Elaine Terranova. Dames Rocket. Penstroke Press, 2012.
With a global perspective and a soaring imagination, Elaine Terranova gives us Dames Rocket, a collection so rich in emotional power, we find ourselves awed. Exploring the trajectory of a life set against the weight of a century of history, Terranova focuses her broad lens on how world events, whether close up or far-flung, can sideswipe us. The collection follows a developmental sequence from speaker as child to speaker as adult, an armature that grounds us as we encounter startling linguistic shifts. Everywhere, we find echoes of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Consider “For Luck”:
In China, fortune’s madhouse,
a ceramic peach on the roof stands for
long life. One of five wishes, with health
wealth, prosperity, a natural death.
Few would argue with such luck—the opening benign despite the phrase “fortune’s madhouse.” The speaker adds to the list, “to be praised, eternal birdcall, and prayer, both secret and permitted.” The phrase evokes images of secret police, detentions, and human rights violations—gives one pause. And what of the speaker’s wish for praise—is the child hungry for it? The stanza’s final line, “Ah / the wisdom of another language,” causes us to ask how one language can be wiser than another. We can’t help but imagine the child trying to decode her parents’ private conversations in a language not hers, a language that could be the parents’ mother tongue, often the case when parents are immigrants, but could as easily be an adult code inaccessible to the child. In the final stanza, the speaker moves to an intimate scale:
From childhood, my own good signs:
braiding, plaiting, whatever they call it,
that organization of the hair, as if
constructing a charm. And consider,
I had a sibling, Leo, I knew as Lovela,
And the name of my mother’s lost dog, Beauty.
This girl child sees braids as a sign her life is ordered, but the image troubles. While braiding often reflects cultural identity, here braiding connotes binding. Braids restrain, call forth the cliché “keep it together,” as if restraint is inimical to freedom. Braids unravel, as they must if this girl is to have a voice in a family where only the boy is called Lovela, a Yiddish term of endearment. The name bites. Not luck to be born a girl in a family where the boy is called “Lovela,” but better luck than being born a girl in “fortune’s madhouse.” And we ask as Blake does, can a child lost be found? Even Beauty is lost, irony palpable in the speaker’s voice.
“Orphanage,” one of the book’s most powerful poems, again exposes the child’s struggles:
All day, I watched my mother: What she
could clean up, what she could
get out of the way. You know, in the rush,
in the desperation to do the laundry.
The child perceives her mother’s anxiety; the reader sees a woman trapped by circumstance. When the child declares, “[S]ometimes / I’d like to throw myself out of the window / and walk away a little dog,” the image draws us into the child’s anguish. We soon learn “It’s the cold. It’s the war,” perhaps WWII. The specter of the second world war rouses thoughts of horrific events that occurred when the poet would have been a small child, and we can only guess at their effect. What follows is no surprise. The poem’s speaker shifts focus to plants that “replicate as a starburst, striking out, / a hand in your face. The parent plant // sends out a clutch of fingers.” The voice conveys accusation and resentment, as if the child feels trapped. At the poem’s close, we join the child walking with her parents past the orphanage:
with longing at the empty swings
and the wide green playing field behind the gate.
The children. Where were they? Locked away
like a treasure. What was freedom then, what?
The girl who views her mother as bound and the children in the orphanage as locked away (perhaps too treasured to be allowed free play) must wonder—what is the freedom everyone is fighting for?
Among Dames Rocket’s finest pleasures are a series of poems where balloons, often personified, impart wit and wisdom. While each poem explores different concerns, freedom in one form or another appears in each, as does emptiness. In “Enter The Balloon,” the child speaker predicts “People don’t like to be alone / but the balloon doesn’t mind.” She and her brother find a birthday balloon caught in a tree branch, tie it to the porch rail. “What would / a balloon be without a tether, without something / to hang onto?” she asks. The lines serve as a metaphor for connection to everyone and everything that has gone before. In “Sleepyhead” we’re told “Sleep to the balloon / is a waste of time. Freedom / in confinement.” The voice we hear in these poems is that of an adult whose Blakean song is no longer one of innocence. Here, “War”:
The balloon is going up, they say
when a war starts. And sometimes
“The balloon goes up at 8 ‘clock”
meaning that is precisely when the action
The lines recall images broadcast at the start of the First Gulf War as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The speaker continues: “Yet the balloon itself is amiable. It has / no natural enemies, besides / someone with a pin. And what, / after all, is a preemptive war intended / to preempt––war?” The masterful line break after “intended” upends our expectations.
As “War” tells of ballooning conflicts, other balloon poems stir thoughts of ballooning bureaucracies that restrict our choices, but in “Life: The Kit” the speaker suggests another possibility…“a person / could learn from the balloon, / learn to yield as the balloon / yields, find another way.” These lines echo the counsel of the Tao: “When two great forces oppose each other / the victory will go / to the one that knows how to yield; …whoever is stiff and inflexible / is a disciple of death. / Whoever is soft and yielding / is a disciple of life.”1 In the balloon poems as in so many poems in this compelling book, Elaine Terranova interweaves public events and private lives set against personal and global history. Using shifts in imagery that keep the reader in suspense, Terranova invites us to examine the way we live—how we resolve the dynamic between freedom and restriction, between connection and solitude.
The collection closes with “Generativity,” what the late psychologist Eric Erickson perceived as preferable to “Stagnation” to resolve the final psychosocial conflict of the life cycle. In “Generativity,” the speaker tells us “You put the light on to find / where you are, that it is not / eternal dark… // And poetry moves an idea from one thing to another. // Always, an open door, / a fence of mirrors reflecting dawn.” In Dames Rocket, a collection built from complicated and varied layers, startling images yoked together, and deep reflection, Elaine Terranova gives us the gift of life lessons, “Always,” with “an open door.”
—Edythe Haendel Schwartz