Upon Arrival by Paula Cisewski. Black Ocean, $11.95.
Reviewed by Kate Seferian
One could regard Paula Cisewski’s first book of poems, Upon Arrival, as the beginning of a significant journey, but she too often seems to hover around the surface rather than dive to inspect the massive potential below. Although the mediocrity of many of the poems elicits lukewarm response, Cisewski unearths a few gems in the pile of rhinestones. Her ingenuity manages to shine through some of the chinks in Upon Arrival.
The book opens with “All the Way Home,” a brilliant, pioneering piece suited for the beginning of the book because it suggests the collection’s underlying purpose as a poetical expedition and gives a colorful glimpse of the poet. Cisewski introduces herself as a feisty and bright writer who embraces her flaws as elements of a jaded perfection: “The greenfinch in me flying straight into the cracked mirror in me / The you-already-said-that in me / The firewalk: the glow, the blistered faith.” Cisewski combines nostalgia, introspection, and inner strength to create a backbone, or essential reason, for her work. “All the Way Home” spurs the poet’s, and ultimately the reader’s, journey: Cisewski performs a meet-and-greet with her audience and establishes a foundation for the subsequent exploration of her art.
Cisewski presents a collection rife with erratic and eclectic forms, an observation which lends itself to her obvious proclivity to experiment, as well as her struggle to find a characteristic niche. Each poem exhibits its own personality, and while this aspect hints at a sense of lyrical schizophrenia, it also motivates one to think that if the current poem does not evoke a strong reaction in the reader, the next page may satisfy any lingering appetite. In his review of Upon Arrival, John Deming notes that “the mania [Cisewski] is really indulging in . . . is an obsession with the notion of multifarious selves. Every person is burdened with an infinite number of conflicting impulses and emotions--indeed, of ways to finally envision oneself” (http://reviews.coldfrontmag.com/2006/10/upon_arrival_by).
In “My Dearest Memory” and “Origami,” Cisewski showcases an extraordinary ability to weave language with the heartache of memory and wasted chances. “My Dearest Memory,” at first glance, almost appears as two poems and quite possibly could be read as such--the two staggered columns maintain a hint of dependence on each other but still act as their own entities. Cisewski exhibits skilled control in playing the poem line by line, each one holding its own weight but also contributing to a whole. Cisewski reaches a climax in Upon Arrival with “Origami,” in which she beautifully depicts the intricacies of the what-might-have-been situations we all run into: “Something folds out in the shape of a bloom / for the pocket of quiet they guard with their lives.” These poems are what propel the reader forward as Cisewski flirts with a taste of her abilities, with what pulsates beneath the rough surface.
The book contains three sections, as the poet’s penchant for dabbling in a variety of structures can seem daunting to the reader if she unleashed everything in an unorganized fashion. One could associate the final section, which shares the book’s title, with the theme of the opening poem “All the Way Home”--the theme of the poet’s journey. Cisewski opens her final section with a quote from T.S. Eliot: “In order to arrive at what you are not, you must go through the way in which you are not. And what you do not know is the only thing you know . . .” Cisewski suggests her collection may actually act as a personal journey, but one may find it difficult to discern any destination or closure in the end; her constant changes in structure contribute to the collection’s choppiness. It is natural, with any journey, to want to achieve a sense of resolution or declaration in the end, and the poet does not deliver the conclusive note that some of her readers may desire.
Cisewski finishes her book on somewhat shaky ground, leaving the reader with “who else is not to be trusted / with language”--a stimulating and loaded question, and possibly one that readers could use against her. This question humbles Cisewski and serves as an interesting finale to Upon Arrival, but the lines hint at the instability of some of the preceding poems. Cisewski bounces between mediocrity and brilliance, sometimes floundering but also exhibiting fearlessness in dabbling in colorful, chaotic personality.