By Stephen Scott Whitaker
Susan de Sola’s Frozen Charlotte is a lyrical collection exploring a rich cultural and familial tapestry that spans continents and generations. Frozen Charlotte delivers tight poems that sing; whether elegies or odes, Susan de Sola reminds that life is full of loss, and gratitude and celebration go hand in hand with pain.
Charlotte is centered on family. One of the more arresting examples is later in the collection when de Sola examines her son’s dresser. In "Shrine for 16", the poet lists the collection of treasures she finds in his room. It’s a poem sharp with tension and tender with love. For these are items that are dangerous, in their own way, condoms, lighters, bottle openers, a marijuana pipe. The kind of objects that a mother would probably not buy for her son and signal his growing independence from her. Obviously, they represent small dangers, but dangers nevertheless. Love, and our seeking it provide the harshest lessons of all, as well as the most rewarding. De Sola reflects that tension in the sound. Consider this line, ”He has two boxes of condoms(still in their cellophane), in tangerine, and teal,” & “For he has impaled a beer mat on a nail that hangs it.” The second line provides sharp notes to the lengthier syllabic music of "tangerine" and "teal". "On a nail that hangs it" offers up loud and possibly angry connotations, especially when coupled with "impaled beer mat". The complexity of emotions parents feel when children age is as complex as the sounds offered up in Charlotte's verse.
Lovers of ekphrastic poetry will find Charlotte a delight, as de Sola’s exigency is often responding to art. Charlotte features poems in conversation with artists like John Singer Sargent, Joseph Cornell, and paintings by the Dutch Masters, even with film; de Sola offers up a meditation about love in “Bringing Up Baby”, a poem about the film of the same name, and Grant and Hepburn’s smoldering chemistry. Public art also weaves into de Sola’s compositions; the Netherlands feature prominently in her work. In fact, Dutch ingenuity of structure and form can be found throughout Frozen Charlotte. The collection functions as a kind of museum, in ways, due in large part to the animus of certain works of art and the physical setting, be it the neat canals of Amsterdam’s city planning or the evenly laid out avenues of a city park, or a cemetery’s ordered plots. De Sola functions as both curator and architect, and such order is evident in the verse.
Frozen Charlotte’s poesy is primarily formal, although de Sola often employs metrical variations rather than relying on strict traditional forms, though there are wonderful poems carved out of couplets and sharp sonnets, de Sola primarily shapes each poem to its own urgency rather than enforcing rigorous formalist traditions. Consider the variations and turns in “Little Naomi” a poem inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby film which de Sola uses as a way to discuss Jewish heritage via Luhrmann’s gritty, and sensationalized interpretation and meditation on the excess of America. De Sola imagines her mother, the title character, playing in the snow, the “newfound land” of her family, of New York 1922. The poem is written in couplets, and instead of employing perfect syllabic symmetry, de Sola allows her poem the room to breathe, and her syllables provide a trombone-like slide of varying lengths of breath and music.
They play, unknowing that the years ahead of them will hold
At crash at home; and over there Europe will unfold
Another war of wars to be unleashed upon their kind.
It wasn’t yet on Gatsby’s--or on Scott Fitzgerald’s mind;
Just the sound of money hovering around his honey,
And my rinky-tink, fur enrobed, three-year-old Naomi.
De Sola changes up the rhyme scheme in the latter couplet by employing internal rhyme, money, and honey, as well as Naomi’s long E sound. Combined with the syllabic variations line per line, de Sola’s triple rhyme loosens up the couplet’s structure; an apt choice for a poem about American excess, family origins, and both hope and loss. Later in the collection, De Sola offers up “Two-Part Song”, a free-verse lyric employing rhyme that twists and turns throughout the poem so that often end words rhyme with internal words, and vice-versa, which creates tension. The lines want to conform to tradition, yet are shaped to slink, to lay in wait, if you will, to both surprise the reader and propel the language forward to the end lines, “If I squeeze it small, it all fits there,/a rolling die in rarefied air.” The poem is subtitled “Preserved Things” and “Things Thrown Away” and through the litany of “things,” de Sola explores mortality, change, and fear of both. Ultimately, the poem questions the spirit, the uniqueness of identity among the natural world, and de Sola, like Elizabeth Bishop, finds art in “losing it.” Losing identity, that is. Giving up one’s identity is alien to most Westerners, and terrifying as well, for realizing that one is so small, that our lives and desires are minuscule worries in the span of the cosmos threatens our ego. We live on in what we hand down to our family, both materially as in antique furniture or recipes, and biologically as in our DNA, or even behaviorally as mannerism and learned behavior. It’s a striking poem about humankind’s place in the world, as well as it is a fitting tribute to art, craftsmanship, and dying.
Susan de Sola’s lyric Frozen Charlotte explores the dark threat to humankind’s ego, that our lives are over before they begin, that what we are is fleeting, transitory unless we are lucky enough to create art or shape concrete and steel. De Sola reminds readers that even in order, life’s chaotic impulse drives us forward, even if it is toward decay and we don’t have a choice, the ride is already underway.