on Zero At The Bone, poems by Stacie Cassarino (New Issues)
The poems in Zero at the Bone, Stacie Cassarino’s highly accomplished first book, emit a sonic calm even -- or especially -- while teasing out the adversities in their subject matter. Her tone modulates between intimate remark and a flatness called out by the weight of the scene. Often her speaker observes herself in memory, moving through a landscape, carrying a dayload of uncertainty, testing the validity of her emotions. There is a concerned amazement that the mind is wired to keep observing itself. In part, we hear the pleasure taken in knowing one’s mind is acutely observant.
The evenness of tone suggests a relatively stable location (an unexpected arrival) from which to observe the ephemeral in nature and people. “Alaska Memoir” begins: “What I wanted in the early splendor / was to center longing in the flesh, / walking through eelgrass at slack-tide // with the resilience of a predator / in love’s presence.” The poems' present voices are resilient, even if the selves depicted lag somewhat behind.
Zero at the Bone illuminates the moment when one’s first adult assumptions and cherished expectations dissolve into the depths of actual circumstance. In Cassarino one discovers a young poet equipped to project a resolute nature while sounding original and credible (that is, like herself). It’s a rare discovery. A resolute nature may also be a harsh one – and though she is capable of abruptness, Cassarino’s speaker seems more interested in interrogation than confrontation. So then, you may ask, what is she resolute about? She argues for the right to make meticulous if sometimes questionable discriminations about what she sees and who is seeing it.
The form of address in "Midwest Eclogue" below is her typical stance: spoken to someone specific with a great deal between them at stake. Such a figure, desirous and skeptical, is built to attract admirers, but sees risks in encouraging their affections too ardently. Some globally experienced inadequacy makes intimacy problematic and the motive of desire unclear.
The first day it feels like fall
I want to tell my secrets
recklessly until there is nothing
you don't know that would make
your heart change years from now.
How foolish we are to believe
we might outlive this distance.
I don't know the names for things
in the prairie, where the expanse
of light and the hissing of tall stalks
makes me move slowly,
like in another country before
I must share it with anyone.
In what do you believe?
In September's slight motion
of particulars, in the weight of birds,
in lust, propulsion, maps
that lie. You should not have loved
me. Now: goldenrod, prairie-clover,
the ovate-leafted bluebell with its open
throat, saying how did you expect
to feel? The colonies of prairie-smoke
and pods turning golden and papery,
the grassy plains iterating patience,
and things I cannot name.
Begin with apples reddening.
Begin with a woman touching
the cities in your feet. Hartford,
Anchorage, the Bronx. Did you ever
see yourself as more
than yourself? I walk into a part
of afternoon that deepens
inventing an endpoint
for sadness. Everyone is gone.
On the subject of deception,
where do you stand? There's a chill
in the air and the flowers know,
the goddamned flowers, their loosed
color. Sometimes we are cruel
and we mean it. We author the house
with its threadbare linens, the false
miniatures of people saying look at me.
Will the landscape forgive you?
Is it yours to describe? What
is the sound inside your mouth?
I'm surrounded by grasslands
in every direction. The sound
is a clamoring, because desire
is never singular and we want it
this way. We want it easy.
I have already let go
of summer. Here, the wind --
dispersal of seed and story. Love,
there are things I cannot name.
To balance the agitation over the persistence of longing, the voice acts as a self-calming device – but the poems enact their own desires, their conflicts settling into formal resolution. In “Early Snow,” a single-stream utterance, Cassarino arranges a plummet instead of a day trip, ending with earned, crushing insight:
Some mornings are like this,
the stupor of longing or pure light,
stillness in a rifled grouse,
the black woods legible to a woman
whose heart is made of false starts,
the ruddy life of a hill gone blank
or what the face in the window
wants to believe of her past,
architecture of a white house,
this draft of rooms, paramour planets,
children with gentle hands, kindling
piled near the moon’s pillar, this draft
of despotic love, then distance, vacancy,
then forgiven words accumulating
like snow, just when the world
is finished with us, we build a wall
with rocks and the work is the whole
body inside the idea of belonging
somewhere, even if not for long,
mineral world of slate and flint,
numinous like these days and others
wintering, we test what will hold,
attenuated voices that lean
and fall, the argent sky, the worry
we don’t need anymore.
We can hear a “tighter breathing” here – what Dickinson attributed to her “narrow Fellow in the grass” who could maneuver by way of “Zero at the Bone.” In Cassarino’s work, the speaker suffers “the whole / body inside the idea of belonging / somewhere,” the restrained voice speaking as if located somewhere between the body and its scenes. Some of the poems pretend to depict a dialogue, an I-said-then-you-said game of catch. But these pieces are actually monologic -- the other is an ineffective antagonist, neutralized before the poem begins. A relationship is a contention for something. And then, the other person is no match for the gorgeous entropy of the world itself. In “Quasar Song,” the speaker and a “you” visit a planetarium: “I train my eye / to love you better” – but in the depicted world stars flare and burn out. “We are luminous and harsh. The song / is of things breaking apart.”
Zero At The Bone is a book of awakened sensitivities and passing glances at one’s youthful reflection (sparking everywhere). Its pleasures come from sonorous reckonings with what the eye sees there. These are the final lines of “Salmon”:
We’re no different, trying to return.
In the end, the salmon are killed
for their eggs. They crowd
the troughs. In the end, I won’t recall
your face or what you were trying to say,
driving home, our hands tagged
for identification, sometimes touching,
sometimes remembering the way.
[Published May 1, 2009, 91 pages, $15.00 paperback]