Everything is Light: Frozen Charlotte by Susan de Sola

Frozen Charlotte: Poems
by Susan de Sola
(Able Muse, 2019, 126 pp., $19.95)

The magnificent seascape/ice-scape on the cover of Frozen Charlotte, Susan de Sola’s new poetry collection, is all blue. But, like the book’s contents, it coruscates with light. Dip into the book, browse through it, or read it nonstop: you emerge with an after-image that’s all color. If I had to capture these poems in one word? Color.

First of all, local color. This poetry is active, more like video clips than snapshots. Even the static scenes suggest motion. “At Brighton Beach” is a vivid tranche de vie that conjures up New York from the first words: “Little Russia, Little Odessa, Little something?” And, as in so many of these poems, sight is not the only evocative sense. We sample the piroshki and the sweet Georgian wine, and Brighton Beach is “borscht-blood thick.” We hear the sea “breathing that long fraught trip from Russia.” We accompany the narrator not only down the streets but also back in time.

“Rotterdam Chiaroscuro” takes us on a tour of paintings that transports us from northern Europe to the south of France. Herself an artist of contrasts, de Sola pictures the “sun-starved Dutchmen” who, while bundled up in “June wool jackets,” view pictures depicting the warmth of Provence. One word—poppies—puts us not only in France but also in her own Rotterdam living room. The speaker ends up buying Coquelicots, which “would match the couch, and so the cash was laid down for the sun, and for the shadows.”

Humor flashes out of many of the poems. Whatever we expect from the title of “A Party for Kevin,” it’s not Kevin’s being a pet pig. (This news isn’t a spoiler—we learn his identity in the fifth word of the poem.) De Sola’s porcine portrait is not cutesy, not sentimental. You have to read the lines of this character sketch to appreciate what it is.

In “The Tear” the writer visits a lingerie shop. Undergarments bring you plenty of angst. “There’s nothing sadder/than a nylon with a ladder.” De Sola is a master punster: “life somehow gives you the slip.” The rhyming couplets let us know from the start that this is a light poem; and it concludes with the existential significance of lingerie: “Enfin, you are your underwear.”

The setting of “An Agony of Silk” is another clothing store. But this poem isn’t light verse. The saleslady describes an aging customer who can’t wear youthful styles. She reflects that her merchandise (also, we might infer, older women themselves) are “a waste/of worsted, airy lace disgraced and stretched,/ an agony of angel skin in tints of silk.” This time it’s the saleslady who uses a pun—in this case an irony: “Does what she earns enable her to buy? And yet she has (and doesn’t have) the goods.”

Some of de Sola’s puns are subtle. Others are less so. Some readers, for example, will recognize the title “The Wives of the Poets” as a parody of Michael Schmidt’s title (itself taken from Dr. Johnson’s title) Lives of the Poets—a serious tome, over 900 pages. But in other poems the verbal humor catches us by surprise. Take “Eve Sleeps,” which opens with lines that are visually compelling:

Each night we form a double C.
Hand rests on hip or curves to breast,
chest to back, his strong legs pressed
to make a chair of flesh for me.
Adjudications of the breath,
Adam’s apple near my head . . .

The physical images captivate us so entirely that we might forget the poem’s title and miss the clever pun on “Adam’s Apple” (when did that bit of male anatomy ever take on such a perfect double-entendre?): now we’re in Eden. Ominously, the two bodies are “branched”, like the limbs of Eden’s tree. In the end “we fall into this darker space”, which is, of course, sleep. But, especially with the word “fall”, we know it’s more than sleep. The figurative language makes it a superb example of a real poem, and these days there aren’t many. If a poem doesn’t speak with arresting words or expresssions, it’s no poem at all; it’s prose. And exceptional language is de Sola’s forte.

“The Light Gray Suit, North by Northwest” gives us another Eve (this time a Hitchcock character). The poem is a picture in two senses of the word. Literally, it describes a movie scene; the title has told us what to expect. But in a single line about Cary Grant, a brief image of clothing instantly conjures up the whole of the late ’fifties: “He cuts through tweeds and Technicolor skirts.”

