In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo's collection of essays on poetry and writing, he has this to say on the subject of sentimentality:
Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake . . . if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.
Stacie Cassarino's debut collection of poetry, Zero at the Bone, embodies such risk. Cassarino has been awarded the "Discovery"/The Nation prize, several major writing fellowships, and has published poems in highly regarded journals such as Georgia Review, Iowa Review, and The New Republic, so I opened her book with high expectations. All were thoroughly satisfied.
The title Zero at the Bone, a line from Emily Dickinson's "A narrow fellow in the grass," sets the tone for poems that fluctuate between love and loss: the heat of passion and the frigidity of absence. Cassarino writes frankly about the body and sex. Her poems are full of urgency and longing, her speakers often expressing the relinquishment of self requisite to falling in love:
The first day it feels like fall
I want to tell my secrets
recklessly until there is nothing
you don't know that would make
your heart change years from now.
These poems recognize that loss is unpredictable, change inevitable. For example, the title poem illustrates the painful result when the heart does change suddenly and inexplicably. "Zero at the Bone" begins with the speaker's plaintive declarations:
First the snow for days. Blankout. Frost heaves. I shovel away your tracks. I expect you . . . I smell you in the sheets . . . March leaves us cold & clung with our heads off . . . the sky's spindrift, loss taking residence in my throat. I touch myself in a parked car . . . Once, I said: you've got to live like everything will hurt you. Now I believe it.
While feelings of recklessness and pain pervade many of the poems, others attempt to reclaim control, as in “Snowshoe to Otter Creek,” “I'm mapping this new year's vanishings . . . / This is not a story of return.” "Alaska Memoir" begins to assuage this grief, this lack of faith in life and love through acknowledgment and remembering rather than repression and forgetting. The poem opens beautifully, vacillating between harsh and soothing sounds, end and internal rhymes:
What I wanted in the early splendor
was to center longing in the flesh,
walking through eelgrass at slack-tide
with the resilience of a predator
in love's presence.
The speaker finds stability in the original poetic act: observation. When proper attention is paid, the natural world becomes a bastion of wonderment, rather than a receptacle for pain: “climbing boulders / among ghost-life: the hulls / of urchins, inky mussels I imagined / as tiny mouths . tell[ing] me it has never been lovelier / to be alive.”
Cassarino's personas represent human susceptibility to heartbreak and loss, yet they also represent the thrills of love and discovery: "I love the Northeast light, how it rests on things, / on this barn setting into darkness." The book concludes with lines representative of Cassarino at a dizzying pitch of lyricism in “Early December, Vermont”:
What if we call this road Dwelling and
place our bodies (Ironwoods)
in the tall air (Stargrass) of this early December,
call the stars (Attendants), call love (Motion),
call on each other not to disappear.
As with any collection, a few poems are less sharp than others. Some lines become unwieldy, such as these from "Summer Solstice": "The black dog orbits the horseshoe pond / for treefrogs in their plangent emergencies." At times, the risking of sentiment becomes repetitive or overly dramatic: "Let me come back / whole, let me remember how to touch you / before it is too late"; "If I'm alive tomorrow I promise to love / you better"; and, "I died once for love and didn't like how it felt." In a wonderful poem entitled "Salmon," however, Cassarino deftly weaves sentiment with exacting imagery and sonic effect:
Somewhere buckbrush burns,
the day turns over, sage in the air.
Around us, the peaks jagged and shifting.
I remember velocity, the giving-in.
The distance feels impossible.
Six million released,
maybe thirty thousand return,
their silver hanging skins, the chiseled hook
of their snouts, streamlined bodies
now humpbacked, wasted.
At her best Cassarino is both linguistically dexterous and viscerally emotive, traits that can be found in many of her poems including, "Northwest," "Field Guide: Boreal," and "Cures for Love." She strives for passionate, sincere expression of experience, which is both refreshing and admirable. She will no doubt go on to publish many more fine books of poetry, and I highly recommend her debut.