Reviewed by Alicia Higginbotham
Joanne Merriam's first collection of poems exploits the theme of absence defining space. She titles the collection The Glaze From Breaking and compliments this title with a cover picture of shoes being fired in a kiln. Just as shoes are bronzed to remind us of what used to fill them, Merriam's poetry is her reminder of someone once present. To emphasize absence, Merriam uses a lot of empty space in the book. The pages are stark white; most of her poems only cover one third of the page, with many being only one or two lines.
The Glaze From Breaking is divided into three parts. In the first section, “explosion of wings,” Merriam uses bird flight as imagery to emphasize absence in her life. Aside from a few trite uses of butterflies (“somewhere a caterpillar becomes a butterfly”), these snapshots of an old relationship are touched with a special flightiness that lends to Merriam's sense of loss. This flightiness is a bit overbearing by the end of the section, though, and after floating through her thoughts, I am slightly airsick and longing for ground.
The second section is the most sparsely written, containing primarily three- and four-line poems. Merriam structures the narratives around the months of the year, as the title “calendar of dreams” suggests. Here she claims we are all in darkness in January, drowning in August, and sleeping through December. The flightiness of her first pages is left behind, but even on the ground, wind and fog remain prevalent forces:
October: “tamaracks bow in the wind, in formal wear.”
November: “realize the reason so many trees have branches only on one side of the trunk is the forceful winds of the moon. mute fog.”
December: “snow blows through the window, which won't close.”
She documents the wind's dominance in nature, concluding with her own loss to its will.
The final section, “feathers into cloth,” crosses from poetry into prose. Each piece is an explication of a moment in Merriam's past. Her memories go back to childhood and family rather than past relationships. This regression is the final landing in her descent from flight, but rather than being grounded, the poet is overwhelmed. She views things too closely, using words like “atoms” and “electrons,” and describes her vision like a Seurat painting. She is looking so closely at things now that they are pixelated, and the book ends “I can't say what I found.”
Merriam's entire collection uses silence to give her work an eerie feel of helplessness. Silence is a kidnapper of communication, and Merriam suffocates us in the inability to express, as though “[m]outh sealed in nectar, silence lies dormant on my tongue.” The second of “Eight Ways To Think About Happiness” is as “[a] silence that could swallow our whole lives.” In “February,” “surely someone will say what we keep quiet.” In “July,” Merriam dreams that she “awoke to find my sheets covered with writing, unable to speak, and then I woke.” She can communicate in her dreams by writing, but still then there is no sound. In “December,” “the mic stays on despite our silences.” Merriam remembers her relationship as a suffocating interaction under the weight of no communication.
Merriam emerges in the third section with noise, almost like a drowning victim gasping for breath. The first stanza of the first poem in this section (“With Every Step”) contains actual quoted dialogue. In this same poem, Merriam writes “Sometime in 1974 I say my first word. I babble so much anyway that nobody notices.” Then in the next poem, “Every Day 600 Miles Further From Home,” she relates “[t]he water despairing of the weight of itself falls into the lake, making a sound like the crowd at a stadium.”
As she revels in the comforts of home, we see that Merriam hasn't always suffered the intense feeling of silent repression, and in “Personal,” when she once again reminisces about her relationship, we get a clear juxtaposition of herself and the ex-love. Merriam finally makes a judgment, instead of simply recalling a memory. She calls her lover “You: the language of trains, the shuddering against the track and the endless wailing warning of approach” whereas she is “Me: the wailing of the train going on for so long it acquires the quality of silence.” We understand she felt an overwhelming desire to communicate, and her lover invalidated her need.
Merriam's obsessions include more than wings and silence, though. She witnessed a hurricane in Nova Scotia, and her awe of rain, wind, and destruction becomes evident: “Remember eyes. Yours. His. The hurricane's. The iris closes, and the train is littered with people.” Another running theme is her connection of anything to glass. People break like glass, broken bits of glass litter the mind, and rose petals shatter like glass shards. Merriam interweaves all of these images beautifully, but repetitively. Through the three sections of her book, several poems are mirrors of themselves. Two poems document flashes of past events, one from “explosion of wings” and one from “feathers into cloth,” both using the same “back in this year” introduction to each line. In two other poems from the same two sections, an exact line is almost duplicated: In “Tighten to Bruise” (part 5) “a tactile memory real as salt, as soap, as ashes,” then in “Here” (part 2), Merriam writes of “soap to touch, salt to taste, / ashes to call you home.”
The paragraphs of “feathers into cloth” restate what was more poetically and succinctly said in the previous pages. Her images are sharp and vivid, so that when they recur, you will notice. Altogether, the book provides a journey through relationship recovery, though for Merriam, the lesson is less is more.