I have followed Carolyn Srygley-Moore on Facebook for almost four years. She is a prolific writer, posting a poem or two a day for long stretches of time. She is also a visual artist, using both photography and collage to express feelings and register her observations of the world. Reading backwards through the yellow incorporates both poetry and photography to double the impact of her gifts.
Carolyn's poems almost always hit me hard with an emotional impact I have trouble articulating. When I comment on her poems online, I often resort to nonverbal responses such as an exclamation point, a heart, or the ever ubiquitous yet singularly non-communicative "wow." I have a big, almost physical response, purely emotional, and have great difficulty explaining what I like about a particular piece of writing. The impact is so great I tend to be left wordless, a difficult position for a reviewer of books.
The first line of the book is "the thing about hell, i think, is that it lacks language..." As a person of language myself, I am willing to believe that may well be true. If so, Carolyn is as far from hell as any secular saint may be. Her writing is lush with language, classical allusions, bar room and alleyway scenes, rooftop views, a lushness and emotional heft that can turn a reader into a little hell of wordlessness, facing a sense of being inadequate to the pleasurable task of exegesis.
Clues to a writer's intent can often be found in introductory comments, titles, or perhaps illustrations. Such prosaic signposts to meaning are not part of Carolyn's repertoire. In the following poem, I am left both emotionally bereft and mesmerized by the mental image of the mountains and the reflection of foam in a glass of water. The title, taken from a part of two lines in the poem, suggests to me the desire to be a person with no angst, no investment in the emotions triggered by loss or distance.
To be nihilist or government official
Stuck between belief and disbelief
A black snail on a thumbnail, in stasis,
Curled on the terrarium wall –
I stare at the Adirondacks
Mauve with coming autumn & demise
Of yellow flowers, too small,
Too vulnerable. I wish I were believer
Or atheist, nihilist or
Government official. I place the mauve
In a glass of tap water
With white foam from my husband's electric
Razor. The reflection of foam,
Though formed of nothing, is
Dazzling. I recall traveling with my mother
When I moved here, how she held my hand, my waist,
Weeping with fear. I turned her to a tiny doll
& kept her in my shirt pocket or no –
She went away, weeping.
She went to where she came from,
A place of mauve peaks & valleys of darkness:
She returned to what she knew.
Both photographs and introductory material open each section of this book. Yet the photographs seem to represent the beauty found in the eye of the artist Beholder and captured for the pleasure of the reader, rather than necessarily a comment on the following content. And the introductory materials are each comprised of and entitled Fragments, oracular clues to offer, perhaps, a suggested direction for the reader’s understanding. But Carolyn's oracles are uttered in the language of birds. Here is a part of the Fragments found at the beginning of the first part of the book. Mockingbirds, Atticus Finch, Louie Armstrong, infinity—I don’t know where this signpost leads, but I am sure I want to go there.
the mockingbird I am told does not
sing, but mocks in a kind of cleft bark, a
broken howl known by the inland coyote:
Atticus, long arms circled around his
own emptiness, the muscular integrity.
So Louie sang a wonderful world even as
he was spat upon -- I wish I could sing,
too when I am spat upon, spinning on the ice,
leaving traces of linked zeros,
Another clue to the meaning of a text can be found in recurrent themes, here ghosts appear frequently as do dogs. The identity of the ghosts is unclear, perhaps representing the essence of existence after the ephemeral trappings of life decay and disappear. They leave me with a sense of haunting without malice or desire. Carolyn's ghosts are blind, as are her boatmen. Like Tiresias, Carolyn's ghosts float on water, are neither male nor female, are both blind and sighted, from the past, certainly, but also, perhaps, the future.
Ghosts are blind says David
Ghosts are blind, said David.
What if ghosts see well, are filled with vision?
Each boy she dates is her soul-mate...
Confessing illiteracy on the Manitou mountain.
Lay a hand, lay a hand, a hand on me.
The hawk swoops down to the mouse-eye
Delivering us from innocence,
Delivering the mouse from necessity ---
Ghost-sight, the dog spying the soul on the wall
A fly without wings, a squashed fly.
Lately i don't know much about belief
In anything, even grasses, the naked sky.
Even your body, shrouded in morning light
Ribs hidden by striations, pink on blue.
In the corners, god? Perhaps, perhaps.
Perhaps god is not tired yet.
The blight on the apple, the ghost can see
Blight on the mosses, the ghost can see
Blight-lack, thence, on the paint-smeared war of
Elm & elder & sequoia trees.
An animal rights activist, Carolyn's dogs are innocents, emotional saviors, compared to people who may offer nothing at all but the lingering scent of liquor or cigarettes. These dogs see spirits.
The poems, or narrator, themselves occupy a liminal space. This from Astonished black plum sky: “… Indeed I am full of sky/At this irascible juncture/Between living & dying --….” A temporal understanding of life is irrelevant, as indicated in Diplomatically Speaking, the poem with the line that gave this collection its title: “…Riding memory bareback/Again//Into the umbilical sun/Which sets, red, even as it rises/Backwards into the yellow….”
Carolyn's work is color-saturated. Almost every poem demonstrates a creative and eccentric use of color that is far more than an inconsequential detail of physical description. Intensity and purity typify these colors, of which black, blue, yellow, and shades of purple dominate. These colors have weight, again eliciting an almost visceral response, almost violent feeling, rather than revealing mere visual detail or symbolizing an intellectual concept.
A walk through the orchard
This is how the yellow hound dies.
Not from the unpinned grenade
But lifting into the thinnest air
So breath leaves the bone-center empty.
The white seeded apple cores lie upon the washboard
Amidst just cleansed shirts & camisoles,
& nearby the worms
Begin their due ascent, sensible
As they are wayward red.
Carolyn goes to a deep place for her poems. A proper analysis would necessitate familiarity with and keen understanding of Freud, Jung, or Joseph Campbell, of which I could never claim any sort of expertise. Sometimes for reviews I do extensive collateral research, perhaps reading up on mythology, history, or literary movements. But I tend to already have some intellectual purchase on the trail I must travel. With Carolyn's work I am swimming in wild and wonderful waters.
This book is now available from Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Reading-Backwards-Through-Carolyn-Srygley-Moore-ebook/dp/B077X77149/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1518398608&sr=8-1&keywords=carolyn+srygley-moore