December 3, 2009

At Night the Dead by Lisa Ciccarello

Jacques Derrida, in an essay concerning the German poet, Paul Celan, speaks of the poet as witness to the death of language and poetry as its site of resurrection. In this view, the act of writing poetry becomes intimately related to the poet’s ability to inhabit the space in between; the foreign and the familiar, the cut and the seam, the metaphorical Limbo. In At Night, The Dead, Lisa Ciccarello explores this relationship between poetry, language, and death in a series of beautifully constructed vignettes, each beginning with the line, At night, the dead:

The vignettes in Ciccarello’s collection range in length from half a sentence to several paragraphs, but the themes are constant and recurring: salt, coin, milk, soap, roots, home, sign. Like Gertrude Stein’s, Tender Buttons, Ciccarello is able to take the trite and mundane subject (for Stein – food, objects, rooms; for Ciccarello – the foreboding, the haunt, the dead) and transform it into something else altogether.

The imagery that Ciccarello evokes is, like the subject and the space that precedes it, at once familiar and foreign. The mood is sinister, yet nostalgic, neurotic, yet deviant, all inhabiting the same moment:

At night, inside the house, the dead:
A saucer rimmed with gilt, a sweet I hold my hands over. Later, you palm my blacked-out ankles. Later I wet your palm with my tongue. Warm is what we want.

At night, the dead:
In the time before the dead there were no coins. Regardless, when certain fish then jumped their eyes were coins made luminous by the luminous coin of the moon which was part of the earth almost recently enough to still remember the heat.

Meanwhile, the style of At Night, The Dead reminds us of Stein: think prose that is not prose, repetition of words and images, ignoring proper grammar and syntax. The emphasis is on words and the interplay of words, the signs and images they signify. Ciccarello’s shortest pieces provide the best examples:

At night, the dead:
A little story: salt & grave. Of the finger: the thrice motion: a sign.

At night, the dead:
Linen on the line: diamond: it takes the dead hours to make the sign: soon.

It is clear that the tropes that Ciccarello is working with: the undead, magic, protection, and shamanism are being reconfigured into a refreshingly new narrative. The arc of the collection is dark, a darkness that is surrounding and all-pervasive, but brought together with patches of light and the search for a light that will stay. Towards the end of the collection:

At night, the dead, the perfect inside is outside:
The house is always lit by a flame we can’t blow out. We watch the wick blacken to measure the hour. Our mouths draw close. The flame does not flicker.

The experience of reading At Night, the Dead, sheds light on the idea that, “Nature is a haunted house but Art is a house that tries to be haunted.” Ciccarello’s poems are haunting, in more ways than one. In them, we are confronted both by our old understanding of poetry and the undead, as well as Cicarello’s vision of the new.


Lisa Ciccarello is a boutique, with boutique hours:

At Night, the Dead is published by Blood Pudding Press:

To purchase:

Review by Jen Lue

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