Review by Kris Brandhagen.
Oana Avasilichioaei’s first book of poetry, Abandon (Wolsak and Wynn 2005), begins with a brilliance that is almost impossible to follow. The first section, “Dragon,” builds up a momentum that is difficult to maintain, and the following two sections — “Abandoned Markets” and “From the Diaries of the Dead Daughter” — are a collage of subject, style, and tone that seem to cower in the shadows of “Dragon,” unable to answer the challenge.
In “Dragon,” Avasilichioaei reveals a solipsistic, gluttonous character who is endlessly falling into the shadows of his own funk. Avasilichioaei’s vivid, mythical style grabs you immediately, listens to your “stomach rumble” (13), and then sprays you with its spittle, shouting “I have eaten God!” (12).
I am the masquerade, the railing
through which your fingers slip. I am the circle,
unfinished because you refuse to end me.
I am the itch
between your shoulder blades,
a day that never begins.
You hunch over an empty sack
and your back moves against my palm
with your hurried breathing. (This breathing;
such a peculiar habit you have.)
The day is waning.
You try to fill the sack with peonies and livid grains.
You don’t notice that the burlap has worn itself thin
by endlessly pleading with you; the rub of grain
that will not sprout. But you don’t listen. Instead
you leave a trail of grains and peonies behind you.
You never listen.
The first poems of “Abandoned Markets” are also rife with chilling and disturbing imagery. In “A Collector’s Burden,” there is a striking image of a train in the ocean as “a shell instead of a swollen body, / and the roar of a conch instead of a throat” (23). In “At the Train Station,” we see, “a few feet away, a dog trudges by, his tongue / hanging down; a red tongue blackened by dirt. / The entire bottom jaw is missing” (24). Avasilichioaei’s poems in this section are surreal, capturing the pathos of the scenes and exploring the ideas of anomie and exile, dreams and lore.
The second dream
Once a month Tatiana dreams
of her dead mother.
With a jerk of her limbs she deserts
her stiff mattress. In the kitchen
(which over the years she’s relocated
to the balcony) she lights the stove, makes coffee.
Then in the bathroom, Tatiana looks
in the mirror. Into her bloodshot eyes,
though she would not call them so. Runs
a hand through hair that is always too dry,
ignores the fly, drowsy on a mirror corner.
She turns the tap. It gurgles, coughs,
spits bursts of air.
Tatiana grabs one of the bottles full of water
Lined up below the sink, bends her head,
Lets the water fall on the back of her neck.
In “The second dream,” we really get an idea of how this series of poems attempts to capture the idiosyncrasy and adaptability of life, of countries, and of people. Avasilichioaei’s free verse sees the old ways with new eyes and listens to language with unaccustomed ears. However, “Abandoned Markets” is full of muted images that I wish I could taste and touch just a little more concretely, hear and smell more acutely.
The third section, “From the Diaries of the Dead Daughter,” picks up where “Abandoned Markets” leaves off — low key with dark undertones:
I would rip out my hair
but I have no hair left
everything is frozen
in this valley
even these legs the sand glued to their broken shoes.
(“In the Putna Monastery” 59)
There are some beautifully described images in this section, but Avasilichioaei is holding the reader at an arm’s length, and this type of poetry cannot exist on the strength of the occasional image. Often in this series, the necessary information is not present, and I found myself jotting in the margin, “What does this mean?” For example:
All noise has left my body
feet heavy and silent as tombs
eyes dark to sign language
my hemispheres shackled.
However, two thirds of the way through this section is a gem called (no surprise here) “Dragoness” in which Avasilichioaei brings the dragon metaphor out of the clouds and down to Earth, revealing the impetus for writing Abandon: “I am half peasant half queen / ablaze on a hunt for my own mythology”(62).
Although “Dragon” is a cohesive ten part poem that explores a subject with clarity, the following two sections lag into darkness, the occasional beauty of their images like rainbows of oil swirling in puddles on the sidewalk. “Dragon” sings with a near symphonic arrangement, while “Abandoned Markets” and “From the Diaries of the Dead Daughter” slip through the grates of indeterminacy. There are gems in these sections that manage not to sink, but they seem to belong to some other book. This book climaxes right at the beginning, the first part holding such considerable power that the rest of the poems lag behind in a sated exhaustion. But Abandon is a first book, and it is full of the experimentation in form, style, voice, and structure that can be expected of a first book. “Dragon” is the reason to read Abandon, but I also like where Avasilichioaei is going with her other poems. I enjoy the level of struggle in her poetry and the quiet voyeurism in her perception. I hope to see her open up to the concept of confession that she only flirts with in this book, and I want her to nail down the structure. In short, I anticipate the same undeniable talent present in “Dragon” in a more serious, more unified book-length form next time around.
Kris Brandhagen lives and works in Montréal, Québec. Her work has appeared in such publications as In Medias Res and Spring Magazine, TransVerse Journal and Carousel Magazine.