Sylph by Abigail Cloud
Pleiades Press, 2014; 88 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Abigail Cloud’s Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize winning debut Sylph conjures demons-of-everyday-annoyances (i.e. demons of broken jars, lost wedding rings, needle pricks, and choked peppermints), angels who go on benders, Ginger Rogers and her stylist, women from classical ballet, and spirits of the air. While putting all these characters together appears to be a stretch, Cloud writes with a sense of purpose that assures us by the end of the collection these figures’ interconnectedness will be revealed.
In the meantime, we revel in the lushness of her language, the power of her images, as in “Snapped Key Demon,” which opens:
You knew it the second
the brass scraped into the lock,
teeth bucking the groove
and the involuntary twist
of the wrist a new disaster.
A sharp clap and the heart
comes away in your hand.
Cloud’s poems have texture. Their sounds alternate between euphony and cacophony. They carry weight even with their simple diction and linger long after the page is turned.
There is something alchemical about these poems. Cloud often seems to spin gravity from nothing, doing so literally in “Mad Scene,” one of several poems that reinterprets the ballet Giselle. The titular heroine whispers in Albrecht’s ear that her love is driving her mad, but then after she chases a moth and scratches “a thumbnail down her own cheek,”
She will hold air in her hands
like a bird, like her heart, like his
heart, like a sword. No tree
grows high enough to fall
from. No skirts could drink
enough of a river. Her feet
will grow too wild for shoes,
her mouth too desperate for words.
Giselle and the other figures in Sylph are linked by their hunger to know the immense satisfaction of “the closure of sound,” a realization the last section, “Apothéose,” builds to:
You were raised
not to scream and that’s all
you did, words behind your teeth
and your tongue straining. (“Burying”)
With this book, they are no longer silent. In fact, they have been exalted.
Like the dancers who tell stories through the grace and power of their bodies’ slightest movements, each choice Cloud makes, from consonant to word to line to poem, grabs something deep within us that at first we may have trouble naming. But it is always present. It haunts us as we navigate these characters’ inner lives until, finally, we are blessed to recognize the beauty, the purity, the glory we’ve just witnessed.