Whirlwind @ Lesbos by Risa Denenberg


Whirlwind @ Lesbos by Risa Denenberg
Headmistress Press, 2016

Whirlwind @ Lesbos, by Risa Denenberg, begins with its title poem, a thrilling and marvelously impossible history of a whirlwind of a love affair. It starts in Istanbul, travels to Naples and Jerusalem, Copenhagen and Cairo, Paris and ancient Greece, and ends in New York, “awaiting your email.” In the second poem, “So,” the speaker may flee Seattle for California, but the possibility of love arrives in “a whole cabal of women.” Then, almost immediately, in the third poem,“ Femme Leaves Home,” loves itself flees. A whirlwind, indeed.

There’s a lot of love and longing and loss here, swiftly evoked. Take a look at the first and last stanzas of “Her Ambivalence,” which make a beautiful envelope:

          Her hand enchants as it enters
          finger by finger. I am a glove
          surrounding her like a galaxy. 

What a sudden miracle that is, the tightness of the glove expanding to a galaxy. And then, the end: 

          She wants this to be easy, facile.
          I only understand it when it’s hard.  

Here is the perfect incompatibility of a couple, even though one fits the other like a glove… 

There are other brief or near relationships, other “studies” in desire. In the poem “Study in Desire,” the past has somehow already prevented the present: “I think about wanting you / and how you could hurt me.” “I scan / the odds, try to feel nothing.” So even if “the dam bursts” in this poem “and we go flooding // down unfamiliar streets,” the speaker is holding back, only considering desire and its aftermath, an inevitable nothingness, not necessarily acting on it. Twenty pages later, in “Anhedonia,” the speaker has arrived at this: “I have no talent for pleasure. / My skin rebuffs touch.” 

And yet, there are such touching moments of pleasure here, recounted or imagined. Some are “bursts of orange, delight / at winter’s first snow,” moments of the beauty of nature. Others are sensual and sensory pleasures, chaste or erotic kisses, a first kiss 

          under a South Miami sky, Cassiopeia
          above, hemmed in by the sickly-sweet
          surfeit of gardenia… 

Some, as seen above, are both! And some are the pleasures of word play and language itself. In “Pierce Me with Feathers,” we get this bold command: “Fly away damn bluebird, you aren’t the bird of paradise, / you’re no better than any other chick,” and the pun on “chick” as bird or girl is just plain fun. 

There are gorgeous sounds: “I step into a lusterless bistro and order oysters.” There is alliteration: “Her succulent face, so full / of something I can’t fathom…,” boldly yet subtly done. Poetry itself is the saving grace after heartbreak of all kinds, and “After the Dentist.” After many losses, the speaker has “learned to do without.” But 

          I always return to the written word. It lasts longer
          and leaves a better trace. I’m not lost out here
          in my small craft. I’m writing, not lonely. 

I love the pun of “small craft” here, as both poetic skill and little boat. It seems also an allusion to Stevie Smith’s phrase “not waving but drowning” but luckier. 

I should pause here to mention how much I loved the poem “Avocado, sideways,” seeing this potted avocado tree weathering the storm (and re-reading it right after a hurricane). I got lucky with an avocado pit once, too, and also got a poem from it! Mine, too, sprouted into a thin tall green tree, before it failed. 

          …Another way to fail
          is to fall 

          like a tree in a squall
          green-thin but tall
          sprawling sideways. 

Listen for the internal and occasional end rhyme in Denenberg’s poems, another way she plays with language. 

More than one poem is about poetry itself. “Perfect Reader” takes place after a poetry reading:

          Someone asks: Who is your ideal reader?
          Modestly, she replies, One who reads
          a poem more than once. 

I am glad I read these poems more than once!—several times! I got to notice how “a reckless gesture” in the title poem pointed to the penultimate poem, “Gesture,” about raising a hand to one’s head or heart—and also a complicated elegy. I got to track the poet’s anhedonia through wild revelry to fear of loss and home again to heartbreak. In the book’s final poem, “This is Heartbreak,” we learn “I do not / make these things up, I’m too weary.” I believe this, but I hear that heart still beating. 

–reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor 

Risa Denenberg at EIL 

Joy in Transgression: Poems on Poetry at EIL  

Books at Headmistress Press