We get the same kind of image in “Jug of Milk.” The poem (about Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid) begins in a dairy, but soon it goes metaphysical:

We are born and go
from milk to meat
to earth to worms

.to grass to feed a cow again
(and the Dutch know cows).
But here, in this Vermeer,

the light, which is none of these things,
makes a great deal good.
The earthy Dutch, they caught that light,

pounded it into pigments (earth again),
but still it seeps out;
a wondrous milky haze[.]

Similarly unexpected language catapults “Cedar Closet” off the page. After her mother’s death, a daughter sorts through clothes which, like Cary Grant’s gray suit, evoke the era of an earlier generation: “meaty tweed” and “plummy satins.” But the final metaphor is a personal note:

“. . . bags with heavy metal clasps
that snap shut—tight like the purse of her lips,
her clothes the only story that she tells.
A puff of dust drifts down the cedar walls.

With the economy and compression of the best poetry, de Sola does a lot with very few words. The bag becomes a kind of synecdoche for personality. The mother is tight-lipped; the harsh simile implies something more than inscrutability. Does the the “snap” of the clasp suggest she was uncommunicative? Critical? The last two lines are equally ambiguous. Does “the only story she tells” suggest reticence? Or is she a nonentity, a mere representative of her era? Or is the clothing the only vestige of a beloved parent now forever inaccessible? Perhaps the speaker’s attitude is mixed.

To prove it’s not a puff piece, a review is supposed to include at least a few token complaints. But like music, a poem is largely a matter of taste—especially today when poetry has no formal rules; anything goes. So I don’t feel obliged to scrabble through Frozen Charlotte for drawbacks.

Besides, I’d scarcely find faults big enough to mention. Of the poems that don’t particularly speak to me, there are few that I wanted to merely skim. If, however, I’d hurried (for example) through “Buddy”, I’d have missed lines like ‘I think, for Buddy, stoned was steady-state” or “watch the sun spill pink across the bay.” Buddy, a brawny firefighter able to “carry men through flame, to breathe through smoke, was “felled by one small pill.” We see Buddy, and the speaker’s great affection for him, in 3D and living color.

I started this review citing color—colors—as the overall impression Frozen Charlotte leaves when I close the book.

Except that, more than color, it’s light that shines through the collection. But the light isn’t a glint or reflection that bounces off a surface; it’s not a hard glare or a soft glow: de Sola has layered light inside the words. “Bluish Animals,” which echoes the book-cover, might oust “Eve Sleeps” as my favorite poem. Happily, it took several readings before I realized that each tercet uses three final rhymes. The incantatory form and rhyme affected me subliminally,which is the only way rhyme should operate.

After listing a variety of small bluish animals and birds, we come to fish and whales.

Being confined to air and sea,
these challenge visibility,
as though for God especially
for camouflage may make us blind

The last line of “Jug of Milk” says it well: de Sola’s poetry “lets me think everything is light.”

Deborah Warren

Deborah Warren

Deborah Warren’s books include The Size of Happiness (2003, Waywiser Press); Zero Meridian (2004, Ivan R. Dee), winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Dream With Flowers and Bowl of Fruit (2008, Evansville), which won the Richard Wilbur Award, and Ausonius: The Moselle and Other Poems (2017, Routledge). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Yale Review. In 2021, her book Strange to Say: Etymology for Serious Entertainment and her book Connoisseurs of Worms are forthcoming from Paul Dry Press.
Deborah Warren

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Author: Deborah Warren

Deborah Warren’s books include The Size of Happiness (2003, Waywiser Press); Zero Meridian (2004, Ivan R. Dee), winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Dream With Flowers and Bowl of Fruit (2008, Evansville), which won the Richard Wilbur Award, and Ausonius: The Moselle and Other Poems (2017, Routledge). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Yale Review. In 2021, her book Strange to Say: Etymology for Serious Entertainment and her book Connoisseurs of Worms are forthcoming from Paul Dry Press.