crab or a dense spider, weary, but willing/to resume work tomorrow, to spin out another day/like this one. . . “

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