Disclaimer: I requested and received a review copy of Cutting Room from Terrapin Books.
Jessica de Koninck’s, debut collection,Cutting Room, grabbed me immediately. A cutting room is where movies are edited, with the resulting cliché of scenes ending up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps it is through faulty memory that we subconsciously edit our life story. Perhaps we cut out characters or scenes because we prefer not to share them with others. And perhaps, as de Koninck seems to have done, we cut the chaff and leave critical people and events in our poetry. Death and loss are prominent, yet these poems sizzle with life, with vivid imagery and food and travel scenes. De Koninck shares the movie of her life, richly situated with cultural context.
The epigraph title poem is my all-over favorite:
The scene is Brandeis 1973.
The scene is Brooklyn 1958.
The scene is Montclair 1980, Trenton 2002,
my car, my yard, the bathroom, the hospital.
I can’t decide.
And then de Koninck delivers the line that took my breath away, made me hold the book on my lap for at least 15 minutes before I was able to continue, because it precisely captured my reaction when my mother was diagnosed:
The moment the doctor said cancer
I knew my husband was going to die.
Reactions like mine make poetry universal, so much larger than the speaker’s impending loss, and de Koninck accomplishes this throughout the collection.
This poem is followed by five numbered sections; many more poems and lines that resonate in a similar fashion. In “On Rosh Hashanah,” the speaker is preparing one of her grandmother’s dishes:
But when I opened the box,
there I stood in your kitchen
whisking two eggs in a ceramic bowl.
The telling detail is the word "ceramic"- without that, it’s just a personal memory, but that descriptive “ceramic” is, again, an opening into the universal. Each cook has her favorite bowl used to prepare certain meals, and to the speaker, that bowl transports her to her grandmother’s kitchen, and holiday meals.
In Jewish tradition, the golem is most widely known as an artificial creature created by magic. “The Golem” makes good use of this metaphorical title:
I understand the magic of dead things,
the resurrection of mud into matter,
desiring, as I do, to recreate you from clay,
dry grass, beach glass and sand,
wood shavings, graphite, the earth
around your plain pine box.
Don’t we all wish, beg even, for deceased loved ones to return? The use of sound in these lines is perfect-the repetitive sound in “under,” “resurr,” “matter,” “desir,” combined with the soft s. Reading these lines aloud sounds like a whispered wish.
De Koninck has a sharp eye for capturing details in her narrative poems. Many of these poems utilize sly humor; there are references to Elvis, Bruce Springsteen, and even one about God, as a "Back Seat Driver":
I know to hit the gas or slam the brake
without omniscience pushing from behind.
The collection closes with “Going Around in Circles,” a wonderful metaphor for life. The speaker is riding a Ferris wheel, challenging herself “because/I am afraid of heights.” Family members have died, youth is gone, yet the speaker declares that she is still alive, and ready to live:
I ride the Ferris wheel,
and thrill builds a memory.
I ride the wheel, and I hold on.